Impassioned cries about a “foreign conspiracy” rang through Pakistan’s biggest cities, as tens of thousands of former prime minister Imran Khan’s supporters rallied on Sunday evening protesting his removal in a parliamentary vote-of-no-confidence and the impending takeover by the opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif.
Sharif, who was sworn in as prime minister on Monday, faces corruption charges as well as allegations by Khan that the opposition had colluded with the United States to oust him. This is the premise of a viral hashtag that sparked the pro-Khan rallies, and displayed his party’s social media savvy that has earned it widespread popular support.
“This hashtag shows the world that we refuse to be America’s slaves,” Arshad Mohammad, a cab driver in Lahore city and a supporter of Khan’s party PTI told VICE World News. “This new government is made up of stooges who have no qualms about selling out this nation for their own corrupt interests.”
The hashtag in Urdu contains multiple underscores and 22 characters that together translate to “an imported government is unacceptable.” Despite being tricky and typo-prone, the hashtag has surpassed 3.5 million tweets, even though there are only 3.4 million Twitter users in Pakistan, as key cabinet members pushed it on the platform. It was a hallmark move by Khan’s party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), largely credited with increasing access to political conversations through its online presence and campaigns.
The hashtag has become a rallying point among supporters of Khan’s political party both in and outside Pakistan, who have centred it around their “freedom struggle” from alleged American interference.
The former prime minister’s opposition has denied accusations of collusion and has instead blamed Khan’s government for the country’s economic woes. The U.S. State Department has also denied allegations of American involvement in Pakistan’s parliamentary affairs. A State Department official told the Pakistani press on Monday that the U.S. values its “longstanding cooperation” with the country and that it “has no position on and does not comment on Pakistan’s internal process.”
In a heated national assembly session that started on April 9 and lasted past midnight, Khan’s opposition and more than a dozen of his own party dissidents voted against him, making Khan the country’s first premier to be unseated in a vote-of-no-trust. None of Pakistan’s elected prime ministers has completed their legally mandated 5-year term in the country’s 74-year history marred by several military coups.
Ties with the U.S. were generally better under Pakistani military regimes, and some speculate that Khan’s removal may have resulted from falling out of favor with Pakistan’s powerful military. However, the military has denied its involvement in the country’s recent political events.
Khan’s supporters now portray him as a “martyr” in the struggle against U.S. power politics and its alleged sway over Pakistan’s state institutions.
Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of dismissed Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan gather in a rally in his support in Karachi on April 10, 2022. Photo: Rizwan TABASSUM / AFP
Khan has increasingly used hostile rhetoric on the U.S., and he recently accused American diplomat Donald Lu of issuing a “threat” against his government following a visit to Russia just as it began its invasion of Ukraine. The populist leader’s critical stance against the U.S. has resonated with his followers. In a televised address on April 8, Khan said he would “never accept an imported government,” which later led to the creation of his party’s most successful hashtag thus far.
“As soon as Prime Minister Imran Khan uttered the words ‘imported government,’ we started creating iterations of it in English and Urdu to see which hashtag would work best,” Jibran Ilyas, PTI’s Chicago-based Twitter lead admin, told VICE World News. Ilyas is a key figure in PTI’s social media team that comprises a massive network of professionals working as volunteers across the world.
“After two to three minutes of deliberations and taking that video clip from the speech, we sent out a message to all our WhatsApp groups requesting them to tweet the hashtag. The rest, as they say, is history,” Ilyas said.
It worked. The hashtag galvanised support for Khan and the party, triggering large country-wide protests. However, some digital rights experts have cast doubt over its success, with allegations that the hashtag’s spread has been manipulated.
Ilyas, however, says that the hashtag’s success is organic. “PTI’s social media led the hashtag but its success is totally attributed to the people of Pakistan. In this case, an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis resonated with prime minister Imran Khan’s speech and came on social media to record their protest [with the hashtag],” Ilyas said.
While Ilyas remains in the U.S., the ousted prime minister’s digital media lead Arsalan Khalid’s house in Lahore was raided by 11 unidentified men in plainclothes believed to be with Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence agencies. In the raid, which reportedly took place on April 10, the men allegedly threatened Khalid and his family and took their phones and laptops. According to Azhar Mashwani, a former member of Khalid’s team, he had been receiving threats over the last four weeks “from people who didn’t like the online feedback coming from the masses.”
The hashtag “#BajwaSurrender,” calling for the removal of Pakistan’s powerful Chief of Army Staff Qamar Bajwa, has also been trending on social media with around 242,000 tweets. The military has strongly denied involvement in the recent political events, although some citizens point to the country’s history of military coups as a reason to doubt this.
Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.