Behind the curtain of Pakistan’s protests

As this is being written, innumerable Pakistani citizens are marching into Islamabad’s so-called “red zone”, the most heavily guarded and sensitive areas of the capital city.   Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canadian religious figure Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri have led tens of thousands to the heart of the capital, alleging vote fraud in the most recent Pakistani election and a failure to enact good-governance reforms.  Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister, has reportedly told police not to fire on them.  At the same time, he shows no sign of stepping down as the head of government.

While the government’s crisis is ongoing, you might already be wondering, “Is this a democratic revolution?”

If we  accept events on a surface level, the protest might indeed “[mean] a National Assembly created by the people for the people.”   But this is Pakistan, where there appears to always be a power-behind-the-power.  If we are jaded by familiar with the long arc of Pakistan’s postcolonial history, we might think we are witnessing a ‘soft coup.’

“But which one is true?”

What really messes with the mind is that both interpretations, as disparate as they sound, are simultaneously possible.  A formally democratic people’s assembly might replace this government, while it may also be true that factions in the military have a hand in attempting to replace a civilian government they don’t like with one the military might feel better about.

“How can a democratic revolution strengthen military rule?”

If this troubles you, consider a parallel to Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, which democratically replaced a military ruler through a protest movement that showed deep respect towards the country’s military and in the end resulted in a military ruler.

“Okay, so is this a military coup?”

I wouldn’t go that far, and I wouldn’t even say that the only question is whether Pakistan is formally a military state or a civilian state.  Pakistan’s governments have alternated, decade by decade, between being formally ruled by the military and being formally ruled by civilians.  However, there are a number of long term trends that are more linear and stable than whether the country is ‘democratic’ or ‘military dictatorship’:

Since its independence, Pakistan has been the site of various forms of sectarian and other identity-based tensions, including the country splitting in half (East Pakistan became Bangladesh).  It has witnessed a continuously increasing concentration of social, economic, and political power in the hands of the military, regardless of whether that entity is formally calling the shots.  Pakistan has an unhealthy dependence on foreign aid.  And, starting in the 1980s, the country has seen the spread of state-sponsored religious fundamentalism.  Whether or not the government is formally a military dictatorship or formally a civilian democracy, these trends have been there and are arguably more important than the surface-level institutions that are formally governing the state.

“So which is it?  Is this a democratic populist revolution?  Or is it the intrusion of the military into political life?”

It’s too soon to tell; as of now, my best guess is: yes.

Note: This post was edited for clarity and to remove typos.