The crisis that gripped Pakistan’s capital when protesters led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) Imran Khan stormed the city’s “red zone” escalated this week when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired an emergency joint session of parliament. Both houses of parliament have convened for an emergency session that could last through the end of the week. On Tuesday, Sharif presided over the parliamentary proceedings, listening to representatives’ speeches. He is widely expected to make a formal address toward the end of the week in an attempt to defuse the current crisis. Sharif has repeatedly reiterated his commitment to remain in office despite claims by Imran Khan and Tahri ul-Qadri–a prominent cleric also leading protesters in Islamabad–that Sharif came to power through electoral fraud.
The decision to convene an emergency session of parliament was precipitated by a surge in violence between Pakistani security forces and protesters in Islamabad over the weekend. Three people were killed and more than 500 others were wounded in the clashes. Pakistani security forces staged a heavy-handed intervention to stop the protesters from storming Sharif’s residence. The protests have increasingly grown more chaotic. On Monday, protesters managed to storm the headquarters of Pakistan’s state television broadcaster, Pakistan TV (PTV), prompting a brief broadcast blackout. This event prompted Nawaz Sharif to meet with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif (no relation), ostensibly to discuss the military’s next steps in attempting to maintain order in the capital. The meeting prompted some speculation that Sharif had been asked to resign.
While the current crisis in Pakistan was relatively localized in Islamabad initially, protests are slowly spreading across the country to other major urban hubs. With the proliferation of protests across the country, the military could step in to ask Sharif to voluntary resign in the interest of national stability. Sharif is generally wary of the military given that he was ousted in a coup in 1999. In recent weeks, including during his Independence Day speech this year, Sharif praised the military. He additionally invited the army to maintain security in Islamabad ahead of Imran Khan’s “Azadi March.” Sharif, however, remains adamant about the legitimacy of his democratic mandate, refusing to resign under the current circumstances: “I will not resign under any pressure and I will not go on leave,” Sharif said, adding that “there shall be no precedent in Pakistan that only a few people take as hostage the mandate of millions by resorting to force.”
For the moment, what is clear is that the events currently unfolding in Islamabad represent Pakistan’s worst political crisis in years. What is less clear is the trajectory that this crisis could take in the coming weeks. The three sets of actors influencing events–the Sharif government, the military, and the Khan-Qadri opposition–share entirely disparate perceptions about the current state of affairs in the country. For Sharif’s government, state collapse, resignation, or a coup are simply not an option. For Khan, Qadri, and the protesters, the state has already collapsed–it’s simply a matter of evicting the current tenants of Islamabad’s red zone. The military, so far, has kept a pokerface; it even issued a statement declaring itself an “apolitical institution” with “unequivocal support for democracy.” History tells us that hasn’t always been true in Pakistan, but this crisis could prove an exception.