The Pretender to Pakistan's Throne

Imran Khan's populist protest movement is on the verge of taking down Pakistan's dull, dysfunctional government. How did such a lightweight get so far?

ISLAMABAD — In 1960, president and field marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan's first military dictator, built the city of Islamabad almost from scratch. Pakistan's original capital, Karachi, was roughly 800 miles away from his headquarters in Rawalpindi, and Ayub Khan -- as the story goes -- wanted to reduce his commute in order to more easily serve the requirements of both his military office and the presidency of Pakistan. In relatively short order, Rawalpindi had a new twin city and Pakistan had a new capital. Instead of flying from one office to the next, Ayub Khan could now walk, jog, or drive.

That little slice of Pakistania illustrates the most important rule of the decades-long contest between Pakistan's unruly civilian democrats and its unconstitutional military rulers: When the Army wants something, it gets it.

Since Aug. 14, Islamabad has been in a state of constant uncertainty and insecurity. Politicians opposed to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been leading a sit-in of thousands of protesters demanding nothing less than the resignation of Sharif -- who has been prime minister twice before and deposed in coups both times.

Today in Pakistan, there are two big questions: Is the military attempting to stage-manage Sharif's third exit? And is his political tormentor, the temperamental former cricket star Imran Khan (unrelated to Ayub Khan), the Army's choice as his replacement?

Two separate camps are conducting the Islamabad protests against Sharif: Khan leads one, and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, an anti-Taliban cleric formerly based in Canada, leads the other. The two leaders are a study in contrasts, but they share one explicit objective -- to oust Sharif. Pakistani fatigue with the saga has been growing, and on the night of Aug. 28, the Army became explicitly involved as a guarantor of talks between the opposition camps and the government. The announcement of the Army's role as the adult in the room is nothing new for Pakistan, and though expectations are that the crisis is petering out, protests could continue as long as Sharif stays in power.

Where did this mess begin? The 2013 elections brought Sharif back to power for a third term and saw Khan's party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), emerge as a major force in politics. Khan's complaints that Sharif stole the election received little attention until Qadri entered the picture. A colorful cleric with a superb network of philanthropic activities and a politically insignificant but deeply committed corps of disciples, Qadri has a history of agitating against democratically elected governments. When Qadri announced his decision to return in June from his adopted home in Canada to Lahore to launch yet another agitation, alarm bells went off for Sharif.

On June 17, things took a tragic turn. Already exercised by the 100 degree-plus Fahrenheit heat and smarting at the way senior leaders within Sharif's government had spoken of Qadri, supporters of the cleric clashed with police in Lahore's tony Model Town neighborhood. Fourteen people died, including a teenager and at least two women, with much of the blame for the violence placed squarely on police brutality. The Model Town tragedy galvanized Qadri's supporters and stripped Sharif of whatever moral high ground he had. The shifting national mood after the affair buoyed the opposition's spirits, and Khan could smell blood.

In July, Khan announced his decision to march on Islamabad -- with the objective of ousting Sharif -- on Aug. 14, Pakistan's Independence Day. On Aug. 10, Qadri announced that he would march on Islamabad as well. The processions to Islamabad received wall-to-wall coverage from Pakistani media, with some questioning whether the size and diversity of the protesters deserved such lavish 24-hour exposure. As it has dragged on across two weeks, the crisis has developed a momentum of its own. Khan has planted himself and several thousand protesters in front of the Pakistani parliament building, insisting that he will leave only when Sharif resigns.

Few, if any Pakistanis, would argue against the substance of Khan's complaints -- that the electoral process needs major reforms and that corruption throttles the economy. Instead, most debate focuses on just why Khan is so confident that he will succeed in dethroning Sharif -- despite the prime minister's nationwide support and Khan's falling stock.

Khan's bravado is, on the surface, perplexing. His level of popular support has dropped significantly since the May 2013 election, and his performance since then has been pedestrian, at best. His speeches at these protests have been cavalier, even vulgar: He threatened to send his enemies to the Taliban so that the group could "deal with them," according to the New York Times. He denigrates parliament and the prime minister; in one speech, he proudly proclaimed that the fear of protesters has caused Sharif to "wet his pants." This is hardly the kind of leader whom soldiers from any country would want to call boss -- much less the ultraconservative ranks of the Pakistan Army.

For some, this kind of confidence only comes from the knowledge of having the support of Pakistan's military brass. Could it really be betting the house on Khan?

Probably not. Pakistan's military faces a hostile India on its eastern border and a dysfunctional peace process in Afghanistan on its northwestern one. In between, it is trying to stamp out the remarkably resilient and potent Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, against which it recently launched a massive operation in the remote Pakistani region of Waziristan. Now is not a good time for the Army to manage a chaotic political transition.

And removing Sharif would probably complicate the country's fiscal situation. Pakistan is a poor country with an even poorer record of fiscal management. Outside aid is vital to the country -- be it from the IMF and World Bank or from friendly nations like the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia. International lenders hate instability and coups, and they have a long-standing man-crush on Sharif and his team because they are the big-business, Barbarians-at-the-Gate-type capitalists who love to privatize things while disproportionately taxing the poor instead of the rich. Khan, on the other hand, is a wild man when it comes to economic policy. Just this week, he instructed Pakistanis living abroad to stop using legal means of sending home remittances and once again start using the hundi system -- the preferred cash-mobility solution for terrorists everywhere.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who unsurprisingly is a close relative of Sharif, is surprisingly good at what he does: managing exchange rates, borrowing cheaply, and stamping out dissenting views on the economy. While growth is still sluggish, Dar has convinced lenders that Pakistan is becoming a less risky investment. Bureaucrats from the World Bank and IMF love him because he is an old-school chartered accountant. Sharif loves him because he is family. And though the Army may not love him, they probably like Dar a lot more than they like the prospect of dealing with Khan's cuckoo ideas about how to get remittances to Pakistani shores.

Many in the armed forces think Sharif is being needlessly vindictive in pursuing legal cases against Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the former chief of army staff who seized power from Sharif in October 1999, imprisoning Sharif and later exiling him to Saudi Arabia. Now Sharif is pursuing a case against Musharraf, who is stuck in Pakistan, unable to leave because of a court injunction related to a treason case against him -- though Sharif's people insist the motivation is rule of law and not revenge.

Additionally, Sharif's overtures to India, especially to its newly elected Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, may make some of the generals deeply nervous. Sharif accepted Modi's invitation to his inauguration, and in a break from Pakistani tradition, Sharif did not meet with separatist leaders from Kashmir whom Pakistan supports. If Pakistan and India become normal neighbors, the military's influence in Pakistan automatically decreases. The hawks clearly won't go easily.

But the fears of Sharif improving relations with New Delhi too quickly have likely been assuaged by the rank incompetence with which he implements decisions. Even if he wanted to, Sharif cannot move any faster than a bored glacier on a cold day. He is hamstrung by an obsession with surrounding himself with loyal but inept advisors and bureaucrats.

Sharif has severely undermined his own rule. His shambolic treatment of his own party members, to say nothing of the opposition, is legendary -- often ministers can't get meetings for weeks on end. The presence of his family members in government grates all segments of Pakistani society: Dar's son is married to Sharif's daughter, Asma Nawaz. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif is his younger brother; Water and Power Minister Chaudhry Abid Sher Ali is his nephew, as is prominent parliamentarian Muhammad Hamza Shahbaz Sharif. If only his strategic vision for the country were as consistent as his nepotism.

On the other hand, the best thing Sharif has going for him is the quality of his competition. Pakistan with Khan at the helm would be a disaster of epic proportions -- and that's even with the country's extremely high tolerance for shambolic leadership.

Khan may be the world's oldest teenager, with a captive national audience. He thumbs his nose at political niceties and employs an invective that dumbs down the discourse. Like Justin Bieber, Khan focuses on electrifying the urban youth who genuinely believe him to be a messianic solution to the disenchantment they feel about their country. And Khan's understanding of Pakistan's problems is probably only slightly more sophisticated than Bieber's. Khan does not have the policy chops to fix what ails Pakistan: The crux of his efforts during these few weeks has been that he, not Sharif, should be prime minister.

Sharif is a known entity and one easy to tame. Khan is wild and unpredictable. He proudly calls his supporters junoonis -- or "crazies." The military might enjoy the troubles Khan gives the prime minister, but it is unlikely to tie its institutional fortunes to unstable and irresponsible political actors like Khan. Pakistani democracy under Sharif will continue to muddle along as it has in the past. Pakistan optimists will be disappointed, because this crisis is unquestionably a setback for democrats. But things could be worse. For now, the most Khan is likely to achieve in challenging Sharif is further strengthening the military's already strong hold on key decisions guiding the country's future.

As Americans watch in horror as Syria, Libya, and Iraq come apart, perhaps they will warm to the idea of a Pakistan managed by its highly disciplined and professional armed forces. That would be exactly the wrong conclusion to draw from the political chaos in Pakistan. Now more than ever, Pakistan needs the rest of the world to reiterate its strong support for democracy.

Photo by ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images


Libya's New Power Brokers?

As Egypt and the UAE launch airstrikes on Tripoli, a cadre of politicians, militia leaders, and businessmen with links to both countries hopes to take advantage of a popular swell against Libya's Islamists.

TRIPOLI — Libya has moved to center stage in a regional power struggle between the patrons of political Islam and their opponents. This week, U.S. officials briefed several media outlets that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had secretly conducted airstrikes in the capital, Tripoli, against Islamist-allied militias. This may not have been the first time that the Egyptians and Emiratis teamed up to target Libyan Islamists: The New York Times also quoted U.S. officials saying a special forces unit operating out of Egypt, but likely primarily comprised of Emiratis, had recently wiped out a militant camp in eastern Libya.

The regional struggle for influence in Libya has raged since the 2011 uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi, during which Qatar backed several Islamist factions and the UAE supported more tribal-oriented and regional militias, particularly those from the conservative western mountain town of Zintan. The competition took on greater momentum after last's year overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) -- a move cheered by the UAE. Morsi's ousting and the fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood that followed emboldened Libya's anti-Islamist militia leaders, politicians, and activists, who have made no secret of their wish to see a similar scenario unfold at home.

The country's Islamists, meanwhile, have started seeing Egyptian or Emirati plots around every corner. In April, many were taken aback when the UAE denied entry to Awad al-Barassi, a former deputy prime minister and member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP). Barassi had lived in Dubai for years, serving as vice president of its Electricity and Water Authority before returning to Libya during the revolution. The Islamists' paranoia increased after renegade former Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who has connections in Cairo, declared war against all Islamists earlier this year, and has only been further reinforced by the air raids on Tripoli last week. It feeds the Islamists' perception that they are facing an Egyptian-style counterrevolution, aided by anti-Islamist regional forces.

The airstrikes may mark a new phase of Egyptian and Emirati intervention in Libyan politics, but they failed to achieve Cairo and Abu Dhabi's short-term goals. The warplanes targeted locations controlled by an alliance of militias that includes Islamists, fighters from the powerful port city of Misrata (who bristle over the "Islamist" label), and those from other western towns. These militias launched an attack on Tripoli's international airport during Ramadan in an attempt to seize it from Zintani fighters -- who are aligned with anti-Islamist political and armed forces, including Haftar -- a feat they managed to pull off on Saturday, despite the airstrikes on their positions.

Key to the newly aggressive Egyptian-Emirati strategy is a network of prominent Libyans, several of whom are based in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, and who are vehemently opposed to any Islamist role in their country.

One is Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the rebels' de facto prime minister during the 2011 revolution. He was eventually cast into the political wilderness following the introduction of a controversial lustration law barring those who had worked with the former regime from office. He has never hidden his dislike for Islamists and has locked horns with several -- including the Doha-based Libyan scholar Ali Sallabi, a crucial interlocutor for Qatar in Libya -- during the uprising. Jibril, who now spends much of his time in the UAE, regularly argues that Libya has been taken over by what he describes as extremists.

Abdel Majid Mlegta, one of the most senior figures in Jibril's National Forces Alliance (NFA) -- a political entity that won more seats than the JCP in Libya's first post-Qaddafi election in 2012 -- is the brother of Othman Mlegta, leader of the Qaaqaa Brigade, a Zintan-linked militia involved in the recent fighting in Tripoli. Qaaqaa has provided security for Jibril and his NFA colleagues, and has paraded hardware, including armored personnel carriers manufactured in the UAE, on the streets of Tripoli. It has previously attacked and occupied a number of state institutions, including the interior ministry and the army chief of staff's headquarters in Tripoli. In February, Othman Mlegta and a fellow militiaman issued a televised statement threatening to target members of Libya's elected congress if the body did not dissolve itself within hours. This warning prompted the intervention of the U.N. envoy to Libya, who met with Jibril to defuse the standoff.

Just after Haftar's offensive began in Benghazi in May, Qaaqaa declared its support for his operation and attacked the headquarters of the legislature using anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and rockets.

Two days later, I met Jamal Habeel, the militiaman who led the assault on congress. He and his colleague bragged of their exploits and railed against Islamists they said had infiltrated government ministries. They responded testily, however, to questions about Emirati backing. "What if we do get help from the UAE?" Habeel asked. "The other side gets help from Qatar."

Close to Mahmoud Jibril is Aref Nayed, a Sufi-influenced scholar who is currently Libya's ambassador to the UAE. Like Jibril, Nayed clashed with Islamists in 2011 and also harbors presidential ambitions. In conversations with foreign diplomats, Nayed has described the Muslim Brotherhood as "fascists." Earlier this year, he publicly criticized a proposed dialogue initiative for Libya that was to include Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi, saying it would only benefit one "party" -- meaning the Brotherhood.

Along with political and military figures, the Egyptians and the Emiratis also have powerful friends in the business community. Hassan Tatanaki -- a well-connected Libyan-born tycoon with oil and construction interests who worked with Qaddafi's son, Saif, before 2011 -- is perhaps the most influential individual in this network, due to his substantial wealth. He owns a TV channel, Libya Awalan (Libya First), which is known for its strongly anti-Islamist slant, and describes himself as being "partners" with Haftar. He boasts about being a hated figure for Islamists, many of whom see his hand everywhere.

"Obviously, I would like to see [Islamists] outlawed, like in Egypt; there is no question of that," he says, from his offices in the UAE. "I don't like to see people using religion in political games. The answer is to ban anything that uses religion."

Libya's Islamists fared poorly in June elections for a new parliament but, in Tatanaki's view, they are still a powerful force in the country. "They still have their hold on Libya, they still have the money, they still have the arms, and they are all over the place in terms of technocrats and bureaucrats, so they are well established," he argues. "The only thing they don't have is the people's support."

Tatanaki says he suggested transferring the newly elected Council of Deputies to the eastern city of Tobruk, deep in Haftar territory. He also says he helped cover the costs of the move in early August. Islamist MPs have boycotted the Tobruk sittings, and also accuse the assembly of taking sides in an escalating crisis that Libya's ambassador to the United Nations warned this week could tip into a full-fledged civil war.

Tatanaki has no patience for arguments that Libya's crisis stems from regional rivalries and competition between the old elites (of which he is part) and the new elites that emerged after 2011. For him, the conflict is about something much more basic. "This is a war against extremists who are trying to take control of Libya and use it as a springboard for their expansion elsewhere," he said.

This is a line constantly repeated by his TV channel. Tatanaki has come to recognize the immense power of media messaging. "It plays a very big part for us, just as much as the military side," he said. "I was quite surprised how influential media is -- it's scary. You can swing people's opinions left to right at a whim."

It helps, he says, that decades of Qaddafi's propaganda resulted in many Libyans conflating Islamists of all stripes. "Libyans perceive the MB and any Islamist group as being [al Qaeda] or ISIS or whatever; that is what Qaddafi's brainwashing did," he said. "They don't see the Islamic movement as a social or political movement; they see it as a terrorist movement already. That helps our cause. That is what we are relying on."

Tatanaki was clearly happy with the recent airstrikes, though he dismissed reports that Egypt and the UAE carried them out as far-fetched, without offering much of an alternative explanation. "It's all guessing games," he said.

As Egypt and the UAE increase their roles in Libya, figures like Tatanaki could find themselves ascendant against their rivals. First, however, they need to win the war against the Islamists.

The airstrikes in Tripoli, after all, did not bring about the outcome Tatanaki wanted. His side lost -- but he and his allies appear to be preparing for a long struggle. Shortly after the Zintanis withdrew from Tripoli's airport, Tatanaki spoke with a prominent Zintani militia leader. "He told me we will not stop. We have not lost the war, we have just lost a battle."