On Sunday, Pakistani police charged Imran Khan, the country's former prime minister, with terrorism offenses for threatening police officers and a judge. Khan was removed from office in a close no-confidence vote in April, and he has not been silent since. He has held rallies broaching many subjects that are taboo in Pakistan, including criticism of the country's military and judicial system.
The charges stem from comments Khan made after one of his staff, Shahbaz Gill, a former member of Khan's cabinet, was arrested on Aug. 9 on charges of sedition. Khan and other members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party allege that Gill was tortured by the Islamabad police after his arrest, though Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah has denied this.
Gill's alleged mistreatment outraged Khan's supporters, and in a speech on Saturday, Khan pledged to "take action" against the police chief and a judge. The former prime minister, when referring to a judge and the police chief, said, "You should also get ready, as we will take action against you." He did not specify what form that action would take.
To some, this was a statement of legal intent, the bread and butter of politics. But to the authorities, such comments border on treason. Now, Khan has been charged under anti-terrorism laws, and the situation has grown more febrile.
Ali Amin Khan Gandapur, a former minister in Khan's government, said on Twitter that if Khan is arrested, "[W]e will take over Islamabad." Meanwhile, hundreds of Khan's supporters have gathered outside the politician's home, vowing to defend him from the authorities.
Amid all this activity, it is possible to miss something else: Khan's campaign following his ouster. What many dismiss as sour grapes may actually mark the beginning of something new: the creation of a popular mass democratic movement in Pakistan, the first one in the 75 years since the Partition of India and founding of the state.
None of this was meant to happen. Pakistan's politics is engineered to produce other outcomes. The military is powerful not only within the state but also in the wider economy. No one can rise to power without military support or keep power without the armed forces' say so. In his own rise, Khan had made these accommodations—and no doubt the military, when planning for his removal, assumed that he, a former sportsman, would continue to play the game.
The ongoing inflation and economic crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and made worse by Russia's invasion of Ukraine seem to have doomed Khan. The Pakistani economy is dependent on international aid: loans from countries, such as China, and bailouts from unpopular global institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, that are unpopular with ordinary Pakistanis.
Khan was able to manage these lines of credit with some skill, parlaying more cash from Beijing with regularity and navigating the increasingly troubled relationship with China, including the relative economic difficulties experienced by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project, and the unpopularity of Chinese workers with Pakistani locals in the Gwadar harbor.
Now, Khan's allies say his party was overthrown by the military because the party was insufficiently deferential to China, including implementing audits of the much-vaunted CPEC project, angering Chinese officials and Pakistan's military-aligned business elite.
As inflation proved anything but transitory and Pakistan, like many of its neighbors, faced energy and food crises in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the military began to worry.
It occupies a role in Pakistan akin to that of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps: that of a powerful economic actor and a political constituency that goes beyond merely serving as the country's armed forces—the military owns cement plants, cereal factories, and is involved in every major infrastructure project, for instance—and its leaders' prosperity is tied to the state of the Pakistani economy.
As global supply shocks proved increasingly destabilizing, the military assumed that Khan was to blame, and it decided that he must be replaced.
The military also assumed that Khan, once out of power, would follow the unspoken rules of politics and know when he was beaten. Khan is a rich man who had an infamous international lifestyle before he entered politics. Some experts in the military believed that Khan would leave Pakistan if defeated and go out into the world to enjoy himself.
But that is not what has happened. Instead, Khan, a celebrity politician with an extensive social media following, has begun a campaign against the unspoken foundations of the Pakistani state: unswerving loyalty to the military and acquiescence to compromised politics.
Khan blamed the military for what he considered a concerted campaign against his party, including the intimidation of its officials and supporters. In a series of barnstorming speeches across the country, Khan called for new elections. These speeches clearly worried those in power because Pakistan's media regulator banned them from being broadcast on Aug. 21.
In a by-election in Punjab's provincial assembly in July, the PTI won power in the region in a result that surprised all commentators, as it implied that Khan could survive as an electoral figure without being in office or having overt support from the military. Punjab is Pakistan's most populous province. Khan's party now controls the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan regions.
On Sunday, it won a landslide victory in NA-245, a seat in Karachi—a stronghold of the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement: two major allied political parties. Khan's supporters said this shows the PTI is the only party that is competitive in all provinces.
In his speeches, Khan calls for unfettered democracy and true parliamentary government—revolutionary enough in a country as stratified and military-dominated as Pakistan. He suggests that a country that tortures his political staff cannot be a democracy and demands new, free elections without vote-rigging—while his allies claim that his opponents received large bribes to oust him.
But the means by which he is delivering his message is possibly as dramatic, posing a challenge to the centralized status quo. Making heavy use of social media and livestreaming, Khan is intent on getting his message out, even if banned from mainstream broadcasters and underreported in print media.
If he succeeds in defying these bans and is not arrested for terrorism offenses, his movement could presage a sea change in Pakistani politics. The government is made up of parties of all stripes. If Khan is capable of outperforming them all, the old means of politics may never recover.
Not only is Khan criticizing the military and the corruption at the heart of Pakistan's Army-led economy, but he is also doing so in a 21st-century fashion, using tools the generals may well not understand. Pakistan is a young country, with more than 64 percent of its population under age 30. Khan appeals to them with the media of this generation. His appeal to female voters and the young is a political novelty and an asset.
Khan claims that his removal from power was akin to a coup, carried out with the help of military-led corruption of Pakistan's economy, courts, and political process. If the world grants Khan this analogy, another comparison becomes possible.
In Turkey in 2016, a faction within the military sought to take power through traditional means. They took control of government buildings while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was out of the capital. They seized the radio stations and most of the broadcast television stations. They put tanks on the streets.
All of this was overturned, however, when Erdogan used FaceTime to call into CNN Turkey and, live, instructed the people to take to the streets. It was enough to save his government and defeat the coup.
The Pakistani military does not have tanks blocking the streets, but its police have set up a cordon around Khan's home, against which hundreds of his supporters have mobilized. It does not need to seize radio stations and newspapers because it already knows how to play the game.
But for Khan, new means of politics are possible—and he is using them to spread his message to millions of supporters who still believe in him as a champion of anti-corruption and true democracy.
His critics claim that his removal was done legitimately through the parliamentary process of a no-confidence vote and that Khan is turning on a system that benefited him in the past. In a last throw of the dice before he was dismissed, Khan attempted to dissolve Pakistan's National Assembly before this was overturned by the courts.
But as Khan's rhetoric in opposition grows loftier—taking aim at the corruption of elections, parliamentary politics, the economy, and state institutions as well as the nature of military rule—the generals clearly see something new and worrisome on the horizon.
Khan has broken the taboos of Pakistani politics. In doing so, he may have kicked off the beginnings of a digital democratic revolution. Seventy-five years after Pakistan was formed by partition, it has never experienced true democracy. Khan believes that in opposition, his best chance is promising something like it.
Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.