Arab revolt and Pakistan - Saleem Safi Friday, February 04, 2011

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The public revolts against autocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have given impetus to a new debate in Pakistan. US vice president Joe Biden’s statement that this wave may extend to countries like Pakistan has further fuelled the debate about possible popular disobedience in our land. But the question is; is the situation in those two countries comparable with Pakistan’s?

In many ways, Pakistan is different from Egypt and Tunisia. Egypt has been under various autocrats since independence. Hosni Mubarak has been ruling Egypt since 1981 as his personal fiefdom, and his regime, by and large, is an extension of the earlier autocratic stints in power by Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Tunisia has similarly been an autocracy since independence in 1956. Tunisians had to bear with despot Bourguiba, followed by another autocrat, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. In fact, Tunisians, like Egyptians, had not enjoyed the freedoms that should naturally have been associated with independence from colonial masters. They led a life of political suffocation.

Pakistanis, on the contrary, have seen governments of various hues. Besides martial laws, we have tasted governments by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The PML-N and PPP are still in power while dictator Musharraf and PML-Q “democrats” were thrown out not long ago. The religious right ruled Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan during Musharraf’s dictatorship. The MQM has been in governing coalitions with every party in power. After a brief stint in power with Nawaz Sharif, the ANP is now a partner with Zardari in the centre and two provinces. Other political forces are also in power one way or the other. Thus, Pakistanis have seen all political parties and so Pakistan is unlike Egypt and Tunisia. We do not have political suffocation or an untested revolutionary leader who could inspire people for a change even at the ultimate cost.

The media freedom in Pakistan cannot even be imagined in the Arab world. It is an important medium of catharsis which reduces frustration and the pent up desire for revolutionary change among the people. The Arabs did not have such freedom of expression or right to protest. Like the Soviet Union of the past, public anger had no outlets. The liberals and pro-democracy elements, finding the first opportunity, thanks to their newfound freedom, have now poured out on the streets in the thousands to demand the unqualified ouster of the autocratic regimes they have suffered for decades.

On the other hand, we Pakistanis have channelled our frustrations and anger through various means, including suicide bombings, TV discussions and debates and political protests. Unlike Arabs, we have protests and shutter-down strikes. In this regard we are free to the extent that our religious parties would first give a call for protest and later on search for the cause of such actions. This freedom has sapped our stamina for protests. In this situation, Pakistanis would hardly be convinced to take part in revolt-like protests.

In Pakistan the politics of protests is the domain of religious parties, whose politics is based on other issues, not the economy. But the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts have proved that the economy has replaced beliefs as the biggest political cause. Undoubtedly a minority among Muslims is becoming more extreme by the day, but the vast majority is not amenable to listen to them. In Egypt Ikhwanul Muslimoon was considered the only opposition till recently, but the current anti-Mubarak protests led by liberal forces echo with demands for human freedom and a better economy. The same elements are spearheading the revolt in Tunisia. In Jordon the religious parties have dissociated themselves from protests. If ever a revolt comes about in Pakistan, it would be based on the economy, which is not an issue with the religious right. And the political forces that value this issue are unable to mobilise people.

Pakistan is a very diverse country while Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries are same in race or religion. Egyptians are 99 per cent Arab and Sunni. Similarly 98 per cent of Tunisians are Arabic speakers, while social values are largely the same throughout the country. So a change in one part is readily spread and accepted in other parts of the country. On the contrary racial, sectarian and religious diversities in Pakistan would prevent a consensus agenda for an uprising.

However, poverty, inequities and injustices are the same in Pakistan, Egypt and Tunisia. Rather, these realities are starker in Pakistan. The economic growth rate of 2.7 per cent in Pakistan is much lower than 5.31 per cent in Egypt and 4 per cent in Tunisia. The fiscal deficit, unemployment and inflation are much higher in Pakistan. So these economic problems may cause revolt, anarchy or disasters, which can only be avoided if our rulers, religious and political leaders concentrate energies on this issue. The armed forces may also do well to work for the betterment of the common man. History is once again witnessing the fact that popular revolts can neither be suppressed through constitutional powers, nor US support, tanks and fighter jets.

The writer works for Geo TV.


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