Imran Khan has been dialing up the invective since even before his ouster as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in a parliamentary no-confidence vote on Apr. 9. In the weeks prior to that, and seeing the end was near, Khan took to mass, highly-produced rallies for his centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to rail against his political opponents, whom he accused of hatching a U.S.-backed coup to unseat him. These demonstrations have only grown larger and more vitriolic in recent weeks as the cricketing icon turned his ire on the military establishment that aided his political rise before deserting him.
Things came to a head Sunday when police charged Khan under anti-terror legislation over a speech he gave in Islamabad on Saturday, in which he vowed to sue police officers and a female judge over the arrest and alleged torture of a close aide.
So far, Khan remains free and his supporters have threatened to stage mass demonstrations should he be taken into custody. “If Khan is actually arrested, all bets would be off and the country could see heightened risks of political violence in major cities,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Khan enjoys backing from a rabid support base that would not sit quietly.”
The controversy centers around Shahbaz Gill, a former Cabinet minister and special assistant to Khan, who earlier this month urged soldiers to disobey “illegal orders” from their military leaders in a televised address. Gill was charged with sedition—a crime which carries the death penalty—and claims he was tortured under interrogation. (One senior PTI figure provided photos of bruises Gill allegedly suffered during detention, though TIME was unable to independently verify the contents.)
Khan came to the defense of his friend by criticizing the inspector-general of Pakistan’s police force and the judge deemed responsible for Gill’s arrest. “You also get ready for it, we will also take action against you,” Khan reportedly said. “All of you must be ashamed.”
Pakistan’s judiciary subsequently deemed those comments—and threats to sue the police and the judge—an explicit threat and filed charges against him. However, the Islamabad High Court granted Khan “protective bail” until Thursday, which blocks his potential arrest for now.
In any case, Khan’s speeches have been banned from live satellite television broadcasts inside Pakistan after the national regulator accused him of leveling “baseless allegations” against the state and “spreading hate speech.” The order has been met with pushback from across the political divide. “Banishing completely a political leader from the media is not the best policy,” tweeted former Pakistani Senator Farhatullah Babar of the opposition center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). “It risks making someone bigger than life unwittingly and undeservingly.”
It’s also not clear how effective such a ban would be. Khan has over 17 million followers on Twitter, which is higher than the ratings of many top nightly news shows in Pakistan. On Sunday, access to YouTube was reportedly disrupted across the country in an apparent attempt to restrict a live speech he was giving in the northern city of Rawalpindi.
Certainly, Khan’s predicament is only the latest salvo as nuclear-armed Pakistan lurches from crisis to crisis, with potentially grave implications for regional and global security. On top of a hyper-polarized political environment, the nation of 230 million people is blighted by runaway inflation that reached 24.9% in July and a government that has been unable to improve the economy and heavy-handed with opponents. On Aug. 29, the IMF is due to meet to negotiate yet another bailout. But the specter of political unrest risks wobbling an already precarious economic tightrope. “No matter how you slice it, it’s a very uneasy and volatile moment for Pakistan,” says Kugelman.
Is Pakistan’s military getting ready to act?
Despite an often tetchy relationship, Pakistan is an invaluable security partner for the U.S. regarding neighboring Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been back in power for a year.
Instability gripping Pakistan—including rumors of splits between pro- and anti-Khan factions in the military—undermines this invaluable security apparatus. On Aug. 10, the Pakistani Taliban claimed it had regained control of a part of Swat district in the country’s far north. It’s a precarious time for Pakistan’s military to be divided and distracted.
For Samina Yasmeen, director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, the new government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif of the center-right PML-N party—brother of Khan’s longtime nemesis Nawaz Sharif—has made the mistake of allowing Khan to “whip up hysteria” but now faces “even more instability” by clumsily cracking down. “It’s not simply the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear state,” she says. “It’s that this state has a lot of people in it. If there are clashes, then you really don’t know where it’s going to go.”
Tellingly, Khan has toned down his anti-U.S. broadsides in recent weeks, presumably leaving the door open to mend relations with Washington should he engineer a miraculous return to power. Instead, he’s dialed up attacks against the military, which he sardonically dubbed “neutrals” in response to statements from brass hats insisting they don’t meddle in politics. Even the figures in the ruling PML-N have now adopted the quip, hammering home the fact that the generals who have ruled Pakistan for half its 75-year history remain kingmakers today.
The charges against Khan have in particular galvanized his supporters’ enmity against Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who they believe was a big driver of the 69-year-old Khan’s ouster. “Bajwa’s transformation in the eyes of Khan’s supporters from revered to reviled … is one of the most striking takeaways from this ongoing saga,” says Kugelman.
The reality is, of course, that Khan’s path to power was possible because the military backed him and then he lost power when they withdrew their support. Overall, the reputation of the generals has taken a hit across the political spectrum. When six senior army officers including a top general died in a helicopter crash in early August, the overwhelming reaction on social media was far from sympathetic, with many mockingly expressing condolences for the aircraft rather than the lives lost.
Pakistani society has rarely been so polarized, with half the country treating Khan as a savior and half as the devil incarnate. “Effectively, what he’s done is divided the country,” says Yasmeen. “It’s very much like Trump [in the U.S.]. And if the United States hasn’t fully recovered yet, how can a country like Pakistan recover?”
The question is whether the generals will sit back if widespread protests erupt amid a brewing economic catastrophe. Pakistan’s military has willingly seized power when they thought things were spiraling out of control, most recently in 1999. But the generals worked out that they preferred to pull the strings from the shadows. The question is whether this view has changed. “I can’t see the military taking over,” says Yasmeen, “But then part of me thinks, it’s gone so bad, could there be some [in the army] who think it would be the right thing?”