Nawaz Sharif gone, is Pakistan heading for another Army coup?

The similarities with what happened in October 1999 are too many.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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An unusual seven-hour meeting of Pakistan Army commanders at the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi early this week had an unusual outcome – no press release was issued by the public relations department of the Army.

“Silence is also a kind of expression” – was all that Army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said when asked about the absence of a statement on what the commanders had discussed in the long meeting.

Such meetings are usually reported in a stereotypical manner by local news outlets on the basis of the still more stereotypical press releases issued by the public relations directorate of the Army.

Seldom do news reports mention the duration of the meetings. But this time, all media outlets dutifully reported that talks continued for seven long hours – however nobody mentioned the topics discussed.

Speculation in the media and the content of the Army spokesman’s press conference two days later made it clear that the commanders discussed the fast deteriorating political situation in Pakistan.

The tussle between rival political parties in the country has become a norm and accusations against state institutions (including the military, intelligence agencies and judiciary) of conspiring to oust former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have taken the society by storm.

The Army spokesman clarified that the force was not behind the ouster of Sharif and that rumours about the Army taking over the nation were nonsense. “That there is going be a martial law should not even be talked about. We are busy in doing our duty as stated in the Constitution,” he insisted.

Fears of an Army intervention were, however, reinforced when the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, after a meeting with Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Asif said that the US administration was concerned about the stability of the Pakistani government.

Without wasting any time, the Pakistani media started to remind its audience of the days and months before the October 1999 coup, when the then government of Nawaz Sharif had sent a special envoy, Shahbaz Sharif, to Washington – amid tension with the Army brass – to meet US officials in Washington and brief them about the threat his government was facing from the assertive Army generals.

At that time too, the US administration officials had expressed concern over the stability of the Pakistani government, followed by the Pakistan military’s expression of commitment to constitutional civilian rule in the country.

Many political analysts in Islamabad say the US officials are too closely linked with the mechanics of the Pakistani political system for the past ten years, hence their statements about the stability of the Pakistani government can’t be easily brushed aside.

During the past ten years, US diplomats and officials have been mediating the political conflicts in Islamabad and orchestrating behind-the-scene political deals between power centres and political players.

Another similarity between the October 1999 situation and the present political situation is – as political analysts point out – the high level of tension that exists between civilian political leadership and the Army brass.

After his ouster from power, Nawaz Sharif indirectly accused the military of conspiring to engineer the same, through a judicial order.

He didn’t say it once or twice but repeatedly at press conferences, interviews and while addressing public rallies. The tensions in October 1999 were the result of a tussle between the civilian and military leadership that developed in the wake of the Kargil War and then (as now) the civilian leadership indirectly started accusing the Army brass of disrupting the normalisation process with India by staging the Kargil operation.

This time, however, before Sharif’s ouster, tensions were more visible than in 1999: government ministers quite openly accused the military of using their rival Imran Khan to destabilise the government, while the Army accused the government of maligning the institution by bracketing officers with militant groups.

Yet, there are no publicly expressed apprehensions of a military takeover in Islamabad, despite the fact that Sharif has shown no signs of slowing down his anti-judiciary and (indirectly) anti-military establishment rhetoric in his speeches and statements.

There are reports in the media that the Army brass wants him to stop his campaign against the judiciary and military which, in their view, is harming the “national unity so desperately required to defeat the enemy’s narrative” in the war against terror.

However, party insiders say Sharif plans to go into the 2018 parliamentary election campaign with the same rhetoric against the judiciary and the military. This will likely create a highly tense situation between the military and his Muslim League party.

The Army has started to interpret this anti-military rhetoric and the possible confrontation emerging between state institutions and political leaders as a source of great instability in the country.

“Any type of instability, either political, economic or developmental, cannot be in the country’s interest, so (the matter) needs to be resolved,” said the Army spokesman, while commenting on a question related to what is being described in national discourse as a misunderstanding between state institutions and political leadership.

There are, however, very less chances of the Army directly intervening in the political system to prevent the impression of a confrontation between different institutions.

Analysts say the Army is too pre-occupied and too controversial to think about directly intervening in the political system, and that the Army establishment paved the way for the establishment of this political system in the post-Musharraf period to serve their purpose.

According to the analysts, the generals paved the way for the ouster of their own chief, General Pervez Musharraf, from power in 2008 to clear the way for the restoration of a civilian setup. This was done so as to ensure that the democratic setup acted as a shock absorber against internal shocks (in the form of rising militancy and extremism in society) and external pressure (in the form of American demand on the nation’s army and intelligence to mount forceful operations against militants and extremists).

The political realities in Pakistan have remained constant during the past ten years to the extent that the military would not like to change this political arrangement, which has continued to serve its ends.

This, however, has not changed the Army’s desire (which over the years has become an “instinct”) to manipulate the political system whenever required.

Perhaps, the need for change is too pressing for them to ignore at this point of time and this makes “silence a form of expression”.

Keeping the political system intact, which has proved advantageous to them so far, is also a necessity from the point of view of warding off international pressure that is indicated by the statement of the US secretary of state.

What are the possibilities in the face of constraints faced by the military establishment? Engineering a coup within the ruling party seemed a possibility in the initial phase of the crisis. But this was ruled out after Sharif demonstrated a firm grip on his party apparatus.

The second possibility is to get the opposition parties to mount pressure on the government to opt for early elections. Imran Khan has already started demanding that the government dissolve the assemblies and go for early elections.


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