On Tuesday, two days after Imran Khan had been ousted as Pakistan’s prime minister in a dramatic no-confidence vote, Noor Alam Khan – a politician and former member of Khan’s party – was eating dinner at a restaurant when he was confronted by another diner.
The man began shouting “traitor”, “American agent” and “turncoat” and then lunged over to punch Khan, who had been attempting to ignore him. In the middle of the restaurant, the politician and the angry voter began to brawl, with food and tables going flying.
For Noor Khan, who was among the dozens of members of Imran Khan’s supporters who recently switched sides and voted against him in the no-confidence vote, the incident was the culmination of mounting abuse he has faced in recent weeks from the former prime minister’s supporters.
“I have been harassed and faced death threats since I announced that I would vote against Imran Khan in the no-confidence vote,” he said. “I have received phone calls saying: we will kill you and your children like Benazir Bhutto [former prime minister who was assassinated] because you are an American agent and betrayed prime minister Imran Khan.”
Similar chaos ensued on Saturday at a gathering of the Punjab assembly meant to be discussing the election of a new chief minister , as supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and opposition lawmakers began to aggressively confront each other and the deputy speaker, Sardar Dost Muhammad Mazari, was attacked by members of the treasury benches.
In a tweet after the incident, Khan’s former information minister and close ally Fawad Chaudhry tweeted that Pakistan was “inches away from fully fledged civil unrest”.
“Imran Khan has exercised utmost restraint,” he said. “Very soon even he won’t be able to stop this very angry mob and we’ll see the country plunging into a civil unrest.”
Khan, Pakistan’s premier cricketer turned pious Islamist prime minister, was elected in 2018 on a wave of populist sentiment, speaking out against the west and Pakistan’s powerful political dynasties, who had been shrouded in corruption allegations. But while his charisma and populist rhetoric never failed to pull in the crowds at rallies, he also oversaw a period of huge financial turmoil and massive inflation that devastated the economy.
Supporters of former Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, hold flags and signs as they gather during a public rally, on 13 April in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
After losing the support of the powerful military, the opposition moved in with a no-confidence vote, backed by many from Khan’s own coalition who had lost faith in the prime minister. Shehbaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition coalition and brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was elected by the national assembly to succeed him.
But the removal of Khan has in no way led to the demise of the populist politics he fostered while in office. Many fear that the deep polarisation cultivated by Khan could prove deeply destabilising for Pakistan, pushing the country into greater political turmoil that the new prime minister, who is known more for his skills as an administrator than a charismatic leader, might be unable to contain.
In recent days, the inflammatory rallying cry of Khan, who has gone back out on the campaign trail with gusto, has been “ghaddari” – traitors – with anyone opposing him, be it his political parties, the media, activists, intellectuals and the judiciary being tarnished as part of a “foreign conspiracy” to oust him.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, an analyst who has extensively written on Khan, called the former prime minister “a true populist”.
“Khan has polarised Pakistan to such an extreme level,” said Hoodbhoy. “The coming days will be chaotic as his insatiable lust for power makes him truly dangerous for this country.”
Evoking popular anti-western sentiment that he has played on for the past four years in office, Khan has continued to push the narrative that the no-confidence vote which ousted him was a “foreign conspiracy” by the west, citing diplomatic correspondence with the US to prove it.
The US vehemently denied it and no definitive proof of a conspiracy has been shown. In a rare press conference on Thursday, Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar, the spokesperson of the armed forces, dismantled Khan’s narrative and rejected the claim that a diplomatic cable contained evidence of foreign interference.
Iftikhar, referring to the diplomatic communication, said: “Is there any word such as conspiracy used in it? I think not.”
He also clarified that the US never asked for army bases in Pakistan, something Imran khan used as “evidence” of why the US wanted him to be ousted. Yet the stance of the military establishment, which wields huge power in the country, has also made its members targets of a social media campaign led by Khan’s supporters, who see the army as having played a role in the prime minister’s fall from power.
Tens of thousands of tweets have been sent in recent days criticising the army. On Wednesday, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested 12 social media activists who reportedly ran these campaigns, which Iftikhar called “illegal, immoral and against national interest”.
On the streets of cities and towns across Pakistan, the narrative that Khan was victim to a western conspiracy has been powerful and pervasive, and thousands have continued to come out in protest in support of him.
Addressing a huge crowd on Wednesday, Khan said that a decisive moment had arrived, and the nation needed to choose if it wanted “slavery or liberty” from the US. Khan accused the opposition leaders of being an “imported government” who are “slaves of the US” and said he and his supporters would be on the streets until fresh elections were announced.
Muhammad Banaras, 35, a resident in Islamabad, said Khan was the first prime minister to “think about the poor and challenge the corrupt”.
“Khan has talked about Islam, the rights of Kashmiris and against corruption. The west and the US are against him, they don’t want Pakistan to be a great nation. We should support Khan in this fight,” said Banaras.
Reema Omer, a lawyer who was victim to a lengthy online trolling campaign by Khan’s supporters, said Khan was creating a wave of public anger that could prove difficult to control.
“This narrative is based on no evidence whatsoever and has repeatedly been debunked,” said Omer. “However, Imran Khan is following Goebbels’ playbook, using ‘convenient lies’ that evoke strong emotions and spew hatred and contempt, not caring about how dangerous the effects can be for society.”
With Khan expected to contest the next general election, which is likely to be called before the end of the year, many are predicting a volatile time ahead for Pakistan. “I wasn’t dangerous when I was in government,” said Khan on Wednesday, addressing a rally. “But I will be now.”