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Former Pakistan leader sees legal action that may impact future political involvement

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Pakistan, former Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared in court today. He faces legal cases that could result in his disqualification from politics. Khan still has a lot of popular support, but some warn that his tactics of demanding early elections and taking on the military may lead to conflict. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Dozens of men squeezed into the main gate of an Islamabad courthouse, flanking their leader. They toss aside a metal detector impeding their entry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: They chant, who will save Pakistan? Imran Khan. Imran Khan. Khan was at the courthouse to extend his protective bail after he was charged with terrorism offences over the weekend. This is only one of four legal cases Khan faces right now. Any of them could disqualify him from politics. Standing on the stairs of the courthouse, Khan tells his followers, that's the point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IMRAN KHAN: (Through interpreter) They're afraid of our power. We are winning by elections. We're holding historic public gatherings. They wanted to deliver a tactical knockout against me.

HADID: A senior aide, Azam Swati, tells us who he thinks is trying to bring Khan down.

AZAM SWATI: There is a deep state. You understand the meaning of the deep state.

HADID: In Pakistan, the deep state largely refers to the all-powerful military, an institution that many once saw as closely allied to Khan.

OMAR WARAICH: No one could have predicted that Imran Khan, who came to power riding on the shoulders of Pakistan's army, would have fallen out disastrously.

HADID: Omar Waraich is a political analyst and reporter who formerly covered Pakistan. He says last year, Khan fell out with the chief of army staff over the fate of a powerful intelligence chief who was widely seen as the architect of Khan's rise to power. By April, Khan was ousted as prime minister in a no confidence vote in Parliament. He's whipped up support since then at rallies by telling followers, falsely, that he was the victim of a U.S.-orchestrated coup carried out by his corrupt rivals. He rails against the army's top brass for not backing him. His supporters amplify his claims on social media will rise again.

WARAICH: What Imran Khan is seeking to do is really raising the stakes. He seems to perceive a schism within the ruling military establishment and seems to be seeking the support of some of the military against the army chief, which is very, very rare in Pakistani history.

HADID: Beyond that support, Khan is also a force at the ballot box, where his party and allies have been winning by elections across Pakistan since his ouster. Madiha Afzal is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. She says Pakistan has seen showdowns between civilian leaders and the military before, but nothing like this.

MADIHA AFZAL: I think we're in an unprecedented moment in terms of the kind of confrontation, the kind of potential turmoil it could generate. That is what we're watching for in the next few weeks.

HADID: But that turmoil surrounding Khan is drawing attention away from pressing issues facing Pakistan right now, including extreme flooding this summer and an economy that needs a bailout. And even as Khan's followers assure he'll save Pakistan, his critics fear he may destroy it. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.