Karachi: On Monday, August 22, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) workers stormed the offices of two local television channels in Karachi, ARY and Neo, injuring media personnel and setting vehicles on fire. Hours earlier, party founder and leader Altaf Hussain, who has lived in self-imposed exile in London since 1992, labeled Pakistan a “cancer” and a terrorist nation, and called on his workers to attack the media, and government and security forces. The following day, Karachi-based MQM leader Farooq Sattar stated that the party would no longer take orders from London and that decisions would be made locally.
The MQM is Pakistan’s fourth largest political party with a voter base that is concentrated in Sindh’s major urban centres, Karachi and Hyderabad. It emerged in 1984 from a Karachi-based student movement that promoted ethnic nationalism amongst Mohajirs – Urdu-speaking Pakistanis who migrated after partition. Today, the party continues to enjoy electoral support amongst its traditional voter base while its political opponents and law enforcement agencies consider it a crime syndicate engaged in extortion, intimidation and murder.
Sources close to the party say that Hussain exerts unparalleled control over the city from his offices in London and that he also keeps the actions of the party’s elected officials in check through a network of enforcers who answer to him through indirect channels in South Africa and West Asia. Elected officials might make decisions related to their office but street power is controlled by Hussain and a select few in London. Sattar’s declaration after the vandalism by MQM workers on August 22, however, suggests that Hussain’s authority over the party is slipping and a battle for control over Karachi might be underway.
The response to the attacks on the offices of the ARY and Neo television networks was swift and aggressive. The paramilitary Pakistan Rangers immediately arrested local MQM leaders, including Sattar, Khawaja Izhar and Amir Liaquat, and numerous party workers. The Rangers also sealed the MQM’s landmark ‘Nine Zero’ headquarters and the Sindh police has since demolished a number of party offices throughout the city.
This is not the first time the MQM has clashed with the security forces. In the early 1990s, in response to escalating violence in Karachi, the Pakistan army launched an operation against the party that resulted in thousands of party workers being killed or disappeared.
Sattar has begun a campaign to distance the Karachi-based MQM leadership from Hussain by insisting that they are “no more in contact with them”. Sattar has gone to great lengths to insist that the move is genuine and that Hussain will no longer be running the MQM. Yet former party members insist that this is an impossible scenario. “Farooq Sattar neither has the ability nor the desire to oppose Altaf Hussain,” says an ex-MQM member. “The people in the party have always known that he is working against the city and they have always been a part of it.” Another puts it more plainly: “They are all working for the green.”
However, Karachi mayor Waseem Akhtar has also followed Sattar’s example and omitted Hussain from speeches while pledging allegiance to the new leadership. He was sworn into office on August 30 despite being in prison since July 19 on charges of procuring medical assistance for suspected terrorists. Akhtar gave a conciliatory speech in which he thanked the Rangers for maintaining law and order, called for unity between all political parties and vowed to serve Karachi over all else. He later asserted that he would support Sattar and the Karachi leadership of the MQM, saying, “We will work together for Karachi and Sindh.”
Sources close to Hussain feel that Sattar or any other party leader in Karachi cannot wrest control from London. “This is a ploy to appease the security agencies and buy some time … they know that they will go to jail if they do not do something.” While Hussain has apologised to the army and Rangers, he has simultaneously been giving vitriolic speeches to party workers in the UK and US. He has once again called for the downfall of Pakistan and for workers to protest outside embassies in the US, to take to the streets chanting ‘Pakistan murdabad!’ (Death to Pakistan). “I know the mindset of Altaf Hussain and he will never allow anyone else to run the party,” says a former member of the MQM. “People have died trying to do this exact thing.”
This is not the first instance of internal discord in the party. Many party workers have been assassinated in the past and their deaths linked to Hussain. Most recently, the former mayor of Karachi, Mustafa Kamal, left the country while still in office as a senator in August 2013. He returned in March this year and announced the formation of his new political party, Pak Sar Zameen. At his party headquarters in Karachi, Kamal hosts an endless stream of media personalities and gives passionate speeches against his former boss. He has also managed to draw a number of MQM personnel to his party. Kamal is also said to have the support of the Pakistani intelligence agencies who hope to use him as a bulwark against the MQM in Karachi. The threat of an emergent political force capable of stealing his voter base is not lost on Hussain and sources argue that he has not acted because of Kamal’s ties to the security establishment.
The security agencies are, of course, one of the main reasons Hussain now sits in London. Those formerly close to him insist, however, that the agencies have also routinely brought him back into the fold when required. The most famous instance was during the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf. He used Hussain’s MQM as muscle against a judicial movement that was threatening his government. It led to what are now known as the Black Saturday riots of May 12, 2007, in which 55 people were killed. The role of the security agencies in Karachi’s political future is perhaps hardest to identify but sources suggest that they are never far from employing Hussain for a new purpose.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the battle for Karachi is what Hussain’s response might do to the city. His unwillingness to give up power and his propensity to use violence has sources speculating that the future might be extremely tough for the city’s residents. “I believe that Karachi will be a great city in the next four or five years, but what happens before that, I am very afraid that it will not be good,” says one breakaway party member.
Having seen the worst days of the 1990s – when streets remained empty, and an open war was raging between the city’s largest political party and the country’s armed forces – few believe that Hussain will go quietly.
Saad Sayeed is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. He has formerly worked as a political columnist at The News and assistant editor at the Herald magazine.