EDITORIAL: Egypt, Tunisia and Pakistan - Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has tried to counter the political rhetoric that Pakistan could face a Tunisia and Egypt-like situation if the government does not pull up its socks by saying that the country has a functioning democracy and strong institutions. Coalition partner MQM’s leader Altaf Hussain, in his address to a rally for national solidarity in Karachi on Sunday once again raised the slogan of revolution with reference to Egypt and Tunisia. In a press conference the same day, leaders of the newly formed Muttahida Muslim League urged the government to mend its ways or be ready to face the wrath of the people. Tunisia and Egypt have been heaving under the yoke of decades-long dictatorships, and saw a spontaneous outpouring of public anger sparked by a small incident in Tunisia, which eventually forced Zine El Abidine to flee to Saudi Arabia. Soon after the flight of Ben Ali, the virus of popular revolt travelled to other parts of the Arab world, where the masses are rising and protesting against autocratic regimes. The way the protests broke out and spread to Jordan, Algeria, and even to Yemen, is intriguing. It is notoriously difficult to predict when the patience of the masses will run out and they will revolt against their oppressors. There are moments in history when a combination of factors, sentiments and circumstances trigger such events, which can, as seen in Tunisia and particularly Egypt, lead to a situation of dual power and change of the old order. At such junctures, the amorphous voice of the people not being led by any one party or organization surprises all the political forces, because the people are ahead of their traditional leaders. In Tunisia and Egypt, we have witnessed dual power emerging: one centre of power is the old crumbling regime making desperate efforts to hold on, and the other is the power of the people on the streets who would like to see the back of the dictatorial regime after suffering years of brutal repression.

Although the historical trajectory in Tunisia and Egypt, which led to a popular revolt, is very different from that of Pakistan, nevertheless, there is a lava bubbling under the surface here too due to the failure of successive regimes to ensure the provision of even the basic necessities of life to the larger segment of society. Pakistan’s history of incompetent democratic regimes and dictatorial military governments has left the people with few choices. A rudderless, directionless people who reposed their trust in democratic governments have been disappointed so far. Therefore, the raw material for a revolt is very much there. Can an ostensibly democratic government prevent that lava of resentment and anger from erupting?

One should in any case be cautious in dismissing the possibility of a movement of the people in Pakistan. However, there is another dimension to the situation here, which could be the cause of great concern. After four decades of nurturing of jihadis and extremists, any popular revolt will be at risk of being hijacked by extremist forces, who have recently rallied together on the issue of the blasphemy laws and are not in a mood to arrest the momentum of their campaign against the government. In these circumstances, the people of Pakistan have the sorry option between an inept and corrupt political leadership and the entire spectrum of right-wing forces from centre-right to extreme right. The decline of the liberal, democratic and progressive community is at the heart of this crisis. Unless these forces strengthen their cadre, induct fresh blood into their ranks and mount a challenge to the extremists, Pakistan has little hope of salvation. *

SECOND EDITORIAL: Political bigotry

Thousands of followers of the religious and right wing parties gathered in Lahore to warn the government not to amend the blasphemy laws. The religious parties included the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Tehrik-e-Millat-e-Jafariya, banned militant outfit Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) among others, while the PML-N, PML-Q, PML-Z, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were the centre-right parties present.

Just last month there was a large congregation of the extreme right in Karachi under the same banner, demanding the same thing – no amendment or repeal of the blasphemy laws. The rally in Lahore was almost as ‘successful’, but certain dimensions of this rally make it more significant. The extreme right managed to bring on board the centre-right political forces. Equally important is the fact that a Shia organisation decided to join them despite the fact that Sunni sectarian extremists have been involved in massacring Shias over the decades. The bigotry of the Deobandis came out in full force when Sajid Naqvi, a Shia leader, joined the rally and many in the crowd started shouting: “Kafir, kafir, Shia kafir” (Shias are infidels). JuD chief Hafiz Saeed also addressed the crowd. Hafiz Saeed seems to be on the frontline of this ‘struggle’. JuD is a front of the banned terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT). How is it then that the Punjab authorities allowed the chief of a banned outfit to address a mammoth rally in the provincial capital (yet again)? This will also have an adverse impact on the Indo-Pak foreign secretaries meeting about to take place this month in Thimphu.

JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s ‘advice’ to Punjab Governor Khosa to pay a visit to late Governor Taseer’s assassin Mumtaz Qadri in order to ‘thank’ him for his governorship shows the level of the speeches at the rally. On the other hand, the centre-right parties showed their support for bigotry by their participation. The PPP-led government has backpedalled and completely retreated on its stance on the blasphemy laws and repeatedly bleated that no change to these flawed laws is being contemplated.

The track record of blasphemy cases shows that these have nothing to do with religion or blasphemy. These laws are flawed and open to abuse. Instead of stopping the misuse of these laws, now that the religious right has strengthened itself, the abuse is likely to be perpetuated. The government, even if it is not ready to repeal or amend these laws, should at least put a check on the misuse of these laws that has led to so much injustice.

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