How one-time cricket star Imran Khan could help bring down Pakistan’s government


Imran Khan, a Cricketeer-turned politician and head of opposition party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, speaks to supporters during a fourth day of protests, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Aug. 18, 2014. (EPA/BILAWAL ARBAB)

Nearly every recent profile of Imran Khan invariably winds its way to the House of Khan. Above tracks of “winding, rutted roads,” as one journalist commented, the estate extends more than 40 acres, hosting a bevy of lawns, a swimming pool and at least three roving sheepdogs.

There resides Khan: the best cricket player in Pakistani history and once among the finest in the world — an “all-rounder” who could bowl and bat with extraordinary skill. After leading a celebrated social life in London, he turned politician some years ago and now leads street protests that may topple the Pakistani government.

The Oxford grad’s a man of craggy movie-star good looks and an air of the dramatic. “Clad in a traditional white tunic, he opens the huge, heavy wooden doors to his mansion and apologizes for the brief delay,” The Washington Post’s Richard Leiby wrote when he visited Khan in 2011. For the Guardian, Khan is spotted “sitting alone at a table in the garden of the house … dressed entirely in black.” For the New Yorker, Khan “emerged from the house wearing a gray shalwar kameeze,” and said, “My God, it’s going to be a tough day.”

But perhaps Monday was tougher for Pakistan. Khan and his supporters again protested Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom they accuse of fixing last year’s election, which Khan’s Movement for Justice party lost. The protests have roiled the capital for three weeks, heightening fears the nuclear-armed country could soon return to military rule.

Sharif, for now, is hanging tough. “I will not resign under any pressure and I will not go on leave,” Sharif said, The Post reported. “There shall be no precedent in Pakistan that only a few people take as hostage the mandate of millions by resorting to force.”

The saga then took a bizarre turn. The president of Khan’s own political party accused him of colluding with the army to oust the besieged prime minister and set fresh elections later this month. The party official said if Pakistan’s government collapsed, the responsibility would lie with Khan.

Khan denied the allegations — and then fired his former associate. “I am disappointed with” him, Khan said, according to local media.

It’s another bit of drama for a man who’s no stranger to it. After his cricket career, which included leading Pakistan’s team to its one and only world championship in 1992, he soon married the glamorous daughter of a British billionaire. She was Jewish. And half his age.

Though Jemima Khan converted to Islam, their return to Pakistan was rocky and she was subjected to anti-Semitic attacks.

But Khan was not the sort to fade into obscurity. He delved into politics and in 2004 divorced his wife, with whom he had two children. “I could never imagine living in London, just making a living out of cricket journalism,” he wrote in his memoir, according to the New Yorker. My wife “knew that. She did not marry a lounge lizard.”

There was an anger to Khan. He was mad at his political rivals, whom he called “stooges” and “puppets” of the United States. He was upset at American foreign policy: “All they want is obedient slaves,” he told The Post.

But he was most angry at Pakistan’s government. “The whole system has collapsed,” he said. “There is no government today…. The system is destroying the people, but the politicians are getting richer than before.”

But isn’t Khan pretty rich himself? What about his chateau? His sheepdogs? His myriad couches, which no matter the profile, he’s always “settling” into?

After inviting the New Yorker’s Steve Coll to his house, Khan first lit a fire in a stone fireplace, then “settled on a couch, draped in an orange scarf. A large mirror hung on the wall above his king-sized bed. There was a flat-screen television, an audio system, a rack of compact disks, and a shotgun stored in a case.”

And then there’s the hair. It’s a vital piece to the Khanian ethos. Long and unruly and Keith-Richards-esque, it’s unclear where Khan and his hair are going next.

But there are signs that he’s not, in fact, going anywhere. The Pakistani army is one of the country’s most powerful institutions; few civilian leaders have been able to trump its power. And if it becomes clear the army has turned against Sharif — and toward Khan — he could have bigger things ahead.

“Imran Khan said we can’t move forward without the army,” the Telegraph reports Khan’s former party associate saying. “Imran Khan also said that all the matters had been decided and there will be elections in September.”

Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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