Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Revolution in Pakistan?



The last week has seen truly inspirational footage of impassioned Egyptians battling valiantly for an end to authoritarianism. All it took was for a lone fruit seller to set himself on fire in Tunisia to set off a chain of events that might just see the largest collection of autocracies. First Tunisia, and now Egypt and Yemen have erupted in protest against their governments, leaving many a Middle Eastern dictator quaking in their shoes.You know things are out of control when the Middle East starts protesting dictatorship.

Today, airlines from all over the world are sending chartered flights to Cairo to bring their citizens back home. Over the last week, scores of tourists have seen their holiday take an unexpected turn. Massive street protests demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak (who has now ruled Egypt as a single-option kleptocrat for the last 31 years) have paralysed day to day activity in the Egyptian capital. Efforts by the Egyptian military to dissipate protests have largely been unsuccessful despite the use of bullets, tear gas, and tanks. The people of Egypt are clearly enraged; they hold their president responsible for unemployment, food inflation, and poverty. Egyptians seem to have been roused from complacence. They seem to have realised ‘If not us then who? If not now then when?’

Most Pakistanis would love to be that nation, hoping that Tunisia’s revolutionary ripples, already rocking Egypt and nudging Yemen, will reach Pakistan too. Enduring raging inflation, malignant corruption, dilapidated public services, an ultra-incompetent, dishonest government and an extra-insincere opposition, ineffectual judicial remedies, brutal feudal lords and tribal chiefs, lynch mobs, daily drone and terrorist attacks, assemblies of cheats, tax evaders and fake degree holders, surely Pakistan is ripe for revolution? Sadly not!

The ingredients for revolution are simply not in place. Pakistan has sharp religious divide, low levels of literacy and a general feeling of apathy and defeatism in the population and additional factors which militate against a revolution: deep and multiple ethnic, linguistic, tribal and sectarian fault lines; a paucity of alternative intellectual narratives, radical leaders or strong unions; and an elected government and freedom of speech. Past experience suggests that it is likely that the events in Arab countries will leave Pakistan unchanged.Protests only become spontaneous after a certain critical mass is reached. Before that, they are contrived.





Revolutionary forces require a moral impetus that illegitimate dictatorship provides but elected government does not. The middle class is distraught by unemployment, inflation and lack of equal opportunity but does not have critical mass. Revolutions require a unifying rationale and the only ideology which has the potential to transcend these divisions is Islam. Yet that, too, requires a leadership which commands respect and a mass following. Given the number of religious parties and their intolerance of each other’s beliefs, that unifying leadership is missing.The middle class is distraught by unemployment, inflation and lack of equal opportunity but does not have critical mass. Revolutions require a unifying rationale and the only ideology which has the potential to transcend these divisions is Islam. Yet that, too, requires a leadership which commands respect and a mass following. Given the number of religious parties and their intolerance of each other’s beliefs, that unifying leadership is missing.

Like Egypt, Tunisia was ruled by a dictator who had been in power for nearly 25 years. Years of imbalances had resulted in growing inequality as well as rampant joblessness, particularly among the educated youth. Tunisia, in 2011, had many similar factors at play. President Ben Ali was a notoriously corrupt, textbook dictator ensconced for 23 years. He enacted strict control and censorship across the media, allowing only sham elections in which he invariably bagged up to 90 per cent of the votes. Opposition parties were stifled and people were fearful of voicing criticism of the government.

Deprived of these outlets for expression, resentment ignited when the self-immolation of a young, unemployed university graduate, whose fruit stall was confiscated because he had no licence, set ablaze the frustrations of the middle class. Trade unions joined in the massive street protests. Tunisia’s revolution was, like Iran, shored by its high literacy rate and the absence of ethnic and sectarian divisions.



In the absence of any efforts to create similar options in Pakistan, disgruntled Pakistanis are likely to remain just that. However this latest chapter in the history of the Middle East plays out, the world will have seen that democratic dissent in Muslim-majority countries is not dead. So let’s not lose hope just yet.Those in Pakistan getting too readily aroused about the possibility of a revolution here need to be reminded that we already had ours. We just recently removed our dictator Mr. Pervez Musharraf !





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