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Pakistan’s all-powerful army is in quite a pickle about what to do about Imran Khan.

The dramatic arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan inside a courthouse in Islamabad has escalated political tensions in the country. The chain of events that followed Khan’s arrest are somewhat hard to imagine in Pakistan.

Khan’s arrest triggered rare pushback against the military, the country’s most powerful institution. Following Khan’s arrest, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters held demonstrations across the country. The demonstrators vandalised the residence of a senior military commander in Lahore, attacked the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi, and set ablaze military installations throughout the country.

These acts of defiance are unprecedented and unheard of in Pakistan. These are the very same people, who, in the past, used to welcome strong-armed tactics by the military to dislodge corrupt politicians. But times have changed, and the army is witnessing its lowest favourability in years. Imran Khan’s arrest is seen as an action not by the civilian government of Shehbaz Sharif but of the army and this has enraged the people against the establishment. On social media, anti-army sentiments are rapidly spreading.

Credit goes to Khan for weaving a successful narrative through numerous social media platforms against the army and how it was keeping a corrupt government in power. All efforts by the army to neutralize this onslaught against it have proved futile. Khan has been successful in blaming the failed assassination attempt on his life on Major General Faisal Naseer, the second in command of the ISI. This public naming of a senior serving officer enraged the army leadership, and it evoked a harsh reaction from the ISI. Pakistan watchers have speculated that Khan crossed the army’s “red line.”

Pakistan is a praetorian state, and the army has performed a praetorian role during most of its existence. This is evident from the fact that since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, no prime minister has ever completed an entire five-year term. Khan’s single largest political achievement has been to cast the upper echelons of the army as power-hungry generals.

Pakistan’s institutions like the army have always pushed the narrative that most of the political leaders are corrupt and are solely responsible for all of Pakistan’s problems and the army is the only organization that can bring order and stability. But the country’s history of military rule has left spillover effects on the politics, economy, and foreign policy of Pakistan with the country’s constitution having been undermined. Because of all of this, ordinary citizens have lost faith in the army and consider it just another political actor.

However, the balance of power still remains with the military, but people’s patience is running out due to rising inflation, misgovernance, and the current political impasse and people are in no mood to tolerate any kind of political arrangement which doesn’t consider the people’s will. The victories of Khan’s political party in local elections in Karachi and elsewhere have been seen as a litmus test for the national mood. This has emboldened Imran Khan who is insisting on general elections confident his party would do extremely well.

It should be noted that Khan’s largest support base comes from Punjab which is also the home of the army. It is one thing for the army to massacre Balochs, Bengalis, Sindhis, and Pashtuns but quite another to do the same in Punjab. This makes it very difficult for the army to use a massive crackdown on Khan and his supporters.

The reality is that any strict action against Imran Khan will only increase his support base and paint the army as a bad actor. This only adds to the dilemma of the establishment as they don’t want to see a civil war erupt. If there isn’t any reconciliation between the military and Imran Khan then this confrontation will only intensify and may turn into major civil unrest.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.