Smokers’ Corner: The blocked eliteNadeem F. Paracha - Sunday, February 06, 2011

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The problem with most middle-class political movements is that they know whom they don’t want, but rarely do they know what they want.This is the case as well in what is going on in Egypt and in other Arab countries currently in the grip of uprisings. Rest assured all these are largely middle-class driven uprisings, emerging from what is called the ‘blocked elite’ — i.e. an educated middle-class that feels it has what it takes to become a power-elite but its path is being blocked by a corrupt, unfair and autocratic regime.

Thus whenever this blocked elite does manage to stir up a movement, it is almost always focused on a single personality, and not necessarily the system as such. The rallying cry in the troubled Arab nations is against despotic individuals, but nobody has a clue what is to follow. The protesters, largely coming from middle and lower-middle-class strata of society have so far failed to produce their own organisations that can systematically suggest a political and economic plan and an alternative to what the hated individual symbolises.

Though such movements might be able to topple these individuals, they end up creating a vacuum that is often filled by political entities that may also be against the toppled individual, but their ways are not necessarily in tune with the ideals of politics and society of the middle-class. But the question arises, what exactly are middle-class ideals? In the classical sense they should be democracy, economic stability, good governance and the maintenance of law and order. But in the post-modern world such ideals have become blurred, especially in Muslim countries where the middle-class has largely begun to perceive democracy as something akin to populist chaos or a way for the West to impose its own political agenda and values.

The irony is that only a handful of Muslim countries have a democratic system in place, and the most organised opposition to autocratic regimes there is coming from the religious right. But in the last two decades or so, though the religious right has made a lot of headway in penetrating the psyche of the Muslim middle-class, people are still not quite sure whether to support the religious groups on political basis as well. The same is the case in Pakistan, in spite the fact that it is one of the few Muslim countries that has seen a number of democratic set-ups. Nevertheless, even here, though religious groups have made deep inroads into the middle-class psyche and this class usually airs these groups’ thoughts and anti-West rhetoric, it usually ends up supporting the so-called moderate conservative parties like PML-N, while the ‘masses’ (at least as voters) have always kept religious parties at bay by voting for various democratic and quasi-secular political parties.

But the vacuum created by even the most positive action by the middle-class in most Muslim countries remains. Two examples in this context can further strengthen this theory.

The first is the 1977 protest movement in Pakistan against the Z A Bhutto regime and the other is the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The movement against Bhutto was born out of the frustration the industrial and middle class faced due to the (democratically elected) Bhutto regime’s widespread nationalisation policies and its perceived favouring of Sindhis.

The frustrated middle-class which, till then was largely liberal and also had progressives in its midst, was not politically organised. For the better part of Bhutto’s regime a significant section of the young, urban middle-class aligned itself with the Jamat-i-Islami’s student wing, the IJT, on campuses and then squarely fell for the religious parties’ movement against Bhutto in 1977.

Though this movement raised Islamic slogans, it was really entirely aimed against an individual, Bhutto. Bhutto’s gradual weakening in the face of this middle-class uprising generated a vacuum that was conveniently filled by the military, that took over using the same abstract slogans used by the movement, and preying upon middle-class fears of political chaos. In Iran, the groundwork for what erupted into a full blown revolution against the Shah was undertaken by various secular-liberal and leftist groups, so much so that influential Iranian Islamic activist-scholar, Ali Shariati, borrowed heavily from leftist philosopher J P. Sartre and Marxism to attract middle-class attention against the Shah.

The result was desperate groups of middle-class Iranians squarely aiming against an autocratic individual, without any alternative plan as such — until the vacuum was filled by the organised political clergy who replaced an autocratic and corrupt monarchy with a faith-based and reactionary regime.

Today, urban middle-classes in Muslim countries have begun to shape themselves into vital economic and political entities. But as seen in Egypt and also in Pakistan, this class has failed to elaborate exactly what it wants as a political and economic system. In Pakistan it is somewhat repulsed by populist democracy, fearing that a popularly elected government too may end up blocking their upwardly mobile ambitions as does an autocratic one.

In the process this class continues to linger as a fragmented set of malcontents, willingly alienated from mainstream political entities, and thus, always susceptible in the end for settling for either the desired rule of an unelected technocrat, or worse, being hijacked by right-wing aspirations that promise them a check on populist masses-driven ‘chaos’.

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