Islamabad, Pakistan’s military-built capital, had the look of a city under siege on Friday. Shipping containers and trucks blocked roads in an attempt to dissuade citizens stirred to action by the support of one man: Imran Khan.
Earlier in the afternoon, the leader of one of Pakistan’s main political parties emerged from the country’s highest court, sporting his trademark shades and smiling after two days of arrest. The court termed his arrest “invalid and illegal” in the long-running corruption case, urging that the 70-year-old cricket star has become a popular firebrand and condemning the violence that has erupted since his detention.
While Khan was incarcerated, some of his supporters clashed with police and torched their vehicles, killing at least five people across Pakistan. There were also attacks on army buildings – unprecedented in a nation where generals sit above politics, but run the show behind the scenes.
During the unrest, an unsettled Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called in the army to take control of two provinces: Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as Islamabad. Together, these areas account for nearly two-thirds of the country’s 230 million population. Some social media networks were also partially blocked to prevent online fury from spreading among Khan’s followers.
To his defenders, Khan, who survived an apparent assassination attempt in November, is a patriot and an unwavering voice of the people. To his critics, he is a dangerous demagogue who is more an agent of chaos than an agent of change.
Elections are scheduled for this year, with Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI) likely to defeat Sharif’s embattled government, which itself ousted Khan last year. Feverish scenes in Islamabad and elsewhere confirmed his status as Pakistan’s most powerful politician. “In the coming days, he is going to face a real test of leadership,” says Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former permanent representative to the UN. “First, he has to stop his supporters, and condemn the violence that has taken place, and second, if they decide that he still has to answer to these charges, he has to answer to them.”
Although he claims kinship with a common man, Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi was born in 1952 to a wealthy family in Lahore. He attended an elite school in Pakistan, and read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. But Khan first rose to fame as a cricketer, captaining the national team from 1982 and a hero to many Pakistanis for leading them to victory over England in the 1992 World Cup. Three years later, he married Jemima Goldsmith, the first of three marriages. As soon as Khan began his political career, he felt nostalgic for his sporting triumphs, publicly disdainful of the businessmen and political dynasties that ran Pakistan.
Khan founded PTI in 1996. He won a single seat in the 2002 elections, which he carried himself. A decade later, he led protesters in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border to protest American drone strikes. This endeared him to both ordinary Pakistanis and the generals, who appreciated the nationalist gesture.
During his rise to power, Khan experienced a religious awakening and embraced Sufism. He shed his Playboy image for good in 2018, when he married his third wife, Bushra Bibi, whom he describes as a spiritual leader.. That same year, his promises to fight endemic corruption and poverty brought him to national office in a military-backed government.
But in 2020, Khan’s political opponents formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement, a coalition that accused him of pandering to the military and demanded he step down. His own relationship with the military began to sour in 2021, when the candidate he sought to promote as the next army chief failed to secure the post the following year. Khan also disrupted relations with the IMF by announcing politically motivated fuel subsidies.
Pakistan’s economy was in full-blown crisis by 2022, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove up the price of imported food and fuel on which it depends. When Khan lost a parliamentary vote of confidence shortly after the start of the war, he called on the military and the US. Accused that they are sitting on them. Both denied the charge.
In recent months, as inflation has risen and Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves have dwindled, Khan’s own stock has risen anew. He has led protests across the country and demanded the postponement of the upcoming elections. During Ramadan, the politician was seen sitting on a mat outside his Lahore home, sharing iftar with his supporters and lamenting the cost of food. The country’s economic crisis is now acute, and Moody’s Investors Service warned this week that it could default if it fails to restart its stalled $6.5bn IMF programme.
The corruption case for which Khan was arrested centers around the Al-Qadir Trust, a welfare organization he and his wife founded in 2018. Pakistani officials have said they are investigating whether the trust served as a front for alleged bribes from real estate. Developer – a claim that Khan denies. A conviction could prevent him from running.
For a leader who built his following on charisma and street smarts, the legal challenge will present Khan with new tests of his leadership. Pakistanis – facing the threat of more violent unrest – are holding their breath.