National Sections of the L5I:

Pakistan: Army strengthens its position

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

The last weekend in November was a nightmare for the people of Pakistan. Since 8 November, Islamists led by the party "Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah", Tehreek-e-Labaik, TLP, had blocked the Faizabad motorway junction in the capital, Islamabad. For weeks, hundreds to several thousand followers of these ultra reactionaries took part in the action.

The protest was prompted by an amendment to the oath that Members of Parliament are required to take at the beginning of a legislative period. In the Election Act for the parliamentary elections in 2018 there was just a “declaration” referring to Muhammad as the last prophet. Although the government quickly withdrew the wording as a "clerical error" and the parliament reintroduced the traditional formula on 16 November, the protest did not end, but continued with the demand for the resignation of Justice Minister Zahid Hamid.

According to the spokesmen of the Islamists, the original formulation was a conscious concession to the religious minority of the Ahmadiyya. This religious community was declared non-Muslim in 1974 and is systematically discriminated against in the country. Unlike Christians or Hindus, they are not recognised as a religious minority because they continue to call themselves Muslims. An open confession of their faith and preaching for it is considered blasphemy, which is itself regarded as such a serious crime that it can result in a death penalty. In Pakistan, blasphemy allegations regularly lead to lynchings carried out by reactionary mobs led by parties such as the TLP or Jamaat-e-Islami. Often the allegations are also a pretext for eliminating workers' and students' activists.

Aggravation and reactionary output

The situation worsened on the weekend of 25 and 26 November. On 16 November the Supreme Court had already ordered the removal of the road blockade and tents. The government hesitated to implement it and wanted to end the sit-in by negotiations through high Islamic clergymen. Thousands of policemen and border guards finally began the eviction on 25 November. But the security forces had to stop the action halfway, allegedly because the wind had turned and they were now blocked by their own tear gas.

The demagogic leader of the TLP, Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, took advantage of the situation and called for action to bring the country to a halt. Within a few hours, riots broke out in Karachi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Faisalabad. Six were left dead and hundreds more were injured. The state, in turn, proclaimed a curfew on social media (Facebook, Youtube) and TV channels in an attempt to undermine the Islamist mobilisation, but wiithout much success as quickly became apparent.

The government was forced to turn to the army leadership to restore (their) order. The army itself declared that it stood for "constitutional order", while asking the government to seek a “peaceful solution". The purpose was to tell the Prime Minister that he was no longer in control of the situation. The cabinet, stricken by corruption scandals and the revelations of the Panama papers, bowed to pressure. The army leadership solved the conflict "peacefully" and brokered an agreement between the Islamists and the government.

This provided for the immediate resignation of Justice Minister Zahid Hamid. In return, the TLP “generously” agreed not to impose any fatwa (a religious verdict) on him and not to attack his family. All Islamists arrested in the protests were released under amnesty, but a new commission is to investigate the police force and the government's actions of 25 November. In addition, the government made further concessions to Islamists, such as involving representatives of the TLP in religious, educational and legal issues.

The agreement was signed not only by representatives of the government and protesters, but also by representatives of the General Staff, who were finally thanked for their efforts in "averting a catastrophe for the homeland".

Winners and losers

This makes it all too clear who the winners and losers of the confrontation were. The government suffered a severe political defeat. It is obviously losing its grip on power more and more rapidly. The military and the secret service, which was also involved in the negotiations, once again presented themselves as "saviours of the nation", apparently standing above all political and social forces. So the army emerged as a clear winner alongside the Islamists.

For years now, we have been experiencing a steady shift of power away from civilian institutions towards the armed forces. These already largely determine the country's foreign and security policy. But the army is not only a guarantor of “order" but also of capitalism. Many former and active soldiers are themselves part of the ruling class.

The government's weakness reflects not only its corruption and nepotism, but also its inability to solve the country's enormous political, social, environmental and economic problems. Pakistan with its 200 million inhabitants is a concentrated expression of all aspects of the current, historical crisis period: economic instability and decline; confrontation between the USA and China as well as numerous regional powers; Pakistan's own ambition to rise to become a regional power; war and civil war; ecological crisis; super-exploitation of the working class and peasantry; oppression of women, national and religious minorities; the rise of ultra reactionary and even clerical-fascist forces.

On the one hand, these contradictions prepare the ground for a military dictatorship. A "parliamentary" constitutional solution of the crisis seems to be becoming more and more unlikely. The institutions of legislative, judicial and executive power are more or less in open confrontation with each other. On the other hand, it is precisely these contradictions that have so far deterred the army from taking power openly, given that it would also have to assume political responsibility for resolving them and lead the country towards an uncertain future.

Furthermore, in recent years Pakistan has increasingly developed into an ally of China, which is building a significant part of the planned new Silk Road, including infrastructure projects such as roads, railways and deep-sea ports, through the country. At the same time, there are also long-standing connections to the USA as well as financial dependencies on the international financial markets. Pakistan has connections with Saudi Arabia, but also with Iran. India is considered to be the arch-enemy, but cross border trade is supposed be "normalised". The government and the military are therefore forced to manoeuvre between all these factors.

This contradictory situation also means that strategic contradictions do not simply run between institutions, for example, the army versus the elected government, but through them. Moreover, they are further exacerbated by national and regional differences. All these factors illustrate why the military leadership has so far preferred to exert or expand its political influence while maintaining a civilian government, nonetheless, the internal and contradictory dynamics in the country are increasingly pushing for a military dictatorship.

The rise of Islamists

The events of November have also revealed another danger, that of an Islamic, half-fascist or even fascist solution to the crisis. The military is trying to make use of these forces at the moment, but this does not mean that the forces that caused the government defeat could not become a reactionary, petty-bourgeois mass movement.

The country's social crisis has not only provided fertile ground for the rise of radical Islamists. The bourgeois parties of Pakistan and the military also have a long and disreputable tradition of making political concessions in the event of political crises for the benefit of Islamists in order to broaden the social base of their respective regimes. This development received a special boost under the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq, 1977 - 1988, who, together with the USA, built up Islamic forces for the war in Afghanistan, but also used them to oppress the left, trade unions and democratic opposition domestically.

Although the Islamic parties are still politically, religiously and nationally at odds with each other, their growth and potential for greater unification represent a real immediate danger. Internationally, many people equate Islamist groups with the Taliban or Saudi Wahhabism. Such forces do undoubtedly exist in Pakistan. However, it may be of crucial importance for future developments that the forces which emerged on 25 and 26 November adhere to the Barelvi tradition to which the majority of Pakistani Muslims adhere. For example, the TLP is a very young party and its leader, Rivzi, has nothing to do with Wahhabism ideologically, but rather originates from a Qur'an school close to Sufism. This traditional line of Islam is widespread in Pakistan.

As in other countries with a strong religious tradition, reactionary petty-bourgeois forces in Pakistan can fall back on such widespread religious ideologies and then try to (mis)use them to establish right-wing populist or even fascist programmes. So it is no wonder that such forces can arise out of Sufi traditions, too. In addition, they can gain greater access to petty-bourgeois masses than the foreign tradition of Wahhabism.

Although the TLP was only able to mobilise a few thousand of its own activists in November, it was able to make its reactionary protest so public that all other Islamic movements showed solidarity against the government and initiated violent actions in various cities. This is not entirely new either, and it reveals the reactionary potential of these forces, which together can mobilise tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Even though not all of these groups are fascist in character, they all represent reactionary ideologies to varying degrees. They all advocate discrimination, sometimes extending to physical attacks, against not only religious minorities, but also women, the workers' movement, leftists, liberal and non-sectarian forces.

There were many who supported the TLP directly. Far larger strata, however, were opposed to their methods, but were in favour of their demands. It is therefore wrong to suggest that such parties are merely acting on government instructions and lack any social basis of their own. This assessment, as presented by the International Marxist Tendency, IMT, is a dangerous trivialisation, and one which some of its leaders have used as an excuse to reject a united front or play down its necessity so far. A position we hope they will quickly change under the pressure of unfolding events.

The victory in Islamabad has undoubtedly greatly increased the self-confidence of the extreme reaction. In the last few weeks, physical attacks and intimidations of political opponents have increased. All this means that an ultra-reactionary, clerical-fascist movement is threatening to form in Pakistan. This represents an immediate danger for the workers' movement and for all oppressed people. A dramatic further legal development is an increasingly immediate threat. At the same time, the growth and unification of a proto-fascist movement could also promote the establishment of a military dictatorship that establishes “order” and undermines all remaining democratic rights.

The situation therefore requires swift action and unity on the part of the working class, the left and the oppressed. Our comrades of the Revolutionary Socialist Movement, RSM, have launched an appeal (http://www.fifthinternational.org/content/pakistan-united-front-against-...) for the creation of a united front to trade unions, progressive student organisations and the Pakistani left. It is based on the following five points:

1. We, the signatories of this statement, call on the trade unions and left parties, on all progressive student, women and peasant organisations to form a United Front against Clerical Fascism and against any attempt by the military to gain more power or establish a new military dictatorship.

2. As signatories, we commit ourselves and our organisations to the building of a nationwide United Front.

3. This will require the formation of committees of action on the national, regional and local level.

4. The task of these committees is to launch a campaign, raising our voices against clerical fascism and military rule from a working class perspective.

5. It also includes the agreement of mutual self defence against threats and attacks, and the goal of organising the working masses so that they can defend their districts and communities, their factories and schools from sectarian and fascist attacks. It also means organising and training our class to be able to take mass strike action in the event of any attempt at a fascist or military coup.

Issued by Revolutionary Socialist Movement, November 28, 2017