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“We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.”

Walter Bagehot wrote this in the 19th century, warning against the British Monarch, Queen Victoria, being dragged into the cesspit of politics and gossip. Bagehot would not have been thrilled with meme culture.

In Pakistan, periodically daylight did sneak in to spoil the magic. However, lately the curtains have simply been left wide open, risking sun burns. The evolution of euphemisms for the security establishment is an obvious way to look at the changing civil-military relationships in Pakistan.

The original word “establishment” was a euphemism to begin with, yet it had some degree of semantic precision back in the 1980s and ’90s, referring to a civil-military bureaucratic alliance calling the shots and, when required, undermining elected governments.

The ‘civil-military balance’ is often used as a scale to measure the strength of democracy in Pakistan. But are all civilians democrats? Is the praetorian security state the gold standard of patriotism? And how does resurgent populism undermine our notions of what this balance means?

The term establishment had an impressive run with the more adventurous using “deep state.” Once the term ran its course, what immediately followed was sometimes funny and sometimes sloppy, causing toe-curling embarrassment. Things have moved from pointing to invisible ranks to “aliens”, “department of agriculture”, “handlers”, “larrki ke bhai [brothers of the girl]”, “munnay ka abba [father of the baby]” and “neutrals”, to direct names and now names with adjectives on twitter. (I will exempt myself from the newfound linguistic freedom and boringly persist largely with “establishment”).

The ‘civil-military balance’ is often used as a scale to measure the strength of democracy in Pakistan. Karl Marx, in his famous The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, wrote about people learning a new language and how they habitually translate the new language back into the one they already know. In the language we know, the relative openness of conversation means that the civil-military balance is being corrected somewhat and there are no “holy cows” and, a personal favourite Pakistani term, “escape goats” etc. etc.

It is undeniable that the discussion on the role of the security establishment has never been this public or candid. Yet, before we proceed to viewing this as a fundamental shift in the civil-military scale, we perhaps have to broaden our focus from just the semantics.

The Hybrid Model

Much has been said on the “hybrid” model from 2018-2022. Almost all models of government in Pakistan have been hybrid, some more hybrid than others. During the 1990s and then again from 2008-2018, the civilian government, under its breath, would complain about its hand being forced, about having to carry out silent orders and steer clear of invisible red lines. This was a model of “ruling not governing”, the phrase coming from the title of Steven Cook’s book on praetorian rule in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia.

Even eras of dictatorships require the political coalition partners — the Convention Muslim League for Gen Ayub Khan, members of the Pakistan National Alliance or PNA (later morphing into IJI) and the 1985 assembly for Gen Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) for Gen Pervez Musharraf.

The 2018-2022 hybrid model belonged to this category of direct military rule but, standing on its head, this time with the civilian face of Imran Khan. Khan’s government and supporters used the term “hybrid rule” with great abundance and emphasised the “one page.” One intuitive motivation for doing this was to convey to the opponents in political parties, media and civil society that the government represents, or at least has access to, the full might of the coercive apparatus of the state.

That might of the state was used with great impunity against anyone who dissented. Another consequence was to further solidify the constituencies of the establishment and Imran Khan into one, to tag team, completing each other’s sentences against opponents on Twitter, with retired officers valiantly defending Khan on television and Khan’s ministers claiming to be the spokespersons for the establishment.

One intended or unintended consequence of owning and gloating about the hybrid model was that the “rule, not govern” model was at least partially neutralised. By repeating the “hybrid model” and “one-page” relentlessly, Khan had made “them” visible partners in governance or at least attempted to. If there were inflation, the establishment as a coalition partner had to do something about it or receive (at least some bits of) the reaction that comes with it.

While Khan was rightfully criticised and mocked for subservience to the establishment, part of what was happening was the Khan-army alliance was being transformed from a transactional power arrangement of the past (such as that of PML-Q and Gen Musharraf) to an ideological bond between the constituents/followers.

This is not completely unprecedented. The Nawaz Sharif and establishment partnership, peaking with the rigged election of 1990, was similar. Nawaz Sharif was the sipahi [soldier] of the establishment — he called Benazir Bhutto a “security risk” and the establishment was happy to manipulate the elections to get him in power. The Nawaz voter was right wing, religiously oriented, nationalist, urban, middle class and Punjabi, and this coincided with the army’s support base.

But then October 1999 happened, and Nawaz Sharif and his party were confronted with the possible decision of presenting a structural critique of the security establishment’s intervention and, in doing so, risk presenting a binary to his voters to pick him or the army. Nawaz hedged his bets, calling Gen Musharraf an aberration, which was a blot on the institution’s name etc.

Even post-2013, Nawaz tried to partially continue this theme while deploying “pro-democracy” language and saying there should be no certificates of “ghadaari [treason]” and that everyone was patriotic etc. Gen Musharraf’s treason trial and a publicly developing bond between Imran Khan and the establishment tested the limits of this middle-of-the-road pro-democracy politics.

Fragile coalitions: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf in Feb 1999
Fragile coalitions: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf in Feb 1999

Post-the Panama Leaks and his ouster, Nawaz was confronted with the same choice as in 1999 and, this time, he decided to push further with the “Vote ko izzat do [Respect the vote]” slogan and by naming names (even if naming them again as aberrations etc).

There was an attempt to avoid giving the drastic choice (of choosing Nawaz or the army) to a voter by packaging the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) as a broad tent, with both “mufahmat [reconciliation]” and “muzahmat [resistance]” groups within it. However, in many ways, the supporters still saw it as a choice to make. Nawaz repeatedly claimed to now be a complete “democrat” and, implicit in the new label, were the misdeeds of the past.

The PML-N, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and other political forces articulated their opposition to Khan and the establishment’s support for him in the language of civilian supremacy, constitutionalism and federalism enshrined by the 18th amendment, along with a criticism of Khan’s economic performance and governance.

By the time of the Vote of No-Confidence (VONC) against Imran Khan in April this year, ignoring the political machinations of the last moment, it seemed that the entire spectrum of Pakistani stakeholders (political forces barring Khan and the security establishment) had reached a consensus of stability and some rules of the game to be agreed upon.

Khan’s political capital had been exhausted by the time of the VONC and a political comeback seemed unlikely, according to many observers. The analysis was based on previous civil military falling outs and break-ups.

One intended or unintended consequence of owning and gloating about the hybrid model was that the “rule, not govern” model was at least partially neutralised. By repeating the “hybrid model” and “one-page” relentlessly, Khan had made “them” visible partners in governance or at least attempted to.

Except this wasn’t like the previous ones.

Civilian, Not Democrat

Khan has never been keen on being bracketed in the civilian-democrat camp, and now, with the civilian-democrat camp overflowing with contenders and pretenders, he has decided to completely opt out.

Khan is not making the feeble demand that “ghadaari certificates” should not be distributed. On the contrary, he is saying that the printing and distribution of these certificates should be increased with one caveat: only Khan will distribute them.

Khan is not relying on the lukewarm “Hum sab mohib-i-watan hain [We are all patriots].” Nope. He is saying he is the fully loaded, pro-Max, optimum, maximum patriot. He is the gold standard against which everyone will be measured and will inevitably fail.

Khan has taken the only edited copy of the “script” with him on his way out and now all of the country is his stage as he delivers the same lines every night, but with an enthusiasm and breathlessness that makes it seem it is being delivered for the first time. The flag of ALL CAPS, bleed-green, death-to-the-traitors “Pakistani nationalism” is in the iron grip of Khan; probably the first time in recent history it is in the hands of a civilian.

Khan has the confidence of an insider. Khan considers himself the legitimate heir to power. Khan is often rightly termed a “populist”, but perhaps wrongly given the credit for creating this brand in our context.

Precise definitions of populism are hard. One excellent one is by Jan-Werner Müller — populists are anti-elitist, anti-pluralist, and claim that they and they alone speak for “the (real) people”. All those who disagree are dismissed as enemies, traitors and not the real people.

Once in power, there is a systematic dismantling of all structures of democratic and institutional checks. Populists seek to undermine the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the media. It differs from other attempts at censorship, as the attack is on the idea of free media itself and the irritation at the media being “overly free”, drawing a distinction between the patriotic and the seditious media etc. The parallel with Khan is exact.

However, while Khan is presently the most skilled and loudest exponent of this, he is not the author of the script. The Pakistan state has fomented, encouraged, enabled and directly articulated this brand of populism for decades. Khan is now in largely unprecedented territory. However, his rise, first to power and then to popularity, follows a less novel path.

Khan, with all his charisma and personal following, needed not only the establishment’s support but also a section of the established political elite (similar to, for example, Donald Trump’s takeover first of the Tea Party support and then the entire Republican party). However, his capacity and willingness to take on former establishment partners is unprecedented in our context.

The primary reason for this is that he is coming from the same side of the aisle and cannot be challenged by former friends on ideological grounds (such as quibbles on federalism, democracy etc). This is the paradox of Khan’s ascendancy in its consequences for the civil-military balance.

On the one hand, no one in recent memory has called out the “boys” so directly, and hence the balance is tilted towards the civilian side. Yet, Khan’s message is anti-civilian supremacy in its essence.

One recent example is the speech on the selection of the senior leadership of the military. Khan suggested that such an appointment can be manipulated by the PML-N and PPP and should be done on merit (this is obvious red-line territory). However, in the next sentence, Khan said, they (the PML-N and PPP) would seek to do so because they know that a “tagrra [strong]” army chief would not allow them to get away with corruption.

Thus, in the same breath, Khan cast aspersions on the senior leadership of the military, attacked the prerogative of the prime minister to appoint the army chief, and demanded that a future army chief should not confine himself to a constitutional role and go on an anti-corruption crusade.

In a television interview following that speech, Khan said “only a new government” should appoint the army chief and “a way could be found” to deal with the problem of the term of the army chief having expired and a new government having not yet been elected.

While it is entertaining to see devotees engage in acrobatics of language and logic to square this with his previously charged statements (even if in innuendo) against the incumbent army chief, both statements (in the speech and interview) perhaps are consistent in Khan’s politics. The crux of both is that the welfare and destiny of the country hangs on this one appointment.

In that sense, Khan’s fight with the establishment might be deep but it is certainly narrow; it happens in the framework of the same ideology and worldview. The seemingly tribal and emotional conflict between Khan and the establishment perhaps comes from what Sigmund Freud called the “Narcissism of small differences”: the bitterest disputes take place between those who are almost identical yet separated by tiny differences.

Khan is a civilian who wants to dismantle civilian rule. Khan’s anger at the military being “neutral” (a constitutional role) rather than standing with “haqeeqi azadi [real freedom]” is another example that the civilian-military balance is not an indicator of the health of democracy in the system.

Pakistan is in a unique period in its history — where civilian space in the national conversation is increasing and, simultaneously, democratic space diminishing.

Weighing in on the civilian side of the balance, not necessarily the democratic side, is also a populist judiciary which, post-former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, is no longer content to rubber stamp the victor post the power struggle (the struggle has ended only in one side’s favour always), but wants to be an active participant in the battle.

Fighting Populism with Populism

The hybrid days: Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa were often touted as being ‘on the same page’
The hybrid days: Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa were often touted as being ‘on the same page’

How will the establishment respond to this? It is not for humble mortals to speculate on the deliberations of the mighty, but we have no choice but to speculate.

Samuel Huntington, in his famous book The Soldier and the State, articulates the idea that interventionist armies fear subjective civilian control (the dominance of a single person or party) more than objective civilian control (the institution of systemic and constitutional checks on the army’s influence).

Going by this theory, there will be a strong clampdown on Khan, hence increasing the military’s influence and demonstrating its power for the moment. At the same time, there will be a willingness to agree to rules of game with other political stakeholders, which would retain the military’s ascendant position as a major player, but abandon its role as the single key decision maker.

However, Huntington wrote this before the age of WhatsApp and the present round of populists around the world. The praetorian security state and the populist marriage and divorce is perhaps new territory. The system is not designed for someone like Khan: who stands up and claims to be more loyal to your cause than you, who is melancholic, not at his loss but at your (establishment’s) fall from your own gold standard of patriotism.

Khan is offering round two of the “hybrid model”, this time with the role between senior and junior partners reversed. The response historically to all such challenges has always been blunt force. The end of hybrid rule, which was meant to be similar to the post-coup period of democratic consolidation, now at times ominously feels like the days leading up to one.

The future of the civil-military balance and democracy hinges on how the present challenge is met. The Greek political scientist Takis Pappas has articulated four characteristics of populism, particularly of populists in power: charismatic leadership; incessant polarisation (between good and evil people, patriotic and treasonous); the takeover of state institutions, demolishing checks and balances on power; and a system of patronage, rewarding loyalists and punishing opponents.

According to Pappas, if any one or more of the characteristics ceases to exist, a populist-run country will go down one of these three directions: populism entrenches itself in the system and liberal, democratic parties shift in a populist direction; populism descends into an outright autocracy; or populism is defeated at the polls by a liberal, progressive force.

Many liberal, progressive and democratic voices caution against dealing with populism with “velvet gloves” and some are willing to compromise on principles of due process, rule of law and democracy in this fight.

The strategy is based on received wisdom on how to fight populism around the world. Pointing out the hypocrisy of those demanding rights and freedoms now while having denied them to others when they themselves were in power is absolutely necessary and should be done. Important to note also that Khan has not received even near the level of “response” from the state that others have in the past, including in the recent past, while Khan was presiding over the government, for saying and doing much less.

The dilemma of bad precedents of the past is whether one should insist on applying them on the grounds of equal (mis)treatment, or condemn all instances in the abstract. Liberals and progressives have also been on the receiving end of the hybrid regime’s orchestrated campaign to intimidate, bully and silence and, hence, they have legitimate personal grievances.

However, the fundamental premise of the strategy to encourage that the same baton that Khan once wielded with impunity and relish be used against him, is that those who don’t believe in values of democracy, constitutionalism and due process are not entitled to the protections of these values. This kills the entire point of these values. This is wrong at the level of principle.

This is also wrong at the level of strategy. The examples of Trump, Nigel Farage, Duterte, Orban etc. are not neatly applicable here because of the presence of the praetorian and populist security establishment here. The fight is between the “guardians” and the “prodigal son”, and the liberals will, at best, be providing a thin veneer of legitimacy (or more likely protecting the guardians from the minor irritant of some criticism). They are not part of this fight yet.

It is amusing to see some liberals finally feel aligned with state power to go against what they think is a common adversary (the last time was the military operations against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP — I am not making a ridiculous comparison between any political party and the TTP, just to be clear). It is an empowering feeling and, in a militarised state, perhaps a natural impulse.

However, the outcomes of the fight, as it is presently being fought, is a likely unflattering binary. Either the establishment will prevail by the use of its coercive powers and, in doing so, further strengthen the security state, further undermine democratic norms and constitutionalism. Or Khan and the establishment finally make up, reluctantly, with some bad blood between them.

However, given the ideological convergence and common language, it will be easier than other past make-ups and we will have Hybrid Round Two. There is a third possibility, albeit more remote, that the democratic system, fragile as it is, folds in the face of the new internal challenge.

We already have an analogy of dealing with populism with populism, i.e. ‘Lohay ko loha kat-ta hai [literally: iron cuts iron]’ and ‘fighting fire with fire’. The Pakistani state’s and political elite’s response to the rise of religious rhetoric, be it from the TTP or the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has been to adopt even more religious language and say, ‘We (the state) are bigger Muslims than the insurgents’, and ‘We want to behead the blasphemer more than you do.’ It defangs the challenger momentarily and provides legitimacy to a response against them.

It also legitimises their claim and makes the next confrontation more likely and difficult. A response based on values and ideals opposed to them would be different than this.

Much has been made about the electoral decline of religious parties in Pakistan. One obvious reason is that, when all politics becomes right-of-centre and religious, who would notice a vanilla Jamaat-i-Islami? If all parties are for the blasphemy law, the only option for TLP to stand out is to burn more brightly and violently to be noticed.


This all seems to be utopian, easy musing and it probably is. However, to give up on an alternative to populist, praetorian victory is equally lazy and defeatist. We have examples. When Gen Zia-ul-Haq died, Benazir Bhutto was asked how she felt about it and she said, “I would have wanted to defeat him at the polls.”

Similarly, on October 13, 1999, the day after Gen Musharraf’s takeover, liberal and progressive voices who were rightly and robustly opposed to Nawaz Sharif’s attempts at becoming ‘Amir-ul-Momineen’ [Leader of the Faithful] spoke about lesser evils and how desperate times called for desperate measures. It was only the late Asma Jahangir, I.A. Rehman and a handful of others who didn’t preface their condemnation with a long stocktaking of Nawaz Sharif, but simply stated the basic principle of democracy.

The populist challenge does require a response and a robust and rights respecting one. The response has to be political, and not one that ventriloquises that of the state. The anti-Imran Khan is not Rana Sanaullah, it is Farhatullah Babar.

Larry Diamond, a Stanford political scientist, cautions against “[trying] to out-polarise the charismatic ‘polariser-in-chief’, either in style or program”, since that plays on his turf, and he is better at it than democrats (or, in any case, aspiring/partial/seasonal democrats) can be. If all politics is simply pro- and anti-Imran Khan, then Khan is winning, and so is the narrative (common to both Khan and the security establishment, barring differences of commas and full stops).

The 18th amendment was an attempt to articulate that different brand of federalism, parliamentary supremacy and constitutional rules of the game. It was not perfect (for example, ironically, PML-N opposed the removal of the piety requirements of article 62 and 63 of the Constitution), but it was and remains a watershed moment.

It was to be built upon, through local governments, judicial and bureaucracy reform, human rights, student and labour unions and mass, grassroots, popular politics. Incidentally, Khan and the establishment, even at the height of their quarrel, remain united against the 18th amendment.

External interventions and polarisers-in-chiefs thwart the turning of the gaze inwards and towards reform. The by-elections in Punjab were an example that the system of patronage and delivery that used to work in the past is perhaps no longer working. To ascribe all of this to populist rhetoric will not endear the “democrats” to large parts of the population, who feel left out and behind in what they somewhat rightly see as an elite squabble.

The civil military balance at this moment relatively does tilt more towards the civilian than it has in recent history, but not towards the democrat.


Maybe, instead of this fruitless and hopeless speculation on the trajectory of the future and liberal mumbo jumbo, I should conclude on history’s greatest conservative, Edmund Burke. Reflecting on the French Revolution, Burke almost eerily precisely predicted the future of France in November 1789:

“It is known; that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate, or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is only to have a continuance of two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of military men, if they see with perfect submission and due admiration, the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find that they have a new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders; whose military policy, and the genius of whose command (if they should have any), must be as uncertain as their duration is transient.

“In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things.

“But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.”

Ten years later, in 1799, the military general Napoleon Bonaparte took power in a coup.

The writer is a lawyer and the views expressed are his own

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