There is hope that the present confrontation between the Pakistan Army and government may not end in the seemingly inevitable

A head-on collision between an elected civilian government in Pakistan and the Pakistan Army is usually expected to culminate with the Army chief of the day announcing a takeover by the military on national television with the words: “Merey aziz humwatanon…”

In the history of Pakistan's troubled civilian-military relations, the military has always wielded the upper hand, the bigger stick.

But the rapidly heating stand-off between the Pakistan People's Party government and the Pakistan Army, which threatened to boil over on Wednesday as a war of words erupted between Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and the military, may yet escape the traditional ending.

Prime Minister Gilani's remarks to the Chinese People's Daily, that the responses of the Army Chief and the ISI head to the Supreme Court on the infamous memo affair were “illegal” and “unconstitutional,” were extraordinary.

The sub-text of the Prime Minister's remarks was that the government could sack both General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Lt. Gen Shuja Pasha — both officers are serving on extension, and the ISI chief's extended term is ending in March 2012 — for their conduct. This reinforced the view that he was upping the ante against the Army, almost daring it to take on the government.

The military's response, that the Prime Minister's words had “serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences” carried an all-too-familiar and ominous ring.

Mr. Gilani's decision to immediately hit back by sacking the Defence Secretary, Naeem Khlaid Lodhi, a retired general who is seen as close to the Army chief, and his replacement with a career civil servant, also served to heighten the coup fears. Reinforcing these fears, a new commander took charge of the infamous 111 Brigade stationed in Rawalpindi, also known as the coup-making brigade because its soldiers have been used to occupy important buildings and installations during a military takeover.

Still there is hope that this stand-off may not end in the seemingly inevitable. That Prime Minister Gilani made his provocative comments to a Chinese newspaper itself was unusual. More unusual was the timing — as noted by the military in its statement, General Kayani was at that precise time on an official tour of China. It seemed almost as if the Prime Minister was trying to draw Pakistan's biggest ally into the government's battle for survival.

The Army has also learnt that in the long run, coups usually do not work to its advantage. The example of General Pervez Musharraf and his downward spiral is fresh in its institutional memory. The job of running a country, one as difficult as Pakistan, especially at the moment, means getting elbow-deep into the muck, most of which sticks on the uniform, and hurts the military's long-term interest of retaining its pre-eminent national position.

It is not clear how much backing Gen. Kayani would have within the Army itself for political adventurism. He's seen as one of the main architects of the unpopular alliance with the United States; he was the head of the ISI for a significant period of General Musharraf's decade in power. Lt. Gen Shuja Pasha's standing too has taken a beating, especially after the United States military's secret mission — the Pakistan military was kept out of it and did not detect it — that saw Osama bin Laden killed in his safe house in Abbottabad.

There is no popular appetite for military rule, even going by the commentary in Pakistan's traditionally pro-military media. The explosion of the media — traditional and new media, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter — also means that it is difficult for the Army to control the narrative to justify coups. On Wednesday, “Pakistan Prime Minister” was trending on Twitter, and was by itself a cause of much pride amongst Pakistani tweeters.

Then, there is Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary. On Wednesday, as civil-military temperatures rose in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Mr. Chaudhary was telling a delegation of the Supreme Court Bar Council that “only a democratic Pakistan can progress,” and that the bar and bench should remain united in their agenda to maintain the supremacy of the law and the Constitution.

This has raised hopes that the Supreme Court, which has in the past validated military coups by invoking the “doctrine of necessity,” will not do so. True, the Court is locked in a separate battle with the government that could end up weakening the government further. On Tuesday, it called Prime Minister Gilani a “dishonest” man who had violated his oath by not implementing the court's directive to the government to write to the Swiss government for reopening of the cases of alleged money laundering against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The Court's confrontation has added the pressure on the PPP government. Some Pakistani analysts are of the view that Prime Minister Gilani's aggressive stand with the military, practically provoking it to carry out a coup, may be a ploy to “go down as shaheed”, martyred by the military — the PPP takes pride in its troubled history with the Pakistan Army — instead of being hauled into court to answer corruption charges.

For this reason, there are enough critics and opponents of the PPP asking the Army to exercise restraint — “don't give them the martyrdom they seek”.

But the stand-off cannot continue indefinitely, and it is clear that one or more actors will have to quit the stage in order to end the uncertainty, or at least this phase of it. Pakistani analysts are not ruling out that it could be Generals Kayani and Pasha.

A more likely scenario is that the Army, though reluctant to carry out an outright coup, might not be as averse to effecting a change of government, which means the present dispensation gets replaced with another political formation, or perhaps a fresh election is called a year before it is due in 2013.

Keywords: Pak coup rumour

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