Islamabad under siege

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By Afrasiab Khattak

Extraordinary prolongation of the simmering coup against the PML (N) government has been painful for the entire country but it has been particularly excruciating for the capital city Islamabad. Characters change in this live and ruthless political drama serial but signature of the deep state as director remains constant. The latter is reflected in success of the demonstrators involved in many onslaughts on Capital in reaching D Chowk and Red Zone, the nerve center of the capital. More than once buildings regarded as monuments of state power including Parliament House, Supreme Court, President House, Prime Minister House and national radio and television centers have been threatened by the physical invasions of rebellious crowds. But ultimate price was payed by common citizens who had to live like prisoners during the siege for days ( in 2014 for many months). Yesterday’s siege, the latest one on the call of religious fanatics belonging to Sunni Tehreek and Labaika, was no exception. Actually day before yesterday a child Hassan Bilal died on the road as he couldn’t reach hospital in time due to roadblocks.
By now the creeping coup is in such an advanced stage that the interior ministry seems to have lost control of the capital. Capitol police which is notorious for thrashing ordinary protesters like the ones belonging to slums, supporters of FATA Reforms or students of QAU, is in no mood to confront the putschists. During the last three days capital police was seen facilitating the march of fanatics on Islamabad. The only strategy that they are left with is containerization of Islamabad which again is a nuisance for ordinary citizens and is no way effective in blocking the path of religious extremists.
It all started in the middle of 2014. The completion of constitutional term by elected assemblies in 2013 for the first time in the country’s political history and smooth and peaceful transfer of power after general elections was regarded by all and sundry as an important milestone in democratic development. But the anti democratic forces were ready with a plan to arrest and reverse the aforementioned development. Putting Islamabad under siege has been an important element of this strategy. I vividly remember the opening episode of the series that was to continue and to be repeated again and again. On May 23 2014 three opposition Senators ( Ietezaz Ahsan, Raza Rabani and myself) were addressing a press conference inside the Parliament House about anti terrorism legislation when a few hundreds Sikh demonstrators forced their way into Parliament House with sticks in their hands and slogans on their lips. They were apparently protesting against an alleged sacrilege of their holy book in Karachi a few days ago. Some Parliamentarians engaged the Sikh demonstrators and assured them of their full support in demanding an investigation into the incident which was focus of their protest. Mysteriously and all of a sudden the police aggressively stepped ahead to beat the Sikh protestors inside the Parliament House but the Parliamentarians determinedly intervened to block the police action. After a few days of investigation it became clear that the Sikh march on Parliament was scripted by invisible forces with two aims. One, after three days ( on May 26) Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was to visit India for participating in the swearing in ceremony of Indian Prime Minister Narindra Modi. The beating of Sikh protesters inside Pakistani Parliament was expected to lead to a public controversy between the two countries with potential for vitiating political atmosphere ending in the cancellation of the visit. Two, the Sikh march on the read zone and Parliament in Islamabad was a full dress rehearsal for another scripted march ( led by Imran Khan and TuQ) in the third week of of August 2014. It is interesting to recall that after entering the Red Zone Imran Khan had publicly claimed that since the son of Inspector General of Islamabad police was a member of his party, his father (IGP Islamabad) had to allow entry to his rally into the sensitive area. Was he so naive to say such a thing or was it a camouflage for the “umpire” ? After that Imran Khan led PTI and religious extremists have been taking turns in laying siege to Islamabad. Every siege has been leading to the weakening of civilian control over state system and shifting of the decision making powers from Islamabad to Rawalpindi. The open retreat by the interior minister in a confrontation with an officer of Rangers very recently is a vivid manifestation of this fact.
Unfortunately the ruling party hasn’t been able to develop any political strategy to meet this challenge beyond putting up some passive resistance. It has failed to rectify its blunder of sidelining and weakening the Parliament. PML ( N) could have gone back to Parliament recognizing its status as heart of the system along with mass mobilization in the Punjab. It has also waited for the political polarization to be be completed before reaching out to other political parties. But even then nothing can be more ironical than blaming Nawaz Sharif for confrontation with security establishment. His party has been quite meek and docile in the face of an unfolding coup. They thought their docility will enable them to complete the term and go for general elections in next year’s summer after reelecting half of the Senate in second week of March 2018. But the fresh onslaught on Islamabad indicates aggressive mood of the putschists who are hell bent on dissolution of assemblies before the expiry of the constitutional term.
This time round there is a wide net thrown for the success of the creeping coup. Apparently corruption charges is the main front that is magnified by two instruments, first by twenty four hours propaganda of the electronic media and second by the supersonic speed and clearly biased attitude of the Supreme Court. This aggressive propaganda also comes handy in keeping real issue such as the challenges of extremism, terrorism and growing international isolation of the country out of political discourse. There is almost no political debate about appeasement of ” good Taliban”. Than there is weaponized religious card. Extremist militant organizations are attacking government in bye elections and protest marches. They are also effective in taking care of independent critics of military’s policies. The so called mainstreaming of militant organizations epitomizes reverse progression of NAP. Paralysis of Islamabad may be aimed at overthrowing the sitting government but it can have unintended consequences for Pakistan. Some lessons can be learnt from recent examples in the Middle East and North Africa.
(Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs)