Pakistan:‘International support to civil society must come with understanding of our political & societal context’

Rabia Mehmood

CIVICUS speaks about the political situation in Pakistan since the removal of its Prime Minister Imran Khan with journalist and researcher Rabia Mehmood.

Rabia Mehmood is the co-founder of a bi-lingual multimedia news outlet Naya Daur TV and a web-show host covering human rights and social justice stories. She is the former South Asia Researcher for Amnesty International. Her work focuses on state repression, impunity and persecution of religious minorities.

What led to the ousting of Imran Khan as prime minister through a no-confidence vote?

Khan was ousted from power in April through a constitutional vote of no confidence brought about by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a parliamentary coalition of multiple parties. The coalition secured 174 votes in the 342-member house in support of the no-confidence motion.

That was the tipping point after weeks of political upheaval. Khan’s administration was criticised by the opposition for failures in governance, soaring inflation and for plunging the country into a diplomatic crisis as his foreign policy distanced Pakistan from the USA.

To try to block the vote, Khan dissolved the lower house of parliament, but the Supreme Court declared the dissolution unconstitutional. Following the parliamentary vote, Shehbaz Sharif, former Chief Minister of Punjab from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was appointed the new Prime Minister. Sharif is a long-time rival of Khan.

Since the July 2018 election, the opposition claimed that Khan’s ascent to power was enabled by political engineering by the country’s military establishment. His administration was termed a ‘hybrid regime’, in which Khan was the civilian face of the generals. The key reason behind Khan’s removal is believed to be his falling out with powerful forces within the military, often referred to as the ‘deep state’.

Regarding the involvement of the military in Pakistan’s political unrest, it is important to note that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is considered by many to be the most powerful position in Pakistan. The current COAS, Qamar Bajwa, appointed by Nawaz Sharif in 2016, is finally due to retire in November after six years.

Sharif was disqualified in 2017 and put behind bars following a corruption scandal. But after Khan won the election in 2018, he granted Bajwa an extension in August 2019. Bajwa was at the time known to be a great believer in the Khan project, along with the former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Faiz Hameed, now Commander of Peshawar Corps. But Bajwa, it appears, has now withdrawn support from Khan.

Hameed is known to have a different relationship with Khan, and Khan was reliant on him. He was deeply involved in the Khan administration’s repression, in addition to engineering unrest on the streets by an alt-right Islamist group in 2017, which led to further disruption of Sharif’s party.

It remains to be seen whether Bajwa is seeking yet another extension in November or a safe and comfortable exit, which would pave the way for a new COAS. Analysts estimate that Khan had to be got rid of due to these possible changes in November, and it was an easy task for the military to replace Khan because of his administration’s unsatisfactory governance and economic performance.

The military has repeatedly claimed to be a ‘neutral umpire’ during this political fiasco. In the run-up to Khan’s ousting and afterwards, Khan’s tactics, of slamming the armed forces and the current ISI chief, show his dissatisfaction with the military institution’s neutrality.

How has Khan responded?

In response to the vote of no confidence, Khan also accused the US government of orchestrating regime change in Pakistan. This allegation is based on a diplomatic cable that he claimed was ‘evidence’. When Khan dissolved the assembly ahead of the vote, he had resolved to present the diplomatic cable as evidence of foreign intervention.

It was later reported that the military explained to parliament’s National Security Committee in March that it had found no evidence of US involvement in regime change, something the White House concurred with.

In April, as soon as Khan was ousted, he and his party leaders began using terms like ‘American conspiracy’ and ‘international conspiracy’, online and offline. Khan called his opponents ‘thieves’ and ‘traitors’, and one of his close aides called in a public rally for the execution of the ‘traitor opposition’. During his public and press addresses, Khan has called for mutiny, incited his party supporters to commit civil disobedience and encouraged them to retaliate physically.

Since then Khan has held multiple public rallies across Pakistan and in July his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), swept by-elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and traditionally a PMLN stronghold. Now the already weak incumbent central government in the centre is facing further hostility from Punjab.

Khan has been calling for general elections. His narrative has a strong following in the country, and his support base appears to be in resurgence.

What is the current political and economic situation?

Pakistan is stuck in limbo due to a worsening political, legal and economic crisis. The leadership is divided between the Sharif-led coalition government and federal ministries led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), such as the ministry of foreign affairs. Provinces are also split between different parties, with Khan’s PTI leading in the two provinces.

The coalition government is weak and uncertainty over its immediate future looms large. Analysts assume that the ‘deep state’ will not allow for a strong civilian central government, and that a divided parliament is what it seeks to achieve.

The new government has taken over a fragile economy. Pakistan entered the International Monetary Fund programme in 2019, and the most recent funding was due in February, but fuel and power tariff caps imposed by the Khan administration halted the next cycle. The new government has now managed to negotiate and get clearance for another payment, but this has come at the price of tough economic decisions, with the burden impacting on the working masses and the salaried class.

Fuel prices have increased exponentially, which are causing a rise in commodity prices and exacerbating food inflation. Meanwhile, political and economic uncertainty is also causing the currency to depreciate quickly. In the budget for the current fiscal year, the government increased tax and hiked fuel prices. Pakistan’s foreign debt is US$6.4 billion, but at least the immediate risk of bankruptcy has reduced for now.

Access to basic services, free healthcare and education and adequate housing is increasingly out of reach of most of Pakistan’s 220 million people. Pakistan is essentially a poor country with some very rich families and an army with a massive budget. Instability is having severe repercussions for citizens in terms of their rights and the rule of law.

Civilian and military rulers have been too reliant on seeking bailout packages instead of focusing on long-term solutions such as taxing the rich and the corporate sector, or developing agriculture and increasing industrial exports. Economic stagnation, however, is not the fault of just one government.

Has the removal of Khan had a positive influence on Pakistan’s repressed civic space?

Pakistan’s track record on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression has been murky for decades. Civil society groups and activists have long been labelled as foreign agents, funded by anti-Pakistan forces. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist in. Religious minorities are persecuted and discriminated against through institutions, draconian laws and violence. Ethnic minorities are brutalised for demanding basic rights and protections from the state. The military establishment and security agencies operate with impunity.

In that context, the battle to defend civic space and media freedom is not new. But since the run-up to the July 2018 election, Pakistanis have been subjected to one of the most repressive eras of the country’s history. Press censorship has been widespread, curtailing any media attempts to question or report on significant issues such as Sharif’s disqualification, the role of the judiciary and military and reports of election rigging.

Khan established his place as a populist leader, and was called a press predator by Reporters Without Borders. During the Khan administration, journalists, human rights defenders (HRDs) and dissenting citizens were targeted with trumped-up charges of sedition, cyber terrorism and defamation of national institutions, along with arbitrary arrests, raids, disappearances, surveillance and beatings. Journalists were arbitrarily arrested for questioning and reporting on the alleged involvement in corruption of Khan’s wife, Bushara Bibi. Mainstream cable news networks were only allowed to attack opposition parties and their leaders, and portray Khan as the supreme leader. Civil rights movements, such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Mahaz, were subjected to a discriminatory crackdown. Their rights to freedoms of movement, peaceful assembly and expression, online and offline, have been continuously violated.

To a degree, Khan’s ousting has given slight breathing space to Pakistan’s repressed HRDs, civil society and journalists. The difference could be that reprisals can be documented in the press, by domestic rights monitors and be televised, with less fear. But this is only relative, as red lines for both the media and civil society still exist.

The threats and discrimination against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities continue. There are incidents of the use of force against peaceful protesting families of disappeared members of Baloch people, enforced disappearances and discriminatory harassment of Baloch students. A former journalist was arbitrarily detained over online criticism of the army chief. While peacefully protesting, civil society collectives, HRDs and families of the disappeared were shelled in the city of Quetta on 21 July.

Severely partisan journalists who acted as agents of disinformation and supported the Khan administration by actively targeting minorities, critical media, HRDs and the opposition are now on the receiving end of hostility from security agencies, as they are questioning the military over its alleged role in Khan’s ousting and lack of support for him.

What is the future of Pakistan’s democracy?

It appears to be bleak. Pakistan’s democratic process has been undermined severely by decades of dictatorships, the military establishment’s concealed intervention in civilian rule, the dubious role of the judiciary and a short-sighted, craven approach by civilian political parties.

Since its inception, Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators directly for 33 years, and they have controlled who gets to rule and how from behind the scenes. No civilian prime minister has ever completed their full five-year term. Real power lies in the hands of the generals, who set up hybrid regimes in collaboration with civilian leaders.

General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government of PPP’s charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup d’état in 1977. In 1979, Bhutto was executed by a severely partisan Supreme Court, while Zia became president. Over the decades, the capitulation of the civilian ruling elite and the role of the judiciary in sanctioning coups have also contributed to the derailing of the country’s ever-fragile democracy.

For example, former Prime Minister Sharif’s disqualification was widely believed to have been a consequence of a ‘judicial coup’. The National Accountability Bureau chaired by a former Supreme Court judge was severely partisan and flawed, and used to victimise leaders of the PMLN and PPP.

Decades of conflict in the north-western region, the military’s reliance on militant groups as its proxies and the current resurgence of militant outfits at the border all pose a threat to Pakistan’s stability and consequently its democracy. Sectarian outfits are enduring. Nationalist ethnicities in Sindh and elsewhere are treated with extreme suspicion, which causes the growth of their young people’s resentment towards the state.

For example, the armed insurgency in Balochistan province has its roots in a lack of trust in the military and the state’s discriminatory policies. The people of the mineral-rich province are poor and have been subjected to human rights abuses and violence for years. Meanwhile, barely any efforts to build trust among Baloch people have been made by state institutions. The militarisation of multiple regions and violence perpetrated on citizens are contrary to democratic norms.

Unless the constitution and parliament are held supreme in the true sense of the word, and intervention by the powers-that-be isn’t kept in check, Pakistan’s democracy will not be able to address its many challenges and will remain at risk.

How has civil society engaged with political developments? What kind of international support does Pakistani civil society need?

Civil society and collectives of HRDs have responded to the political developments with caution but courage. Civil society and HRDs understand where the centre of power lies in Pakistan. Yet it has not stopped them from asking the right questions and leading human rights campaigns. Overall, from larger civil society organisations to smaller but critical collectives, civil society has stood in support of the primacy of parliament, the constitution and democratic processes.

Years of demonisation of civil society and labelling of HRDs and journalists as anti-state and servers of foreign, western agendas have made it easy for propagandists and authoritarian sections of the state to put targets on the backs of people. International solidarity is essential for Pakistani civil society. But now with disinformation and propaganda smear campaigns on the rise, the support must come with an understanding of the political and societal context of Pakistan.

Religious, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, journalists, civil society workers and HRDs remain at risk, not only due to state reprisals but also the threat of violence from extremist groups.

Relief and protection of at-risk communities are not possible without the support and alliance of regional and like-minded international civil society networks. Exchange among civil society networks across regions must also continue to come up with new ways of fighting systems of oppression.


Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Rabia Mehmood through her Twitter account @Rabail26.