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In Pakistan, supporters of ex-prime minister show rare pushback against powerful army

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A middle-class housewife, an office worker, a medic - they are among the unlikely people rioting against Pakistan's most powerful institution, the army. It has been facing pushback since paramilitary troops arrested the former prime minister, as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from the capital, Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: I met Farzana outside a police compound where the former prime minister, Imran Khan, was attending a court hearing, accused of corruption. She's 47, a housewife, clutches a handbag. She's not the usual Pakistani political activist. At least she wasn't. She wasn't really even political until Khan was ousted from power in April last year. That came after the army signaled it no longer supported his government.

Fast-forward to Tuesday, when paramilitary forces detained Khan. In response, she rushed to Pakistan's main army headquarters, joining a crowd that stormed the gates. They smashed what they could reach and shouted, allahu akbar - God is great - signaling victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting in non-English language).

HADID: Analysts say such civilian rebellion hasn't happened before in Pakistan, where the army's been long revered and feared. I asked Farzana why she did it.

FARZANA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says, "they arrested a man who was only trying to improve Pakistan. We know they're in charge. Knowing the army is in charge is one thing. Defying them is another."

Analysts say other Pakistanis have been beaten, harassed, detained and even disappeared for simply openly criticizing the army. Now, some Pakistanis say they've had enough. Twenty-seven-year-old Mouiz is outside the police compound. He works in an American company - declines to give his family name.

MOUIZ: I believe the people of the country have reached a tipping point. There is no accountability for the military officials, no matter what they do.

HADID: Khan's aides have called on supporters to stay peaceful. But analysts say the anti-army mood is organic and not under anyone's control. In fact, a medic who stormed the military headquarters tells me protesters lingered outside for a while, unsure of what to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MEDIC: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says, "a middle-aged woman began shaking the gate, trying to force it open. It gave them courage to burst in."

Still, he's worried about being identified and requests anonymity. Since then, there's been stop-start targeting of security installations. They included protesters who tried to set a police station ablaze in Islamabad on Wednesday night. Amid the chaos, the military accused what they called evil elements of inciting attacks against security installations and accused protesters of wanting to push Pakistan into, quote, "a civil war." Already, hundreds of protesters have been arrested. Six have died.

AYESHA SIDIQQA: I think a crackdown is already happening.

HADID: Ayesha Sidiqqa is a leading authority on Pakistan's military. On a thin line from London, she says the army will ultimately have the upper hand because it holds sway over security, politics and swaths of the judiciary. But even as this wave of protests against the army is likely to be crushed, analysts say it appears that the reverence and fear of the army itself has been broken. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.