South Asia

Who is Fazl-ur-Rehman, and Can He Topple Pakistan’s Hybrid Regime?

The cleric’s ‘Azadi March’ is now in Islamabad. But to succeed he must get the Pakistan Army, which is backing Imran Khan, to blink first.

Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, leader of the religio-political Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI),  has arrived in the Pakistani capital at the head of a massive protest rally, dubbed the Azadi March

The declared intent of the maulana – as he is called by his friends, followers and foes – is to send the army-installed, army-backed government of the Prime Minister Imran Khan, packing. He is joined by an array of opposition parties including the Pashtun nationalist Awami Nation Party (ANP) and Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP), the centrist Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and the religious but doctrinally different Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Pakistan (JUP). The PMLN and the PPP are reluctant partners, among this lot.

Who is Fazl-ur-Rehman, what does he want, and why does he want it now? 

The maulana has been a fixture in Pakistani parliamentary politics since 1988. But he cut his political teeth as an opposition leader when, in the fall of 1980, he assumed the leadership of the JUI – a post-partition Pakistani reincarnation of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind – after the demise of his father, Maulana Mufti Mahmood. 

Prior to that the maulana had seen his father lead a fairly popular opposition campaign against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, after the latter’s minions allegedly rigged the 1977 elections. The late Mufti Sahib, a graduate of Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband, was the first elected chief minister of Pakistan’s present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in a coalition with the leftist-socialist National Awami Party (NAP).

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After that coalition’s Balochistan government was unconstitutionally dismissed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1973, Mufti Mahmood resigned in protest and solidarity with the NAP. And when Bhutto’s underlings allegedly stole the 1977 general elections, Mufti Mahmood cobbled together an opposition coalition called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), which took to the streets in several cities. The mayhem paralyzed the Bhutto government, which imposed martial law in three cities and provided an opportunity for General Zia-ul-Haq to impose a country-wide martial law. The maulana thus came of age while his father organized a protest movement and spent time in prison or under house arrest. 

Immediately after assuming charge of the JUI, Fazl-ur-Rehman – aged 27 or 28 at the time – joined hands, in February 1981, with Bhutto’s PPP, and the Pashtun nationalist National Democratic Party, the leftist-Marxist Pakistan National Party, and assorted other parties to launch the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against the brutal military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, which lasted till the death of the dictator in an air crash in 1988. The Maulana’s years in the MRD were marked by tactful agitational politics in which he spurned the military’s moves to co-opt him. 

Those days also overlapped with the Pakistani-US-Saudi jihad venture against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Unlike the Jamat-e-Islami Pakistan, which contributed men, material and mindset for that unholy war, the JUI under the maulana remained out of that fray.

In fact, the maulana was perceived to be close to the Arab secularists like Muammar Gaddafi in that era, rather than the pan-Islamist jihadists.

Supporters of religious and political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) listen to the speech of their leaders, during what they call Azadi March (Freedom March) to protest the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore, Pakistan on October 30, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

The JUI’s faction led by the maulana did not join the army-sponsored elections alliance in the November 1988 elections, when democracy was eventually restored. But his election to the National Assembly that year whetted his appetite for power politics.

While steering clear of the army-orchestrated alliances, the JUI developed a knack for staying relevant in KP and Balochistan politics and at the centre, where their votes could make or break governments. 

The JUI did not participate in the 1980s Afghan jihad or partake in the largesse that came with it, but eventually it did provide ready recruitment grounds for the Taliban in the late 1990s and onwards, though its vast madrasah network.

It was duly rewarded by General Pervez Musharraf in 2002, when he enabled them to form the government in the KP and become the senior partner in Balochistan. Musharraf did not want the post-9/11 world to see a Muslim cleric at the helm in the federal government and opted to choose a different coalition for the Centre. However, the maulana got the coveted slot of the opposition leader. 

When Musharraf was finally ousted by street protests spearheaded by lawyers after he dismissed over 50 judges of the superior judiciary including the Chief Justice of Pakistan, the maulana’s support to that movement was tepid. He was widely seen as a pragmatist who, while sticking to the constitution, was willing to do business with the usual power brokers, including the army and the mainstream political parties. He held various parliamentary committee chairmanships like foreign affairs and Kashmir, for years. He was willing to play ball.

What has changed now

The paradigm shifted when the Pakistan army decided to put its weight behind Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 2011 and 2013, and then opted to install him as prime minister through a manipulated election in July 2018. The maulana and his JUI lost, or were made to lose, their traditional bastions to the PTI upstarts. He was livid, and instantly cried foul. He pointed the finger of blame at the country’s powerful security establishment – a euphemism for the army and its Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). 

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The maulana was not the only or biggest loser in 2018. The PMLN lost both its home province, Punjab, and the federal government, by a razor-thin majority, to the PTI. The stage was set for a hybrid regime, where the army controlled everything from fiscal to foreign policy but had Imran Khan as its civilian fig leaf. While the PMLN was the biggest loser in how this played out, the maulana was the loudest critic. He instantly called upon the other aggrieved parties to boycott the rigged parliament and join him in agitation. While the JUI – with 16 seats in the National Assembly and only a few senators – had not much to lose, the PMLN and the PPP had a sizeable parliamentary presence and were unwilling to annoy the army. PMLN supremo Nawaz Sharif tended to agree with the maulana but his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, and a coterie of advisors felt that it was a matter of time before the army’s Imran Khan project went belly up and it would be forced to engage with them again. 

The maulana, however, saw things differently and, in my view, presciently. The army or more specifically its current chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, are in it for the long haul. They want Imran Khan to rule for at least 10 years. This is not a diluted democracy but a full-blown hybrid regime where the army is the actual ruler and Imran a figurehead.

In their infinite wisdom, General Bajwa and his tribe have decided that  pliable one-party rule a la China is what Pakistan needs. They are hell-bent upon eliminating all political opposition, muzzling the free press, and hounding the  independent voices among civil society. It is an illiberal democracy to the core.

Supporters of religious and political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) listen to the speech of their leaders, during what they call Azadi March (Freedom March) to protest the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore, Pakistan on October 30, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

The wily maulana read the picture correctly. He realised that while he was not a direct threat to the army’s domestic or cross-border projects, they wanted a totally pliable political dispensation with no base of its own, such as Imran’s PTI. Add to this the personal insults and trashy abuse thrown at him by Imran Khan and his supporters, and the maulana was convinced that he has to get even with the PTI leader and his army backers; ergo, the Azadi March. 

The maulana tried to convince the PPP, PMLN, ANP, PMAP and others that the army and its political façade i.e. Imran Khan, are extremely vulnerable, especially when the Pakistani economy is tanking and there is palpable unease among the population about the sky-rocketing prices and plummeting job and business opportunities.

But the PMLN and the PPP, who think that they still have a stake in the system despite the dice being loaded against them, spurned the maulana’s desire to launch a movement. It was only after an ailing and incarcerated Nawaz Sharif put his foot down that his party agreed to support the Azadi March, albeit half-heartedly. The PPP, on the other hand, felt that it has little chance to form a federal government even after a fair election, and confronting the army might mean losing its provincial stronghold of Sindh. The Pashtun nationalist parties, the ANP and PMAP, have been in the same boat as the maulana, and agreed with his instinct but doubted his intentions. 

Eventually, the assorted opposition parties were forced to join the maulana, albeit reluctantly, by a constellation of factors, including Imran Khan’s arrogance, the PTI’s incompetent governance, and the growing public disillusionment with the government. After much ado, the opposition parties finally agreed to join the maulana’s march, for which his JUI had been preparing for several months and he decided to descend upon Islamabad. 

What happens next?

The maulana’s historical experiences and the speech he made on his first day in Islamabad indicate that he is in for a longer haul than most of us expected. He hasn’t mobilised these massive crowds from all over Pakistan to only extract a few seats in parliament or a committee chairmanship.

He is fighting a battle for his political survival and wishes to return triumphantly, with a political scalp. He has demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan and new elections, from which the army must stay away. He has called for the “institutions” – a thinly-veiled reference to the military – to stay out of the political fray and let the opposition and Imran Khan duke it out.

The director general, Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) took the bait and asked the maulana to not drag the army into politics, only to be snubbed by the slick politician that by commenting on the evolving political situation the general was doing exactly that himself. The maulana is gradually escalating the rhetoric and seems keen on forcing the army to show its colours first, and then its hand.

But can the maulana, with some reluctant and some ardent partners by his side, really topple Imran Khan, though a prolonged peaceful protest? Chances are that he cannot. Knowing Imran Khan, one can safely say that he will not resign unless he is forced to. Khan is also boldened by the fact that General Bajwa – whom he has given a three-year extension as the army chief – stands firmly at his back. The maulana, thus, would have to do two things: prolong his protest and broaden his demands. The notification for the army chief’s extension has not been made public yet and therefore makes him vulnerable, as his original term ends this month. If the maulana can openly challenge the extension, he’d grab Bajwa by his Achilles’ heel. 

There is little doubt that Bajwa and Imran Khan will sink or swim together. Getting one will get them both. But they are unlikely to cave in without a showdown. The maulana’s options include keeping his march focused on Islamabad and its surrounding area, including the twin city Rawalpindi, where the army is headquartered. An Islamabad-centric protest has been the trend in Pakistani politics since the 1990s, including when Imran Khan – helped by army spooks –  camped out in the capital, for months, against Nawaz Sharif in 2014.

On the other hand, the old PNA and MRD templates were to organise protests in multiple urban centers simultaneously or sequentially to build up to a crescendo. The calculus, as always in agitational politics, remains that by paralysing the government and challenging its writ, the opposition can force it into doing something rash and potentially violent. And any violence on the part of the government and security agencies against peaceful protestors is almost never sustainable and is a surefire way of earning the latter public sympathy. 

The maulana, however, would be dependent upon the PMLN and to a lesser extent the PPP, for a level of legitimacy during and after a potentially successful agitation. The army is in a tight spot. Its pet project is in jeopardy and Pakistan’s domestic and international woes make it impossible to impose martial law. If the opposition shows staying power, the junta can be made to blink.

The maulana has given a two-day ultimatum to Imran Khan, and by proxy to his army backers. What agitational rabbit he can pull out of his turban on day three remains to be seen. As is the extent to which the Pakistan army and its chief are willing to go to save their pet project. 

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.

Note: In an earlier version of this article, it was incorrectly stated that the JUI has no seats in the National Assembly. In fact, it has 16.