The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Who’s afraid of Imran Khan’s Pakistan? Almost everyone.

A portrait of Imran Khan in Islamabad. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent, is a journalist based in Islamabad.

On Friday evening I drove back home to Islamabad after covering Pakistan’s July 25 general elections from the eastern city of Lahore. As I fumbled in my purse for my keys, the front door rattled and I heard footsteps on the other side.

“Madam, is someone else home?” my driver, Shaukat, asked. I live alone.

I dialed the police emergency helpline and explained that someone was inside my house. Commandos brandishing automatic rifles soon arrived and entered my home, going from room to room, looking under beds and behind sofas.

Nothing was missing. In the lounge, we found one window, which locks from the inside, open. One officer said that maybe the intruder had left through that window. “Or maybe some khalai makhlooq was here,” another one joked.

He was using the Urdu word for “extraterrestrials” to suggest that I might have imagined the movements and sounds I was describing. The irony was lost on him: In Pakistan, khalai makhlooq is often used to refer to the army and its spy agencies, part of a rich political vocabulary born out of fear of openly criticizing the country’s most powerful institutions.

These “aliens” have for years been accused of piling pressure on civilian governments to toe their line, of threatening and abducting journalists and human rights defenders who speak up against them, of “disappearing” ordinary citizens on terrorism or other charges without due process and, most recently, of helping to rig a landmark general election in which cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has emerged the undisputed winner.

In the hours that followed, after the police left and friends arrived to comfort me, I thought back to the several phone calls I had received in previous days from “well-wishing” army officers warning me not to write against the army. I remembered the words of one brigadier who called me three times about a tweet in which I reported about the army’s blocking of Dawn, the country’s oldest newspaper, saying that my words had generated a lot of anger among my Twitter followers and that “if one of them takes matters into his own hands, you will have only yourself to blame.”

But most of all, I thought about whether I had indeed imagined an intruder and whether my fear was unwarranted. But that was the point: An enduring sense of dread and paranoia at having crossed a thinly drawn red line, a fear of the unknown, is a reality for journalists who report on Pakistani politics, particularly on the power struggle between the military and civilian governments that is as old as the country itself.

The threats, as shadowy as they may sometimes feel, are all too real. Indeed, the country that Khan inherits as prime minister is practically run on scare tactics. 

There is much in Khan to be afraid of. During his poison-tongued, invective-laden campaign, he pushed his supporters to the verge of war with news channels that criticized him. He has suggested that those who opposed him were “agents” of Pakistan’s archrival India and the “international establishment.”

He has supported a draconian blasphemy law that has led to at least 69 vigilante killings since 1990. Day after day on the campaign trail, he started fires and fanned flames, calling upon his followers to suspend disbelief and vest faith in conspiracies. And for someone who has for decades asked Pakistan’s young people — 64 percent of the population is under 30 — to join his revolution to overthrow the corrupt old political order, he has been much too quick to partner with turncoat politicians, Islamist hardliners and power-hungry soldiers.

Many have pointed to Khan’s mild-toned victory speech of July 26 to suggest that he was capable of grace and gravitas. But the fact is that his call for a more open, responsible foreign policy, even overtures to India and Afghanistan, ring hollow in the backdrop of years of peddling isolationism. His constant pandering to the religious ultra-right during the campaign and increasing support of conservative ideals suggest there is little reason to believe he is the person to lead Pakistan out of the clutches of extremism.

If he has indeed come into power with the help of the military, and there is much evidence that he has, then it is likely that the military will want its pound of flesh. He will need its help in finding allies and cutting deals, and the military will want even more space to control foreign and economic policy (with a 1.1 trillion rupee defense budget out of a total budget outlay of 5.9 trillion, no one cares more than the Pakistan army about what happens to the economy).  

But if Khan is a genuinely popular leader who has surged into office because of a truly national following built on his cricket celebrity and appeal as an anti-corruption crusader, we can expect that he might want to be his own man and possibly stand up to the military. But even then, he must be very afraid to go the way of many former prime ministers before him: removed in a coup or marginalized using a combination of media and courtroom trials over corruption and sundry charges. In both scenarios, Pakistani democracy and Khan seem to be in imminent jeopardy.

Indeed, the manner in which Khan has betrayed the trust of many of his party’s old guard across the country is proof that he is capable of intelligent, even cynical, calculations about how to acquire and exercise power. Thus it is expected that he will not butt heads with the military. And so, Pakistan’s imperfect democracy will trudge along imperfectly, the wheels of government continuing to turn on the erratic whims of the boys in boots.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Pakistan’s likely next leader is a Taliban sympathizer

The Post’s View: The ouster in Pakistan is actually a glimmer of hope

The Post’s View: Trump publicly insulted Pakistan. What was the point?