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Ripe for revolution?

January 29, 2011

A Muslim nation has overthrown its corrupt, incompetent and arrogant government. 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. The 1979 Iranian revolution was led by Ayatollah Khomeini who had an iconic status amongst Iranians across that country. The Shah, on the other hand, was a ruthless dictator installed by the US, with no public mandate, who ruled for decades through repression. The revolution had strong roots amongst the leading intellectuals, was galvanised by the middle class and supported by Marxists, nationalists and Islamists alike. The largely ethnic homogeneity of Iran helped forge this unity of purpose.

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.

Despite a wave of public protests, Egypt is unlikely to emulate Tunisia, due to factors also present in Pakistan. Egypt has a sharp religious divide between Coptics and Muslims as well as numerous Islamic groups pitted against each other. Arab analysts cite low levels of literacy and a general feeling of apathy and defeatism in the population as further reasons that Egypt will continue to fester rather than revolt. Pakistan has these 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. Ironically, democratic elections and free speech help perpetuate the corrupt, unjust stranglehold of the feudal-industrial power elite. Revolutionary forces require a moral impetus that illegitimate dictatorship provides but elected government does not. Secondly, frustration needs to simmer under a repressive regime until it reaches the temperature for mass revolt. Pakistan’s free media allows an outlet for public dissatisfaction. The often harsh treatment of politicians and police officials at the hands of journalists and judges ameliorates public anger. Vocal opposition parties, unhindered street protests and strikes allow a regular release of fury, draining the momentum necessary for the emotional surge that revolutionary zeal requires. Pakistan’s ‘peasants’ have neither the radical leadership nor the intellectual support to rise up against the vicious feudalism that subdues them but has not yet starved them. The middle class is distraught by unemployment, inflation and lack of equal opportunity but does not have critical mass, unlike in Iran and Tunisia. Political parties have dissipated ‘people power’ along provincial, tribal, linguistic and sectarian lines. 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. Dire prognostications about imminent revolution are misguided. In fact, a revolution of any kind would be better than the alternative. This society is losing respect for law and order itself. At least revolution replaces one order with a different order of competing ideology. But anarchy replaces order with disorder and there lies the real danger — that this country, desperate for change but unable to muster genuine revolution, will twist instead towards lawless turmoil.

 

The writer is a barrister and a public policy graduate from Harvard University mahreen.khan@tribune.com.pk

Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2011.

 

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