Over the last nine years, Pakistan’s two post-Musharraf democratic governments have had many near-death moments, but the events of the last month, and the denouement on Sunday night were as close to a military coup as it gets in the 21st century. A mob of Barelvi Sunni hardliners, who were holding Islamabad and the government of Pakistan to ransom, won the day, with open help from the Pakistan Army. Its role was acknowledged and appreciated in an agreement it brokered between the Barelvi groups and the government to end the mob’s blockade of a crucial flyover connecting Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The terms of the agreement, a humiliating surrender for the PML(N) government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, have sealed the primacy of the military and religious extremists, and have reduced the elected leadership and civilian institutions to nobodies. The law minister had to resign to satisfy the protestors that the government had not meant to dilute anti-Ahmadi provisions in the country’s election laws, the allegation that triggered the protests.
The victory of religious street muscle, and the Pakistan Army’s complicity in ensuring this, is not new. Tomes have been written about the military-mullah alliance in Pakistan. But this was different because after many years, the military had no qualms about the signals it was sending out. When the government asked the military to come to its aid in removing the blockade, the military is reported to have flatly refused, saying it could not risk the “love and trust” of the people for “small gains”. Hours later, the agreement between the government and the leaders of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), the Sunni Tehreek, and the Tehreek-e-Khatme Nabuwwat thanked the Army from saving Pakistan from a “catastrophe”.
Ever since the Supreme Court convicted Nawaz Sharif in a corruption case arising from the Panama Papers expose of his family’s offshore companies, Pakistan has been in a limbo. Prime Minister Abbasi, Sharif’s handpicked successor, was clearly chosen for reasons other than his track record in governance. And it was thanks to the government’s early ineptness that the situation drifted into a crisis of such massive proportions. The next elections are due in another six months but there is uncertainty in the air. Pakistan may still continue to elect its leaders, but the limits of their powers were set over the weekend, at the one end by religious extremism and at the other by the Pakistan Army.
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