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The Rise And Fall Of A Pakistani Demagogue

Supporters of Pakistan's Muttahida Qaumi Movement party hold photographs of party leader Altaf Hussain as they stage a sit-in calling for his release in Karachi on June 3, 2014.
Supporters of Pakistan's Muttahida Qaumi Movement party hold photographs of party leader Altaf Hussain as they stage a sit-in calling for his release in Karachi on June 3, 2014.
Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city and the country’s economic hub, is on a knife-edge after London police arrested Altaf Hussain this week.

The 60-year-old leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has ruled this megalopolis of 20 million from exile since leaving Karachi for London in 1992.

Hussain has never held elected office, but the firebrand politician heads one of Pakistan's most disciplined political parties and invokes strong passions among his primary support base, the Mohajirs -- Muslim immigrants who left India and settled in Pakistan in 1947, and their descendants. Most Mohajirs speak the Urdu language.

The MQM leader is being investigated for money laundering, the 2010 murder of a former colleague Imran Farouq, and inciting hatred through his speeches.

The arrest is the gravest crisis to confront Hussain in a political career spanning over four decades. Hussain, once an impoverished student, rose to lead one of Pakistan's largest political parties. MQM's powerful parliamentary bloc has decided the fate of many Pakistani governments since the early 1990s.

Hussain's arrest has also pushed the MQM into a leadership crisis that is without precedent since its formation in the mid-1980s. Pakistani observers believe the party is likely to witness rifts and divisions that have been festering within its ranks for years.

Hussain was known for his fiery oratory as a university student. He became the first leader of the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO) at the University of Karachi in 1978 after waging a hunger strike to protest ill-treatment that lasted for months.

The APMSO was wildly popular in Karachi and other cities in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh, where most Mohajirs live. Hussain was born in Pakistan in 1953, but he cashed in on his community’s grievances in the new country. He formed a political party in 1984 called the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, the popularity of which was evidenced in the organization’s huge rallies and massive grassroots mobilization.

The party soon became a permanent fixture in Karachi’s complicated power struggles. The city is sometimes dubbed "Mini Pakistan" because of its teeming industries and business opportunities that attract people from across the country. But its ethnic diversity, rapidly growing population, and shrinking resource base have invited competition and ethnic strife.

The MQM has been involved in these ethnic struggles, and is believed to have a robust armed wing that targets its opponents and raises funds by coercing businesses.

The party has consistently swept elections in Karachi and the nearby city of Hayderabad since 1988. Military operations against the party and persecution of MQM leaders have failed to dent its support base.

In 1997 it changed its name from the Mohajir Qaumi Movement to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in a bid to attract support across ethnic lines; however, the MQM’s supporters remain predominantly Mohajir.

Critics accuse Hussain for being an opportunist who favors deals and treachery over principles. They point to MQM’s history of being a wily coalition partner in most of Pakistan’s elected governments since the early 1990s. The party suffered crackdowns after it abandoned the coalition governments of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her archrival, current Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Hussain left Pakistan during an intense clampdown against the MQM in 1992. Supporters claim he survived an assassination attempt. He subsequently ran the party from London, and thousands of supporters often listened to his telephonic rants for hours.

In 2002 Hussain was granted asylum in Britain after he reportedly offered the government "unlimited resources" for intelligence-gathering about hard-line Islamist organizations. In an alleged letter to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he proposed disbanding Pakistan's main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) because "it will continue to produce many Osama bin Ladens and Talibans in future."

But in Pakistan Hussain's party was a staunch ally of the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, who assumed power in a bloodless coup in 1999. Hussain defended the alliance because of his philosophy of "Realism and Practicalism." He told a journalist in 2006, "We are against army intervention in politics, but we are with Pervez Musharraf." Musharraf, whose family moved to Pakistan from Delhi, is a Mohajir.

British legal experts now see Hussain's fate sealed in the numerous criminal cases he faces.

In a recent comment, former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel concluded that although Hussain's arrest may increase instability in Pakistan by plunging Karachi into turmoil, "it is also a chance for justice to be served to a very dangerous man."