Islamabad, Pakistan – Moments after Pakistan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif concluded his victory speech amid a ruckus in parliament, Omar Ayub Khan got up to address the house from the opposition benches.

Posters of Imran Khan, the chairman of Omar’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and a former Pakistani prime minister, were pasted on his desk and on those of his colleagues.

Wearing a red-and-green scarf, the colours of his PTI, 54-year-old Omar invoked a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There is something rotten in the system of Pakistan today.”

According to Imran Khan, what is rotten is the role of Pakistan’s military establishment – which the former cricket captain-turned-politician accused of interfering in the country’s politics to remove him from power in 2022, a charge the army denies.

Omar, otherwise a keen adventure sports enthusiast with a passion for aviation and skydiving, has been far more circumspect, training his guns on the political parties that have combined to form the government: Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and other smaller parties.

“Their faces betray the fact they are unhappy. They know a theft took place,” he said in parliament, looking at the government benches. “They know the system cannot function like this. They have stolen our mandate.”

Yet the speech cemented his status as the parliamentary face of a party that appears to be relishing its stature as a force that has challenged the role of the military in Pakistan’s politics.

It is a legacy that Omar knows better than most.

It was his grandfather General Ayub Khan who delivered the first devastating blow to Pakistan’s fledgling democracy when he became its first martial law administrator in 1958 and ruled the country for the next 11 years. Ayub’s tenure put in place a template that others would follow: Military rulers have directly governed Pakistan for more than 30 of its 77 years as an independent nation.

Now, Ayub’s grandson is pitching a new path for Pakistan, riding on the popularity of the PTI, which defied the odds in the February 8 elections to emerge as the party whose candidates won the most seats, despite not even being able to use their party symbol.

But the PTI was not Omar Ayub Khan’s first political calling. Or even his second.

Party-hopper to PTI loyalist

Until 2018, Omar Ayub Khan was known as a party-hopper in Pakistan. He contested the 2008, 2013 and 2018 elections representing three different parties, making him one of the most talked-about turncoats in the country.

That perception began to shift nearly two years ago when Imran Khan was voted out of power in parliament through a no-confidence motion, which the PTI accused the military of engineering.

To protest his removal and demand a snap election, Imran Khan, with tens of thousands of his supporters, planned a long march from Peshawar City to the capital Islamabad in May 2022, and gave the responsibility of organising the protest to Omar.

But the march was met with a brutal crackdown by the government. Omar was among those who were thrashed viciously.

“As I was trying to navigate past the obstacles to allow Khan’s container to pass through, police unleashed their fury on me, beating me non-stop with sticks,” Omar told Al Jazeera on Sunday as he sat for an interview in the living room of his residence in Islamabad’s leafy F-6 neighbourhood, hours after his speech in the parliament.

A red carpet covered the floor of the vast room, with mirrors lining the walls.

Omar cleared his throat – it was itchy, he said, and apologised – as he recalled the attack two years ago, which left him hospitalised for three days.

“I had vertigo, which I never got [previously] despite being an aviator. I had bruises all over my body. My ear drum almost ruptured. The doctors said if the beating on my back was merely inches above, I would have had irreversible spinal injury,” he said.

Meanwhile, images of his bruised body went viral – sealing his position as a prominent leader of the PTI.

For a man whose family has been a part of Pakistan’s elite since even before independence, it was a turning point.

His great-grandfather was a cavalry officer in the British army during the colonial rule over the subcontinent. Omar’s grandfather Ayub Khan ruled over Pakistan for more than a decade (1958-1969) with an iron hand, giving the country its second constitution in 1962, while also conducting elections in the same decade, which were rife with accusations of manipulation.

Omar’s father, Gohar Ayub, also briefly served in the military before joining politics and rising to be the speaker of the National Assembly as well as a foreign minister under three-time Prime Minister and PMLN supremo Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s.

Omar’s mother, Zeb Gohar Ayub, was the daughter of Habibullah Khattak, a top military general in the 1960s who was seen as one of the contenders to become the army chief. Similarly, his maternal uncle, Ali Kuli Khan, was also touted as a potential candidate for the army chief in the late 1990s.

Yet, when the security forces decided to unleash their fury on Omar, none of that mattered.

Musharraf’s man

Omar was born on January 26, 1970, in Karachi, the country’s largest city – and its first capital before his grandfather moved it to Islamabad in the early 1960s – in the southern province of Sindh. His family, though, belongs to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s town of Haripur in the Hazara region, roughly 125km (77 miles) from the current capital.

He says his earliest memories are of numerous visits to Peshawar jail in the mid-1970s where his father, Gohar Ayub Khan, was imprisoned by then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Gohar fought the 1977 elections from jail and won, marking his entry into parliament. A little more than a decade later, he turned to Omar to help.

“I went to the United States in 1989 to study but the next year, my father asked me if I could take a semester off to help him run the election campaign,” Omar told Al Jazeera.

Omar watched his father become a key PMLN leader in the 1990s while he finished his master’s degree in business studies from George Washington University in the US.

Following a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, which overthrew the then-Nawaz Sharif government, the PMLN found itself deserted by a large number of leaders, including Omar’s father Gohar, who joined the breakaway Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PMLQ) party.

After declaring himself the president in 2001, Musharraf conducted an election the following year, which Omar’s father was declared ineligible to contest.

So Omar contested on the PMLQ ticket and became a parliamentarian for the first time. His mother Zeb also became a member of a seat reserved for women for the same party.

He rose to become a parliamentary secretary and eventually, a cabinet minister between 2004 and 2007, under the premiership of Shaukat Aziz.

Defending his tenure under a military ruler’s government, Omar said those were the days of fast-paced economic and technological changes, which were important for the people.

“There was a boom in different sectors. TV channels emerged and telecoms came to Pakistan. It was a period of development and delivery, which is what my constituents wanted,” he said. “You work for your people, your constituents. They vote for you to resolve their development issues. The ideological framework did not exist in politics then.”

However, he lost the 2008 general election, held only months after the assassination of former two-time Prime Minister and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto. The PPP went on to form the government.

‘You help us, we’ll help you’

For all of the democratic ideals that Omar champions, it is cold political pragmatism that has been his constant ally.

After his loss in the 2008 election, Omar says the PMLN approached him in 2011.

“Despite my father’s connections with the PMLN, I never developed any personal relations with the Sharifs. So, when PMLN’s local team approached me, they said, ‘You help us; we will help you,’ and that’s how I joined the PMLN,” he explained.

However, he said, the PMLN was not his preferred party then. “The PTI was an emerging force at the time, and while we had good terms with Imran Khan’s family, I never personally knew him. I was keen to join them but they picked my rival in the area, so I went with the party that offered me a place.”

While Omar won a seat in the 2013 elections, contesting for the PMLN against his PTI rival, his victory was short-lived. In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered a re-poll on the seat due to “irregularities”.

Omar decided not to contest the polls due to his mother’s illness; the former parliamentarian passed away later that same year.

While still part of the PMLN, Omar said he was contacted by the PTI’s team in his constituency in 2018, merely months before the general elections.

“Upon receiving an invite from Imran Khan to visit Bani Gala, his residence in Islamabad, I visited where he warmly embraced me and welcomed me to the fold. I have always admired him,” he said.

Asad Umar, a former federal minister and Omar’s predecessor as PTI’s secretary general, told Al Jazeera that while he only met Omar after he joined the party, their working relationship flourished immediately.

Calling his former colleague a “humble, mature” politician, Umar said the current secretary general was someone who has an “outstanding” understanding of macro-political issues.

“He is deeply connected with his constituency and works closely with them. But with his family pedigree, he is also keenly aware of our system and he is someone with high integrity,” Umar told Al Jazeera.

He also defended his friend and former cabinet colleague’s decision to switch parties, saying that before PTI’s emergence in 2011, most political parties functioned in a similar manner and were very traditional in their approach.

“Since joining PTI, I can tell you that Omar has always exhibited behaviour that is consistent with the party’s ideology. Our political parties are divided on ideological lines. It will be rare to see a top PTI official joining the ranks of the PPP or PMLN – or vice-versa,” he added.

Defiance or desperation?

If Omar is that rare politician, his critics question the intentions behind his previous decisions to switch parties and his current stance of standing by the PTI, asking if it is “defiance” or “desperation”.

“Is he loyal to the PTI? Or is it forced because nobody is willing to associate with him among other political parties? It is not a revolution; it is out of necessity,” a political rival who requested anonymity told Al Jazeera, adding that Imran Khan’s imprisonment due to multiple convictions might lead others in the PTI to see it as an opportunity to rise to the top.

Journalist Azaz Syed said that Omar Ayub “figured out” that only with the PTI could he rise to the top tier, something he failed to achieve with other parties.

“He is now in tier 1 in the PTI, and he also saw how popular the party is. But if you notice his speeches closely, he is still not criticising the military at all, instead focusing on civilians,” he told Al Jazeera.

When it came to power in 2018, the PTI was also accused of cosying up to the military, until the relationship between Imran Khan and the army soured.

Today, when the PTI is seen by many in Pakistan as railing against the establishment – a euphemism for the military – Omar is treading a more cautious line. He insists he is nothing but a patriot.

“I have not met with military people. Sure, we have close family ties but I am a politician. My leader is a patriot and a democrat, and so am I. We will take parliamentary, democratic steps to recover our lost mandate,” he said.

Islamabad-based journalist Syed added that if Omar is nominated as the party’s opposition head, it will be a tactically smart decision by the PTI.

It would show, he said, that “the PTI is ready, and even willing to negotiate with the establishment.

“Omar has a past that hews closely to them, and while he knows what to say, more importantly, he also knows what not to say.”

Muhammad Ali Durrani, a longtime acquaintance as well as a colleague in the cabinet under Musharraf’s rule, expressed similar sentiments.

“For me, what stands out about Omar is his care. I have never seen him engage in loose talk. He is very careful, cautious and guarded in what he talks about,” the former parliamentarian told Al Jazeera.

A leader from the PMLN, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that having Omar at the helm in parliament gives the PTI a rare combination: an able, experienced politician in charge, who can also help pave the way for their reconciliation with the establishment.

“He is a very experienced politician and has relations with politicians as well as the establishment. He can deliver in parliament as an effective opposition leader, while also sending a message to the establishment to negotiate with and provide the party space without further agitation or provocation.”

In his speeches in parliament and otherwise, Omar has consistently demanded that the party’s mandate be returned and was categorical that the decision to sit in the opposition, despite the party winning the highest number of seats, was a decision made by party leader Imran Khan – and one that he agrees with. It is a contrast from the last time the PTI was in opposition, during the PMLN government between 2013 and 2018, when Imran Khan’s party conducted most of its politics on the streets, not in parliament.

“The last two years have hardened us, trained us. Khan has said this numerous times: we will not take a weak government. There is no compromise to be made with parties such as the PPP, which have ideologically nothing like us, which work on patronage and largesse, whereas we are a party represented by the whole country,” Omar said.

“We will remain in opposition and give the government a tough time.”

‘New chapter’

At a time when Imran Khan is in jail, faced with a deluge of cases and convictions – and the PTI is grappling with a crackdown on its leaders – Omar offers another quality to his party chief: loyalty.

Even today, six years after being part of the party, Omar does not know why or how he managed to get so close to Khan, but offers clues.

“I think he saw my loyalty and my commitment, and trusted me,” Omar says.

After May 9 last year, when Khan was briefly detained on corruption charges, a large number of party workers stormed the streets and rioted.

The state retaliated, arresting and jailing thousands of PTI supporters, while dozens of its leaders were forced to quit the party – many under the alleged pressure of the military.

Ahead of the February 8 vote, with PTI in clear ascendancy according to opinion polls, the party’s election symbol was cancelled for violating electoral laws, forcing hundreds of its candidates to fight as independents.

Omar contested the National Assembly seat from Haripur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where his family roots lie, polling some 192,000 votes to defeat his PMLN rival.

The PTI, despite charges of rigging worsened by unusually delayed results, emerged as the largest party by winning 93 seats.

No political party won a clear majority in the 336-member National Assembly but the PMLN with 75 seats and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) with 54 formed an alliance, like they did in 2022 to remove Imran Khan from power.

With Khan in jail and barred from contesting, Omar was declared the PTI’s prime ministerial candidate – a mark of the deep trust his chief has in him as the party struggled to stay in the race for power.

“Credit must be given to him for withstanding the pressure. His resistance marks a new chapter for himself and his family history,” Durrani, the former federal minister said.

“He might have been tempted to leave PTI but instead, he chose to side with public sentiment in a pro-democratic act. Full marks to him.”


Comments are closed.