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Imran Khan's arrest is a dark day for democracy

The former Pakistani prime minister's refusal to act as a pawn for the US might have been a factor in his downfall 
Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan protest against his arrest in Hyderabad, on 9 May 2023 (Reuters)

This summer marks the tenth anniversary of the terrible moment when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was brutally removed from office in a US-backed coup d’etat.

Morsi, the only democratically elected leader since Egyptian independence, was hustled off to prison, where he died six years later.

Today, it looks all too likely that history will repeat itself - this time in Pakistan.

Like Morsi, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had the impertinence to defy the US. Like Morsi, he came to power through democratic means - an idea that the West claims to support in theory but never does in practice when it comes to Muslim countries.

As with Morsi, there is no stench of corruption around Khan. Like Morsi, he is a man famous for his deep personal integrity. Morsi was an Islamist; Khan often references early Islamic governance in Medina in his speeches and his political hero is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

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Hatred of corruption brought both Khan and Morsi into conflict with the entrenched vested interests that have governed their respective countries so badly and for so long. Their honesty shamed the governing classes, which is one powerful reason both made enemies.

Khan was arrested on Tuesday morning by paramilitary forces at the Islamabad high court. He faces corruption charges - patently absurd to anyone familiar with Khan’s character and record. 

Election looming

Yet anyone familiar with the troubled history of Pakistan will know it’s an open question as to whether Khan will ever be a free man again.

His country’s first prime minister, the hugely respected man of the people Liaquat Ali Khan, was shot to death by a hired assassin. The brilliant Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who led the country for much of the 1970s, was judicially executed after being removed in a coup d’etat that was almost certainly US-backed. 

Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, was later assassinated, and the circumstances surrounding her death remain deeply mysterious. Like her father, she offered the prospect of an alternative to authoritarian rule.

If the US really believes in democracy, as it claims to, it should make known its dismay at Khan's arrest

And it goes on. I fear for Imran Khan, a man I have had the privilege to know since before he led Pakistan to its famous World Cup cricket triumph in 1992. And I don’t just fear for Khan - I fear for Pakistan itself. Arresting Khan is, to put the matter simply, a stupid thing to do.

Consider the facts. Khan, who was elected prime minister in general elections almost five years ago, is by far the most popular and respected political leader in today’s Pakistan.

The next election is due this October. Were Khan to run - which he is fully entitled to do - he would win the largest democratic mandate ever secured by any politician in the 75-year history of Pakistan. 

This would be a disaster for the incumbent prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, a protege of the Sharif business dynasty that has governed Pakistan for much of the last three decades. It would be a disaster for the corrupt business interests that were being hunted down under the Khan premiership. 

And it would be a calamity for the US, which, as history shows, has a structural hostility towards any Pakistani political leader with a democratic mandate. The US prefers to rule either through client dictators or compromised democratic politicians.

Man of principle

Khan’s card was marked during the US-led “war on terror” after he bravely campaigned against American drone strikes on Pakistan’s tribal areas. This point-blank refusal to act as a pawn for the US won him significant local popularity, but none in the Bush or Obama White Houses.

Unlike many political leaders, Khan, a man of principle, fell out with the US after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban nearly two years ago. They were at odds over Afghan state assets frozen by Washington, and more so about US flights over Pakistan. 

Khan and his allies have alleged that the US worked hard to undermine his mandate and place his political opponents in power. I cannot say whether this is true. Yet such claims are not absurd, since the US has treated Pakistan as a vassal state ever since independence in 1947. 

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US aid to Pakistan always skyrockets during periods of military dictatorship, while it is telling that only five US presidents have ever visited Pakistan and only during periods of military rule: Dwight Eisenhower; Lyndon Johnson; Richard Nixon; Bill Clinton; and George W Bush.

I do not expect the US to back another military dictator. But the US favourite, Sharif, will have little or no legitimacy if he fights an election this autumn with his most popular opponent disqualified or languishing in jail. 

If the US really believes in democracy, as it claims to, it should make known its dismay at Khan’s arrest and express its hope that the former prime minister is allowed to run for office, untrammelled by what look to be trumped-up charges.

So far, there is radio silence from the White House. Britain has been similarly tight-lipped. This silence speaks volumes. If an opposition politician was arrested in Russia, Iran or China, the US and Britain would be loud in their condemnation.

Once again, there is an echo of Morsi. After his removal as president, the US and Britain wasted no time in allying themselves with his murderous successor, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Today is therefore a dark moment for freedom and democracy, not just in Pakistan but around the globe. Let Khan go!

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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