Why Pakistan’s Plan to Silence Imran Khan May Backfire

IMran Khan has been dialing up the invective since before he was ousted as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April. held rallies for his centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to play against his political opponents, whom he accused of staging a US-backed coup to oust him from office. These demonstrations have only grown bigger and more vigorous in recent weeks as the cricket icon has turned his anger on the military establishment that helped propel his rise to politics before leaving him.

Things came to a head on Sunday when police charged Khan under the anti-terrorism law over a speech he gave in Islamabad on Saturday, in which he vowed to sue the police and a female judge over the arrest and torture of a close aide.

For now, Khan remains at large and his supporters have threatened to hold mass demonstrations if he is jailed. “If Khan is indeed arrested, all bets are off and the country will see an increased risk of political violence in major cities,” said Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Khan enjoys support from a passionate support base that will not sit idly by.”

The controversy centers around Shahbaz Gill, a former Cabinet minister and special assistant to Khan, who earlier this month urged soldiers to disobey “illegal orders” from their military commanders in a television statement. Gill was charged with sedition—a crime punishable by death—and was allegedly tortured under interrogation. (A senior PTI figure provided photographs of bruises Gill allegedly suffered while in custody, though TIME was unable to independently verify the contents.)

Khan defended his friend by criticizing the inspector-general of Pakistan’s police force and the judge who was held responsible for Gill’s arrest. “Get ready for this too, we will take action against you too,” Khan said. “You should all be ashamed.”

Pakistan’s judiciary considered those comments—and threats to sue the police and the judge—an outright threat and filed charges against him. However, the Islamabad High Court granted Khan “protective bail” until Thursday, blocking his potential arrest for now.

In any case, Khan’s speeches were banned from live satellite television broadcasts inside Pakistan after the national regulator accused him of “baseless allegations” against the state and “spreading hate speech.” The order was met with pushback from across the political divide. “Completely banishing a political leader from the media is not the best policy,” tweeted former Pakistani Senator Farhatullah Babar of the opposition center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). “It’s dangerous to make someone larger than life unintentionally and undeservedly.”

It is also unclear how effective such a ban would be. Khan has more than 17 million followers on Twitter, which is higher than the ratings of many of Pakistan’s top nightly news shows. On Sunday, access to YouTube was reportedly disrupted across the country in an apparent attempt to restrict a live speech he was giving in the northern city of Rawalpindi.

Read more: Cricket Hero Imran Khan Leads Pakistan Team To Victory. As a Politician, He Rides a Populist Wave

Certainly, Khan’s predicament is just the latest salvo as nuclear-armed Pakistan lurches from crisis to crisis, with potentially serious implications for regional and global security. In addition to a highly polarized political environment, the country of 230 million people is plagued by runaway inflation that reached 24.9% in July and a government that has failed to improve the economy and is heavy-handed with its opponents. On August 29, the IMF is scheduled to meet to negotiate another bailout. But the specter of political unrest threatens to shake a precarious economic tightrope. “Any way you slice it, this is a very turbulent and volatile moment for Pakistan,” Kugelman said.

Is the Pakistani military getting ready to act?

Despite an often tumultuous relationship, Pakistan is a crucial security partner for the US regarding neighboring Afghanistan, where the Taliban returned to power within a year.

The instability gripping Pakistan—including rumors of a split between pro- and anti-Khan factions in the military—has weakened this vital security apparatus. On August 10, the Pakistani Taliban claimed to have regained control of a portion of the Swat district in the far north of the country. It is a certain time for Pakistan’s military to be divided and distracted.

For Samina Yasmeen, director of the Center for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, the new government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif of the center-right PML-N party—brother of Khan’s longtime nemesis Nawaz Sharif—has made a mistake. of allowing Khan to “unleash hysteria” but now faces “even instability” by clumsily cracking down. “It’s not just the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear state,” he said. “It has this state many of people in it. If there are fights, you never really know where it’s going to go.”

Tellingly, Khan has toned down his anti-US broadsides in recent weeks, perhaps leaving the door open to mend relations with Washington should he engineer a miraculous return to power. Instead, he dialed up attacks against the military, which he sardonically called “neutral” in response to statements from the brass hats who insist they don’t interfere in politics. Even figures in the ruling PML-N have now adopted the quip, capitalizing on the fact that the generals who ruled Pakistan for half of its 75-year history remain kingmakers today.

The charges against Khan have particularly galvanized his supporters against Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who they believe was a big driver of the ouster of the 69-year-old Khan. “Bajwa’s transformation in the eyes of Khan’s supporters from revered to reviled … is one of the most striking takeaways from this ongoing saga,” Kugelman said.

Read more: Imran Khan’s Embrace of Putin May Have Sealed His Death

The truth is, of course, that Khan’s path to power was possible because the military supported him and then he lost power when they withdrew their support. In general, the generals’ reputation cuts across the political spectrum. When six senior army officers including a top general died in a helicopter crash in early August, the overwhelming reaction on social media was far from sympathetic, with many mockingly expressing sympathy for the vehicle air than the lives lost.

Pakistani society has rarely been polarized, with half the country treating Khan as a savior and half as the devil incarnate. “Effectively, what he did is divide the country,” said Yasmeen. “It’s like Trump [in the U.S.]. And if the United States has not fully recovered, how can a country like Pakistan recover?”

The question is whether the generals will sit down if mass protests erupt amid a brewing economic disaster. Pakistan’s military seized power voluntarily when they thought things were out of control, as recently as 1999. But the generals found they preferred to pull the strings from the shadows. The question is whether this view has changed. “I don’t see the military taking over,” Yasmeen said, “But then there’s a part of my mind, it’s so bad, could there be some [in the army] who thinks this is right?”

More Must-Read Stories From TIME


Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com.