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In Pakistan, when is civil disobedience justified?

Pakistan should not settle for just any kind of government that can provide stability

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Disclaimer: The author is the Strategic Policy Advisor to Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

Pakistan is once again in domestic turmoil. Only one year after what everyone hoped would be peaceful and successful elections, Imran Khan, the leader of the opposition to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is calling for the dissolution of Parliament and new elections. And what is more, he is calling his supporters to engage in grand-scale civil disobedience to help force the premier to resign.

I know Mr. Khan personally, and have worked for him on policy. I know he agrees that Pakistan needs strong state institutions and the rule of law, more than anything else. These are necessary for any modern nation, and you cannot have democracy and economic prosperity without them. I know that Mr. Khan has not taken the decision to call for civil disobedience lightly.

What is at issue first of all is that election from last year. The Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called victory in when barely 15 percent of the votes were counted, in the hope of swaying wards still counting toward him. It is in this way that Sharif has managed to claim a huge parliamentary majority. But what is the point of elections if the electoral process can be corrupted in this way and does not have the confidence of the people? It is small wonder that the government has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the opposition but also of the people, who are now willing to challenge it directly by not cooperating.

Challenging state institutions

Khan’s opponents point out that it does no good to democracy and to the health of the state that a charismatic political leader such as Imran Khan can challenge state institutions and the courts and rally a significant proportion of the population to his cause. Surely such a challenge can only serve to further weaken the fragile democracy, its constitution and the rule of law. And you can see that there is a certain amount of force to that argument.

But nonetheless, I believe Mr. Khan’s course of action is unfortunate yes, but appropriate and needed. Khan is not challenging or undermining the constitution or indeed the state. He is challenging the power clique of Sharif who have long since entrenched their power base at the heart of the Pakistani political system and have hijacked it to set themselves above the law. It is truly a shame that it has gotten to the point where civil disobedience is necessary but the actions of the corrupt Sharif monarchy in the making have forced the people toward this.

Pakistan should not settle for just any kind of government that can provide stability

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

After all, the election fraud at the last election and the way in which the courts have failed to redress it are only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The crowds of ordinary Pakistanis are not marching on Islamabad and risking violent confrontations with the police or even the army because Imran Khan has made allegations. They are marching because they are coming face to face with startling corruption and administrative ineptitude every day when they have to deal with the institutions of state. Corruption and ineptitude festered by the self-serving Sharif clique.

This is hardly a government in the traditional sense of what that institution should be in a democratic country. It does not govern for the good of the people. Every once in a while it engages in gimmicky, populist policies to appease public opinion, or bribe certain sectors of the population, such as the policy to give every student a laptop (even though they often end up on Ebay as soon as they are received), but this clique governs for itself and itself alone.

So yes, we all agree that what is needed is a stable Pakistan, in which the rule of law and the constitution are upheld, so that democracy can flourish and society can prosper – including, I know, Imran Khan. And it is very unfortunate that it has come to calls for civil disobedience. But Pakistan should not settle for just any kind of government that can provide stability. By that measure, it may as well return to military dictatorship. No, what is needed is the kind of stability that fosters a healthy democracy under the rule of law. Pakistan is not heading in that direction under Sharif and Pakistanis all need to rally in defense of the future of their democracy before it is too late.

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Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.