Imran Khan’s Arrest Has Brought Pakistan One Step Closer to the Brink

The Pakistani authorities arrested former PM Imran Khan earlier this month, provoking a violent backlash from his supporters. Pakistan is going through a profoundly dangerous crisis where miscalculation by the main political actors could result in disaster.

Police escort Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan (C) as he arrives at the high court in Islamabad on May 12, 2023. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP via Getty Images)

On May 9, paramilitary forces arrested Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan inside the Islamabad High Court (IHC). Khan was at the IHC for a legal hearing, but he was formally arrested over a different case related to kickbacks and money laundering.

More realistically, the forcible arrest was a response to Khan’s open accusation the previous day against a senior intelligence officer, Faisal Naseer. The former premier accused the officer of orchestrating attacks on Khan’s life. The leveling of this accusation against Naseer was in line with Khan’s dramatic falling out with the Pakistani military leadership over the last year and a half.


In response, for at least a few days in central Pakistan, the military faced a measure of comeuppance that was long overdue. Over the last seventy years, the Pakistani ruling bloc —especially its militarized core — has consistently instrumentalized forces and discourses of the conservative right to suppress every progressive stirring in Pakistani society in the name of national security.

The bloc has choked every democratic impulse in the name of religion and crushed every popular movement for freedom and self-determination in the name of national security. It has invaded and destroyed the privacy of homes and violated the sanctity of life and body through forced disappearances.

Now, however, a popular force has emerged — to be sure, a popular force of the Right — that has invaded and looted the extraordinarily ornate homes of Pakistan’s generals. It violates their privacy and safety in the name of the same national security, religion, and patriotism that has previously been weaponized against every popular stirring among Pakistan’s oppressed classes and nations.

The Supreme Court gave Khan relief within two days of his forcible arrest. This was an index of both the spontaneous public outpouring of demands for his release and the support Khan enjoys in key parts of the Pakistani state (including the officer class and rank and file of its military).

The situation remains tense, with the ousted prime minister facing a slew of charges and popular sympathy for him at an all-time high, even while stop-start negotiations continue between Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the incumbent government for a consensus date on general elections.

To understand this perverse comeuppance of the Pakistani military establishment, it is useful for us to review the immediate context of Khan’s arrest, its relation to the ruling bloc’s general modus operandi, and the social bases of alienation and assertion in Pakistan today.

The Al Qadir Trust Case

Let’s cast an eye over the Al Qadir Trust case that led to Khan’s arrest. Khan and his wife are accused of obtaining hundreds of acres of land and precious gifts from Pakistan’s biggest real estate tycoon, Malik Riaz, in return for facilitating the repatriation of an illegally accrued sum of £190 million from the UK. The extraordinary maneuvers behind the repatriation tell a tale of their own.

Of the total amount, £50 million derived from the Riaz family’s purchase of one of London’s prime properties, 1 Hyde Park Place, in 2016. They bought it from Hasan Nawaz, son of another former prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) party. When Riaz came under investigation in 2019 by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) for money laundering, the family agreed an out-of-court settlement whereby the sums in bank accounts and from the sale of the property would be transferred back to the Pakistani state.

In Pakistan, a parallel story was unfolding. The Supreme Court had fined Riaz’s company Bahria Town an extraordinary 460 billion rupees — the equivalent of $3 billion at the time — a few months earlier for illegally acquiring and profiting over twenty thousand acres of land in the peri-urban areas of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

The development of Bahria Town Karachi itself, arguably the largest real estate project in South Asia, was achieved through violent displacement of the land’s historical residents. It contributed to ecological disaster and urban flooding caused by rapacious real estate expansion.

There were astronomical profits made from the project — over 2,500 percent in some cases. In the absence of any sustainable economic project, real estate chicanery and financial instruments have emerged as a major source of wealth for the Pakistani ruling classes.

In most cases, the displacement was carried out by local musclemen and “encounter-specialist” police officers linked to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which is now confined to Sindh province, and to the Pakistani security institutions. Indeed, the Bahria Town empire in Pakistan has achieved its present position of dominance on the back of support from the military establishment, with high-ranking officers pleading Riaz’s myriad cases in the courts, while also being offered lucrative jobs in the Bahria Town machine.

However, the Khan government (including its “accountability” tsar Shahzad Akbar) worked overtime to facilitate the repatriation of £190 million from the UK to the Supreme Court’s accounts in lieu of the 460 billion rupee fine. The money went directly to the court rather than the Pakistani state, to which it was owed. The relatively puny proceedings of one crime, foreign money laundering, were thus used to settle the much bigger penalty for another crime, illegal land-grabbing.

Selective Accountability

Every major faction, party, and institution of the Pakistani ruling bloc was thus involved in this brazen robbery of the public. From the PML-N and the PPP to Khan’s reigning PTI government and the military establishment, all have benefitted from their cozy relationship with the real estate monopolies. Hence the extraordinary nimbleness of state and polity in minimizing Riaz’s losses when the Supreme Court and UK NCA judgements appeared.

There are no innocent parties in this mélange of coercion and corruption. However, it is Khan and his wife who are currently being targeted by the government and military establishment, while the names of Riaz and his deep-state facilitators are barely mentioned.

Historically, political administrations in Pakistan (including that of Khan when he was in power) have instrumentalized the themes of “corruption” and “accountability” — and a selective fidelity to the truth — to target their political opponents. Partial accounting for the facts here lends itself to a patently ideological discourse on corruption that serves to hide the deep-rooted and interconnected coordinates of power and accumulation in Pakistan.

Khan’s arrest in the Al Qadir Trust case is another instance in this sordid history of tendentious targeting of out-of-favor politicians. Meanwhile, collective sharing of the spoils by Pakistan’s elites proceeds apace.

Weak Hegemony

We can also help explain the latest round of Khan-centered insurgency by looking at the politico-economic modus operandi of the Pakistani ruling bloc. Corruption and fraud, as Antonio Gramsci reminded us, stand halfway between consent and coercion. They are an index of a ruling bloc’s weak hegemonic project that possesses limited ideological and material resources with which to incorporate the popular classes.

In Pakistan, networks of patronage and graft function to keep unreliable allies onside. They also help tie contractors, middlemen, and capitalists both large and small to the Pakistani state and its mainstream parties through highly personalized linkages.

The narrow social base and modus operandi of the ruling bloc also conditions the populist insurgency represented by Khan and his PTI movement. On the one hand, limited opportunities for the accumulation of wealth and the diminishing scale of imperial patronage available over the last decade, especially from the United States, has driven different fractions of the ruling elite to engage in fratricidal conflict over what’s left.

This tendency has expressed itself in different ways, from the intractable seesaw of civil-military political relations, to the military’s maneuvers to reverse devolution of fiscal and administrative powers to Pakistani provinces. It has couched this attempted move against federalism in the language of technocracy, seeking to short-circuit even the highly limited mechanisms of representation offered by Pakistan’s capitalist democracy.

A significant section of Pakistan’s upper and upper-middle classes — including those linked to the military and state bureaucracy, landed magnates, an emerging petty bourgeoisie, and white-collar professionals — have found in the PTI and Khan a vehicle for their elitist, centralizing aspirations. The same social layers dominated the PTI’s parliamentary echelons and shaped its policy measures while in power, forming the hegemonic core of the party.

On the other hand, Khan has also found vast reserves of popularity among Pakistan’s lower classes and young people under the age of thirty, who constitute over 60 percent of the country’s population. The venality and narrow bases of the incumbent parties are the central factors at work here. With no expansive socioeconomic project that could absorb a burgeoning, urbanized youth population, the ruling bloc resorts to militarized coercion, networks of patronage, and an unstable cocktail of praetorianism, patriotism, and religion as a substitute.

Social Crisis

However, with the profound economic travails of the ruling bloc showing no sign of ending, even these limited capacities for absorption are now exhausted. Inflation is currently running at over 30 percent, the highest in half a century, and is expected to rise further. All this is unfolding while International Monetary Fund (IMF)–mandated structural adjustment is killing economic growth.

The Pakistani state owes more than $120 billion in foreign debt and even more in domestic debt. It is spending more than two-thirds of state revenue (obtained mostly through regressive, indirect taxation) on servicing the debt burden and military expenditures. Everything else, from government salaries to social expenditures, is financed through further borrowing.

The country has signed a dozen IMF programs over the last three decades, the latest by the Khan government in 2019, to help with recurrent balance-of-payments crises. It owes $25 billion each year in principal payments to international creditors.

There is a $10 billion annual shortfall in these payments due to the country’s narrow productive bases and its reliance on remittances and aid from export of labor and military services. Even if the latest stalled tranche of IMF funding arrives, in these twilight days of the Pakistani ruling bloc’s role as a regional gendarme for US imperialism, the IMF and the international financial interests behind it are demanding their full pound of flesh.

There has been a runaway increase in the price of basic commodities, energy, and medicine due to the slashing of subsidies at the behest of the IMF. Long lines of containers at the Karachi port, downsizing at industrial establishments up and down the country, and deadly stampedes at charity food distributions all testify to the ruling bloc’s infliction of horrific austerity upon the people of Pakistan.

Over the last year alone, the number of unemployed has increased by two million and as many as eighteen million have fallen below the poverty line. The number of “idle” male youths is estimated to be around eight million, while between 15 to 30 percent of adults suffer from mental health disorders. An extraordinary recent report by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics put the unemployment rate among young graduates as high as 33 percent, with a full 23 percent taking on “unpaid jobs” — a perverse euphemism for super-exploitation.

It is this coming together of elite and middle-class fears with the alienation of youth and the popular classes that finds expression in a populist movement centered on Khan. Here the reaction of the entitled meets the alienation of the young and the marginalized.

Khan’s hyper-sexualized celebrity status and his deft invocation of themes of personal struggle and Islamic history have served to cement his status as a nucleus around which, in the words of Gramsci, “a multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim.” This unstable combination of elements, welding together diverse social and ideological impulses, also lends the PTI’s populism an ambiguous character that often confuses commentators.

Misreading Khan

The ambiguity of Khan’s base, his popularity, and the polarization that has developed around his figure finds reflection in the positions that have been adopted by sections of the domestic and foreign commentariat. On the one hand, there is a section of the international left — often self-proclaimed “anti-imperialists” — who have taken at face value Khan’s claim to have been targeted by a US-orchestrated regime-change operation.

The claim is based in particular on reports of an unpleasant meeting between an official of the State Department and the Pakistani ambassador in Washington. Khan himself has disowned the theory and now squarely blames the former army chief Qamar Bajwa for his ouster. In fact, the nature of Khan’s social coalition and the policies he pursued while in power show that he did not possess even the semblance of a genuine anti-imperialist and pro-people program.

For example, the PTI government completely capitulated to the IMF soon after coming to power. It accelerated economic deregulation and privatization while stalling the Pakistan leg of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and greatly facilitated the established military and real estate monopolies. Anti-Western rhetoric and claims to leadership of the Islamic world merely served to obfuscate the inadequacy of Khan’s approach to social and material issues.

The militarist, patriarchal, and ultimately elite-centered politics of the PTI takes refuge behind a claim to represent “the nation” and its interests (against foreign powers). We should not substitute geopolitics for class politics and denude anti-imperialism of its social content. This leads only to a dead end where rhetoric takes the place of politics as such.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s liberal intelligentsia has either supported or adopted a strategic silence in face of the state crackdown against the PTI. They characterize Khan and his supporters as a “fascist” or “quasi-fascist” force and implicitly advocate an alliance with the state and the incumbent parties against this supposed “extraordinary threat.” Once again, there is a failure to account for the actual coordinates of class power and social programs (or the lack thereof).

This approach ignores the continuities of class power between Khan and his opponents, whose historical and structural failings fuel the PTI insurgency. Those who extol the “norms” of liberal democracy in Pakistan dismiss the regular resort to militarized coercion as stemming from the subjective failings of politicians such as Nawaz, Khan, and others. They turn a blind eye to the social and historical limitations that constantly produce reservoirs of discontent and condition the resort to authoritarian solutions.

Neither Anti-Imperialist nor Fascist

The conditions of economic crisis and political paralysis in Pakistan certainly contain a fascist potential. Khan has mobilized the militarist and Islamist rhetoric of mainstream Pakistani nationalism, fusing these ideas in a personalized narrative of struggle against elite oppression.

However, overblown rhetoric and ideological hyperbole is not enough to qualify a movement as fascist. The PTI has no systematic program or vehicle of terror on the model of the Nazi Brownshirts or the Hindutva right’s Bajrang Dal in India. Nor do Khan and the PTI possess the organized social base, especially among the popular classes, that has characterized fascisms, both historical and contemporary.

“Hatred alone,” as Frantz Fanon once reminded us, “cannot draw up a program.” The PTI’s recently unveiled “new economic plan” is the usual mélange of frequently advocated measures that have already proved unsuccessful: export-oriented growth, promotion of foreign investment, and privatization. There is no indication that Khan’s party is willing to attack the entrenched monopolies and landed magnates that receive up to $17 billion in subsidies each year.

Khan and his base thus have neither the social capacity nor the program for a wide-ranging remaking of state, society, and economy — let alone a revolutionary program from the Right of the kind that fascism has historically entailed.

What Khan and his unstable social coalition do have is a resort to personalized charisma and a form of hysterical nationalism. This does not challenge the power and wealth of the Pakistani military so much as it seeks an equal partnership with the bloc. Khan has selectively targeted the former army chief rather than the military establishment as a whole. His silence about its economic empire and its oppression of Pakistan’s marginalized classes and nationalities indicates his desire to seek accommodation rather than revolution.

Two tendencies condition the macho posturing and hysterical nationalism of Khan’s populism. On the one hand, sections of the Pakistani elite and its middle classes harbor reactionary inclinations; on the other, there is vast and growing alienation among the masses. It is worth remembering that in its original Greek and then Freudian meaning, hysteria is a psychological condition born out of trauma. The depravities of Pakistan’s historically privileged groups and the deprivations of its oppressed classes thus find a messianic outlet in the personality of Khan. Instead of a revolution of the oppressed, we have revenge of the repressed.

A New Conjuncture?

Khan’s right-wing populism represents neither anti-imperialism nor fascism. It derives from the historical failings of Pakistan’s ruling bloc and its reliance on theological and patriotic obfuscations to legitimize itself. Khan himself has emerged as an alternative focus of attraction and devotion to the military in central Pakistan.

The current government suffers from a paralysis of social capacity and imagination. It has no program for progressive economic restructuring. With little prospect of fortuitous geopolitical events that might result in aid from outside, Pakistani elites will have to go back to the IMF soon after completing the current program.

Another round of turbocharged austerity and monetary tightening will generate fresh reserves of popular discontent, no matter what Khan or the other political actors do. This long-term structural crisis, combined with the generational shifts in Pakistan’s society and polity, gives the present moment the feel of a new conjuncture.

A new sociopolitical terrain is emerging, organized around Khan, the military, and fractions cutting within and across them. The established elites are faltering and now find themselves aligned in varying combinations along these nodes. The long-term resources of economic power and imperial patronage are now exhausted, and a radicalized Pakistani nationalism has crystalized around Khan’s personality cult.

Khan’s right-wing populism will disappoint many of his supporters and dissipate their energies by seeking accommodation with the power bloc, as was already the case during its previous stint in government. But there is a dangerous contradiction at work in this moment too, as well as a weaker potential for a better outcome.

Large sections of the young and the alienated in both central Pakistan and its peripheralized areas have been exposed to the oppression of the militarized ruling bloc. They are forging a critique of that bloc in the crucible of practical experience. Yet Pakistan’s decadent guardians of order will not vacate their perch easily.

The intractability of Pakistan’s multifaceted crisis means that any miscalculation, any minor oversteps from one side or another, could trigger a chain reaction that leads to what Karl Marx once called “the common ruin of all contending classes.” While socialism is not on the cards for us, barbarism definitely is.