Prior to what some view as a compromise and others as a surrender by the state, the Faizabad ‘dharna’ grew from a nuisance for commuters to a crisis for Pakistan. Each new crisis is perceived as an existential threat to the future of democracy and demanding nuance risks falling prey to the other side’s grand plot. But this attitude itself is a grave threat to long-term democracy. There are conspiracies abound which attempt to explain the events at the Faizabad interchange. Perhaps it was grand strategy by the PML-N to win sympathy ahead of the elections. Or maybe the establishment orchestrated this fiasco to demonstrate to the US what alternatives may lie in wait if Washington ceases to sufficiently support the military. Of course, the demonstrations could have begun naturally. But rather than squash them, the powers that be saw an opportunity to mortally wound the PML-N while the PTI and PPP circled above like vultures. Maybe the protest is a genuine expression of concern for the finality of the Prophet (PBUH) and it is PMLN that created this crisis by refusing to release the findings of its own investigation into the culprits of a ‘Ahmedi conspiracy.’ There is a conspiracy theory for everyone’s biases which impedes anyone from having a substantive conversation. At best the military has tried to maintain a balancing act between responding to the calls of the government and its desire not to take sides. The PTI has criticized the government’s handling of the situation and demanded resignations, but their silence on certain elements has been deafening and lends credibility to those who accuse them of extremist inclinations. PMLN’s response has proven disorganised and incoherent. But in some ways the most disappointing response has come from the liberal elite across party lines who collectively claim to be the guardians of democratic values in Pakistan. These voices could have demanded a nuanced national dialogue but instead, many have retreated to unwavering ideological positions. But is this a surprise when so many among the liberal elite benefit from Pakistan’s severe inequality, oppose measures like land reform, and choose to selectively challenge its dysfunction? If the army opts to deal with only some protestors “peacefully” then the elites are equally selective about which democratic norms must be enforced. The same voices that implore that the only viable future for Pakistan is a civilian led-democracy claim the ignorant masses can be herded by the Mullahs who are themselves shepherded by the silent hand of the military. Who then will be the constituents in this proposed civilian-led democracy? There is a risk of confusing correlation for causation when reflecting on popular protests in Pakistan. Rather than a sophisticated plot constructed by clandestine alliances it is more likely that the “establishment” takes advantage of organic social movements as they occur. It cannot be forgotten that this has also been enabled by the actions of two landed families. The Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris have comfortably existed in the unaccountable grey area that exists somewhere between good governance and military dictatorship. The corruption they have unapologetically indulged in has left them vulnerable to those who wish to undermine civilian rule. To acknowledge these realities is not akin to attacking the democracy of Pakistan. Rather it is its perpetrators that have already achieved that. There is a risk of confusing correlation for causation when reflecting on popular protests in Pakistan. Rather than a sophisticated plot constructed by clandestine alliances it is more likely that the ‘establishment’ takes advantage of organic social movements as they occur If the events at Faizabad are a plot against the PMLN then the half-witted rhetoric of Captain Safdar is even more myopic. If we accept that the establishment orchestrated Nawaz Sharif’s ouster does this exonerate his very real crimes? And so, the real gripe of the political elite is not so much that the people’s voice has been muted but that a large subset of the polity has rejected them. Is the slogan of progress really going to be reduced to finger-pointing at an establishment that is allegedly guiltier and less accountable than the civilian leadership? Walking through Faizabad, it was incredible to me that just a few hundred protesters could set-up checkpoints in the capital, operate like de facto police, and shutdown the city. But this may mark a small but relevant turning point in the trajectory of Pakistan. Allegations that reduce the dharna to a ploy by the establishment ignore the reality that this cause is not being heralded by a Deobandi proxy. This is a Barelvi-led movement that has shrewdly, and even genuinely, rallied around the issue of an exclusive interpretation of Islam. Islamists parties have not been able to win elections in Pakistan, but they do shape policies. Write them off as political puppets at your own peril. That there may be ulterior motives for the dharna does not detract from the reality that it rallied around the views of a great number of Pakistanis and those views will continue to be harnessed by whoever can inspire them. It is imprudent to selectively criticize the military for attempting to appease “both sides” without examining the bigger picture. The temptation of conspiracy, even if true, and simple answers, must be resisted. If Pakistan is to survive the aftermath of this crisis and the next one then those who have influence over the national dialogue must be willing to retreat, at least momentarily, from their own positions and acknowledge the many contributing factors to the current state of affairs. The writer is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan. He works as a policy analyst and focuses on South Asia and Iran. He tweets at @AdamNoahWho Published in Daily Times, November 29th 2017.