In Pakistani politics, nothing gets done by halves. A few months ago, one of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan’s former cabinet ministers, Shahbaz Gill, warned lower-ranking military officers against following “illegal orders” from their superiors. The remarks were taken as an attempt to divide the country’s all-powerful army and Gill was promptly arrested.


This, as well as Gill’s subsequent claims about his treatment in prison, infuriated Khan, who last week warned various policemen and judges they would face consequences for their involvement in the case. An Islamabad magistrate complained that Khan’s statements counted as threats and the police registered a case against him under draconian anti-terror laws.


Khan’s conspiracy-minded followers fully believe that a junior US diplomat masterminded their leader’s sacking as prime minister. They have no doubt Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa are behind this attempt to take down a dangerous political rival.

In fact, the real problem — and the reason you hear the phrase “political crisis in Pakistan” far too often — is likely more mundane. In general, Pakistan’s repeated cycles of confrontation and overreaction benefit nobody but populists such as Khan,who thrive on grievance and the theater of street protest. His followers are so devoted that they imagine his ever action brings glory to Pakistan. Sometimes this reaches the level of farce: Social media is full of Khan’s party men reposting headlines from around the world about his possible arrest, arguing that this proves he is a leader of truly global stature.


In this particular case, too, both the government and the army have more to lose from a standoff than Khan.Pakistan is still close to economic meltdown, elections are not too far away and recent bye-election victories in the country’s largest province suggest that Khan’s party has recovered a great deal of its electoral appeal. Arresting Khan on such flimsy grounds will make him into a martyr, encourage even more disruptive demonstrations and raise his popularity to stratospheric levels. It may well tank the economy further, too.


In Pakistan, though, as in other countries run by a shadowy “establishment” of political and military elites, top leaders don’t necessarily drive such events. After a change in power, middle-level functionaries hasten to demonstrate their absolute devotion to the permanent establishment by going after whichever political faction has been recently cast out.