Pakistan: The Invisible Regime that Always Rules

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April 26, 2011 21:31

Pakistan is often in the news for all the wrong reasons. From the insurgencies raging in southwest and northwest regions of the country to failed economic policies that rocket inflation and food prices to suicide bombings that rock every nook and corner of the country, the world’s only Muslim nuclear state is on the brink of a total collapse. More bad news – no one is sure on how to bring a change in the country.

Everyone in Pakistan, from the highly controversial President Asif Zardari to a street-vender, admits the challenges the country is facing and suggests a ‘change’ is needed to save the 63-year-old Islamic republic. But few people know about the system that runs the country and can suggest the type of ‘change’ it needs in order to survive the threats that rock the very foundations of Pakistan, a nation where four democratic governments and a military dictatorship came in power in the last 20 years.

Many people in Pakistan, including Imran Khan, a prominent politician who hails from an upper class family, suggests the country is “completely ready for a revolution, even more than Egypt was”. But what regime is it that he wants to overthrow and supplant with his revolution?

pakistani masses disorganised

Pakistani flag waved during a rally to condemn foreign aggression in Muslim countries. Imran Khan, former cricketer and notable politician, claims the masses are ready for a revolution but are they organised and disciplined enough to do so? Photo - K.M. Chaudary/AP

The recent as well as the on-going uprisings in the Middle East can be termed as people’s revolutions that seek to depose decades-old dictators and gain rights under a Western-style democracy. If that is the case, then the people of Pakistan must be regarded as lucky enough to have elected seven prime ministers in the last two decades along with a military coup that saw an army general staying in power for almost nine years.

If the overthrow of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, Al-Assad, al-Khalifa and many other dictators can usher a new era for the Arab masses in the Middle East, then why the changes in political setup from civilian to military or one political party to another failed to bring a real change in Pakistan, a home of over 180 million souls?

A recent feature on Al-Jazeera website titled “Pakistan: A Revolution Against Whom” suggests that in Pakistan, there may be a public disconnected from the power of the State, but there is no ‘regime’ to revolt against. Is this statement really true? Should the people of Pakistan be made to believe that there is nothing much they can do apart from bringing a change in every few years through the ballot or rally behind a military dictator when the civilian democracy is cyclically winded up in almost every two decades?

The following feature identifies the regime that rules the country and manages to cling to power despite a change in the political setup or a shift from civilian to military power or vice versa.


A deep look at the history of Pakistan reveals the country has been run by a few hundred families in total that dominate the all-powerful spheres of the country. They’re part of the military, bureaucracy, politics and civil service and draw their core support from the elite. They form the system that runs the country whether it is under a martial law or a civilian democracy.

The troubled countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and others, despite varying socio-economic dissimilarities, have one thing in common – a strong man at the helm with a military backing staying in power unopposed for decades. However, military dictators in Pakistan have not managed to cross the 10-year-line and were forced to relinquish power in favour of a civilian democracy.

But were the people’s uprisings in 1969, 1988 and 2007 against the military dictatorships enough to bring about a true regime change?

military dictators pakistan

From left, Mohammad Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. None of these three military dictators legally came to power. Photo- from left, Corbis; Bettman/Corbis; Keystone/Getty Images

It would not be unfair to say that every single government in Pakistan, since the creation of the state in 1947, has mainly comprised of people who were landowners, powerful bureaucrats, military top brass and influential religious figureheads. The country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was an influential landowner and came from an aristocratic family. Ghulam Mohammed, the successor of Mohammed Ali Jinnah – founder of Pakistan, was an all-important bureaucrat and industrialist. General Ayub Khan was a Sandhurst qualified military man whereas Z.A. Bhutto hailed from a powerful feudal family. Bhutto’s nemesis, Zia-ul-Haq, was a general just like Gen. Ayub Khan. General Zia’s protégé, Nawaz Sharif who became the prime minister of Pakistan twice, enjoys a strong feudal background. Nawaz Sharif’s arch rival was Gen. Pervez Musharraf who instigated a coup d’état against his civilian government and exiled him to Saudi Arabia. Even the current President and Prime Minister of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari and Yousuf Raza Gilani, are influential feudal lords who hold massive swathes of land in Sindh and Punjab provinces of Pakistan and command massive wealth and resources.


The feudal barons continue to dominate Pakistani politics and policy making to date. Whether it were the prolonged military dictatorships of General Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq or Pervez Musharraf or the civilian governments of Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif – both essentially from feudal background – large landowners like Jatois, Mazaris, Chaudhris, Syeds, Jamalis, Bhuttos, Makhdooms, Gilanis, and many other feudal dynasties along with tribal leaders formed the backbone of every single government of Pakistan. They stayed in power to make sure they have a strong say in the government and policies that benefitted them the most. They also resorted to changing political allegiances and horse-trading in order to safeguard their vested interests.

pakistani establishment house

A session of the National Assembly of Pakistan held in Islamabad. An overwhelming majority of the members of parliament come from an elite background to represent the 180 million population, most of which lives below the $2 poverty line.

Another testimony to the power of the feudals is the fact that landowners are exempt from the tax net and pay no taxes on their agricultural produce or land. Even the massive pressure from the World Bank and IMF has failed to budge any Pakistani government to take the feudal landowners into account and tax them.

During the last year’s devastating floods, the feudals managed to save their thousands of acres of agricultural land by demolishing the flood gates and diverting water to the lands of small landowners and peasants, rendering thousands of people homeless and destitute. While the poor people languished in shambolic government shelters awaiting their return home, the feudals vacationed abroad. In many cases, they sought compensation from the government after their return.

General Ayub Khan came to power in 1958 through a military coup. The military general, while initiating massive political and economic reforms that consolidated his rule, ignored the masses’ demand for sweeping land reforms and break up of the feudal society that amassed huge tracts of fertile agricultural land and ensured peasants do not empower themselves by seeking education and healthcare facilities.

Right after the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, Zulfiqar Bhutto came to power with a promise to rebuild the nation on modern lines and redistribution of resources to turn a new leaf in the history of the country. However, his promises remained promises. During his 5-years-long reign as the prime minister of Pakistan, Bhutto pursued blatant nationalisation that saw the seizure of banks, industries, factories, educational institutions, mills and thousands of small and medium enterprises. While the economic reforms hit hard on the working and middle classes, the feudal elite managed to save their land and came out pretty much unscathed from his misadventures.


The failure of the political setup in the newly created Pakistan, essentially a theocratic state based on democratic principles, and a constant tug of war between the politicians and interference by the military top brass encouraged the religious forces to enter the political arena and exercise their budding political might.

The 1953 anti-Ahmediyya riots in Lahore, incited by the religious right-wing groups of West Pakistan, demanded the government to declare a sect that differed in its views about the finality of the prophethood of the last messenger of Islam, Prophet Muhammad. The religious elements not only paralysed life in the ancient Pakistani city but also paved the way for the military to get involved in politics.

While the demands of the right-wing parties were not accepted immediately, the government led by Governor General Ghulam Mohammed gave them its assurances to look into the matter and commuted the sentences of the leaders who led the riots that resulted into the deaths of hundreds of people.

This was the time when mullahs got their first taste of power politics in a state, which they insisted, was created to impose Shariah – the puritanical form of Islam. The emergence of fundamentalist religious parties like Majlis-e-Ahrar and Jamaat-e-Islami on the political scene in early 1950s only consolidated their position as the ‘dark horses of politics’ and friends of the ‘Establishment’.

After garnering close ties with the ruling elite of Pakistan, the hardcore religious cadres from Jamaat-e-Islami formed the Al-Badr and Al-Shams paramilitary forces whose primary responsibility was to hunt down the members of Mukti Bahini, the Bengali pro-independence rebels. Human rights organisations accuse the militias of committing genocide and crime against humanity by massacring hundreds of thousands of Bengalis and raping thousands of women and children.

The services provided by the Islamists did not go in vain and the cultivation of close ties with the military bore fruit when the mass-agitation movement against ZA Bhutto in 1977 culminated in a martial law and the arrest of the prime minister. Under the Gen. Zia-ul-Haq regime, the mullahs enjoyed wide-ranging powers by lending the valuable support the military dictator needed to consolidate his rule. After committing to enforce the Shariah, laws like the Hudood Ordinance 1979, Zina (adultery) Ordinance 1980, Anti-Islamic Activities of the Ahmadis Ordinance 1984 were promulgated while several amendments were made to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) to please the Islamists and win nod of their growing support base in the country.

From initiating and aiding of the so-called ‘Mujahideen’ in Afghanistan war to abetting of mullahs and their madrasas across the country, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq became the chief patron and benefactor of the religious right-wing. He also sowed the seeds of future conflicts by granting mullahs numerous socio-political concessions and fanning sectarianism.

mullahs 2002 election victory

Religious leaders of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Action Council), now-defunct political group representing different sects, cheer their supporters after scoring massive wins in the 2002 general elections. Critics say the elections were rigged by the security agencies. Photo - ONLINE

Gen. Zia died in a mysterious plane crash along with several top generals and the US ambassador to Pakistan on 17 August, 1988. However, the Islamisation of Pakistan and the empowerment of the religious hardliners during his 10-year-long rule laid the foundations of the fourth pillar of the establishment i.e. the mullahs.

Ever since the Zia regime, the mullahs have enjoyed a prominent position in the governments of Benazir Bhutto (daughter of ZA Bhutto), Nawaz Sharif and Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman, an important religious leader, was a chief Benazir Bhutto ally and minister of Kashmir Affairs during her second tenure as prime minister from 1993-1996.

Jamaat-e-Islami, on the other hand, was the chief ally of Nawaz Sharif’s Islami Jamhuri Ittehad (Islamic Republic Alliance) that won the 1991 general elections. Stephen P. Cohen, a prominent American writer, writes in his book “The Idea of Pakistan” that 19 retired generals attended the 1991 convention of Jamaat-e-Islami in Islamabad. He elaborates: “There are strong links between the army and various Islamist groups, especially among retired ISI officers who joined their former “clients.”

The religious right-wing also became active during the Afghanistan invasion by USA in the wake of 9/11. The Islamic alliance went on to score an unprecedented election victory in the 2002 general elections while riding high on the widespread anti-US sentiment that saw the aggression and occupation of neighbouring Afghanistan.

In return for the concessions granted by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the leaders of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Council for Action) lent its vital support to a constitutional amendment, which legalised his military coup and enabled him to stay in power both as the president of Pakistan and the reigning army chief. Despite General Musharraf backtracking from his promises, the mullahs did not pose a challenge to his rule and managed to stay in power in the provinces of Balochistan and North West Frontier Province that border Afghanistan till 2008.

The mullahs command a strong position in today’s Pakistani politics, and despite any regime change, they stay in power by lending support to both the fledgling military dictators and nascent civilian setups. The last twenty years have seen the religious right-wing accumulate massive wealth and power by vigorously fighting the Afghan war and Kashmiri separatist movement. From the establishment of massive, state-of-the-art madrasas to the strengthening of religious networks to the affluent lifestyles of religious leaders and their close supporters, the mullahs of Pakistan have never been so powerful in the 63-year-old history of the Islamic republic, thanks to their invaluable support to the invisible regime that always stays in power.


The Pakistani Army is one institution in the country, and perhaps the only, which is seen as sacrosanct and vital for the existence of the Islamic Republic. Ever since its inception in 1947, the army has played an important role in shaping, not only the history, but also the geography of the state.

And with all the pomp and ceremony, comes the responsibility on its shoulders to keep the country intact and safe from the ‘enemy’s evil designs’. From the 1948 Kashmir war to the 1999 Kargil operation, and from the 1958 martial law to 1999 military coup d’état, Pakistani military has always justified its actions on the grounds of national security and doctrine of necessity. As Stephen P. Cohen puts in his book “Idea of Pakistan”, the Army claims to be Pakistan’s ultimate protector, and each of the generals derided the incompetence or corruption of the politicians. But have the serious of coups and backdoor manoeuvrings benefitted the country as much as it did any good to the generals and their supporters?

Only a detailed look at the history provides the key to the answers.

Army’s interest in ruling Pakistan is as old as the idea of forming an Islamic state in India. Dubbed as the dream of Allama Iqbal, the great Muslim poet and philosopher, Pakistan was the brainchild of many Islamic scholars of India who envisioned a state that provided security to its Muslim subjects and ensured they live a life according to the teachings of Islam. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, declared in an address on 21 February 1948, that the military were to be the guardians of the new state and were to protect its Islamic democracy and Islamic social justice.

military parade islamabad

An army vehicle, carrying a short-range ballistic missile named Abdali, takes part in a military parade to mark Pakistan day in Islamabad. Official parades marking the national days are not complete without a display of Pakistan's military might.

The army was quick to preserve these words and ensure its implementation in letter and spirit whenever the time came. General Ayub Khan was the first ever military official who imposed a martial law by dismissing the civilian government headed by retired major-general Iskander Mirza in 1958. Gen. Ayub Khan, like all the military leaders to come, seized power in a bloodless coup with long-term ambitions. He devised a socio-political system, which he labelled “basic democracies”. It is the very institution that helped him win the 1965 presidential elections when challenged by Fatimah Jinnah, the younger sister of the founding father of Pakistan.

He further consolidated his power by merging the four federation units of West Pakistan into ‘One-Unit’ in order to confront the growing power of East Pakistan, which was more populous and resource rich compared to its twin. The formation of One-Unit and tilt of power towards West Pakistan, favoured by Gen. Ayub Khan, further alienated the East Pakistanis which was dominated by the Bengali ethnic group. This flawed and biased policy culminated in the independence of the region and led to the establishment of Bangladesh.

The separation of East Pakistan was a watershed moment in the history of the Pakistani military. Around 94,000 troops in East Pakistan surrendered to Indian army and their insurgent Bengali allies. However, the pulverised military top-brass managed to save itself from any answering and punishment. They took a back seat and appointed a ‘civilian’ Martial Law Administrator, a freak incident in the history of nations. The military took its time to recoup while supporting ZA Bhutto’s civilian government to crush the insurgency in Balochistan in mid 1970s.

pakistani military dhaka surrender 1971

Lieutenant General A.K. Niazi of the Pakistan Army, surrounded by Indian Army generals, is signing the Instrument of Surrender at a ceremony in Dhaka, capital of the newly created Bangladesh state on 16 December, 1971.

Observers, at that time, were of the view that military has returned to the barracks once and for all thanks to the East Pakistan debacle. They could have never been so wrong…

The Pakistani army returned with vengeance, after being wooed by the politicians who bitterly opposed to ZA Bhutto. They seized the power and imposed another martial law with General Zia-ul-Haq as the administrator. He not only deposed the prime minister but also got him arrested and put on a trial. Not only the once benefactor of the army was hanged to death, his socialist economic policies that wreaked havoc on industrialists and some large landowners, were rolled back.

The military regime of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq had to seek the support of the pro-Islamic remnants of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) that crippled Bhutto’s government by massive agitation movement and induced the army to depose him. The religious minded general committed to embark on an Islamisation programme to muster support from the likes of Jamaat-e-Islami and other right wing groups. The support got thicker during the Afghan war (1979-1989) when the mullahs sent thousands of volunteers known as ‘mujahideen’ to fight the Soviet army in neighbouring Afghanistan.

This was also the time when CIA worked closer with the Pakistani army and the proximity between the on-off rivals blossomed.

The Islamist General’s rule came to an end when he was killed in a mysterious plane crash along with several military men and the US ambassador to Pakistan in August 1988. However, the Pakistani army interference in government matters continued unabated, albeit taking a more covert approach. Four civilian administrations, led twice by popular politicians like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, were shown the exit door when dismissed by the presidents who acquired new powers thanks to the amendments made by the military generals.

A mini war waged by the Pakistani military in Kargil sector of disputed Jammu and Kashmir brought the Islamic republic on the brink of full-scale war with India in summer 1999. A hastily arranged withdrawal by then civilian prime minister Nawaz Sharif angered the military top brass which then staged a coup d’état in October 1999.

General Pervez Musharraf, a secular-minded military man with shrewd political skills, took the centre stage by suspending the constitution but not imposing a martial law.

general musharraf

Former Pakistani military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf overlooking the federal capital of Islamabad with President's House in the background.

The military general stayed in power for the nine years, thanks to the intermittent support provided by the army, bureaucracy, feudals and the mullahs. His government setup was a mix of the elite from the different classes that accumulated power while staying loyal to the military dictator. The economic policies were drafted that favoured the elite and helped them get richer. The masses, on the other hand, failed to see a massive change in their lifestyle and often complained of inflation and corruption, the evils that Gen. Musharraf promised to weed out in his early days of the coup.

The two-in-one leader’s rule, being the president as well as the army chief of staff, became chaotic year after year the more he tried to cling to power. The military operation in tribal areas and Swat, the Red Mosque debacle, Balochistan insurgency, war in Afghanistan, messing up with the judiciary and keeping at bay popular politicians like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were the few crises General Musharraf faced while trying to keep both his hats on. The forced resignation from the post of the Army Chief weakened his position and led to his eventual resignation in August 2008 not long after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. Despite Musharraf’s overwhelming unpopularity, his cronies got elected in the 2008 general elections and now form part of the opposition.

Despite being on-off in power, the Pakistani military enjoys wide-ranging powers including a strong say in the matters pertaining to defence and national security. Whether it is the government of Pakistan Peoples Party or the Pakistan Muslim League, no one dare messes with the most powerful institution of the Pakistani establishment and alter its role as the nation’s vanguard cum regulator. From weapons manufacturing to financial institutions to real estate, the Army Welfare Trust safeguards the commercial interests of the military establishment and wards off any challenge posed by the civilian industrialists and capitalists.


Bureaucracy in Pakistan is tasked with the maintenance of the political system in order to ensure the continuity of state policies, political stability, rule of law, promotion of economic development and enrichment of social and cultural cohesion, while staying apolitical. However, today’s Pakistani bureaucracy is highly partisan. It is deeply mired in corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and is prone to political interference. As a result, it fails to provide good governance to the masses of the country despite claiming the lion’s share of the budget.

The bureaucracy, despite its wide-ranging powers enshrined in the 1973 Constitution, engages itself in the game of power brokering and seeking favours from the government – both civilian and military – to safeguards its interests. Critics of the bureaucratic system in Pakistan brand it as an arrogant, corrupt, inefficient, over-bearing and self-perpetuating institution that lacks merit due to the poor educational standard and quality of the individuals that join the civil services.

pakistani government bureaucracy

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (centre-left) along with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani (centre-right), provincial chief ministers and governors as well as top bureaucrats attend the National Finance Commission Awards where country's financial resources are distributed among the federating units. Photo -

The military dictators, though heavily relying on the bureaucracy, always capitalised on a chance to rein in the extremely influential institution and use it to their advantage. Despite the Gen. Ayub Khan’s famous purge of 303 important civil servants to Bhutto’s dismissal of around 1,300 top bureaucrats, the civil services of Pakistan adapted to the situation and accommodated the advances of the ruling elite to remain part of the ruling invisible regime.

The incompetence and lack of transparency in top policy-making institutions, including the bureaucracy, makes it easy for other segments of the ruling elite to further their vested interests and stay in power regardless of the change in regimes. State institutions like railways, postal services and police are in an extremely poor shape but the government has failed to take an action by removing the bureaucrats responsible for the worsening performance. Instead, they’re awarded promotions and incentives by the government politicians.


Mahboob-ul-Haq, the chief economist of Pakistan, said in a now famous speech in Karachi in 1968 that twenty families controlled 66 percent of the country’s economy, 70 percent of insurance, and 80 percent of banking assets. In 1996, Mushahid Hussein Syed, a renowned journalist and pro-establishment writer, expanded the list to around 500 people that belong to the socially intertwined elite and enjoyed wide-ranging powers within the ruling elite regardless of the civilian or military orientation of the government.

One can argue that a political change is not on cards in Pakistan, especially one that emulates the Middle Eastern model, as there is a lack of ideas and sense of direction despite the abundance of rhetoric. But it is really hard not to see that an invisible regime – the nexus of military-feudals-bureaucracy-mullahs – rules the country, is part of every government and dictates its own policies.

Despite the creation of the Islamic Republic in the name of the Muslim masses of the Indian subcontinent, it is really ironic that not even a single time in the history of Pakistan a ruler from the common people and sympathetic to their cause has ever come into power during the nation’s 63 years of existence. Elections after elections have brought in a generation of the same people that pledges allegiance to the clique rather than the crowd.

pakistani masses flag

Despite the press freedoms, liberalisation of media and opening of new outlets, polarisation and lack of awareness are the two major problems that affect the masses of Pakistan and diminish the hopes of change in the country.

A change in status quo is in everyone’s favour but the invisible ruling elite. A Pakistan where state takes the responsibility of providing education and healthcare will weaken the grip of the mullahs. A nation where army’s job is only to look after the borders and save the people from any external or internal aggression will dramatically curtail the powers of the almighty top brass. A country that excels in providing its masses good governance and set them on a path of prosperity and socio-economic development is radically different from the views of today’s bureaucracy. A republic where hardworking peasants work hand in glove with small but efficient landowners is set to harvest affluence from the land but the feudals cling hard to their vast tracts of idle land.

Everyone across the political spectrum, from the mullahs to the liberals, is talking about a change these days. What really needs to be seen is if whether the change seekers really want to break the shackles that chains the fate of the masses with the vested interests of the ruling regime which is invisible, extremely powerful and very coordinated at the same time.

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