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Pakistan, Democracy and Revolution Mid-East Style?

Waiting for revolution: the Middle East miracle
By S. M. Naseem

REVOLUTION’ has been perhaps the most overused word in Pakistani political discourse during the past few months, though its meaning has varied from a change in government or mid-term elections to a cataclysmic systemic transformation on the scale of the most celebrated of the genre, the French revolution (about whose impact on history a Chinese Communist leader famously remarked that “it was too early to tell”).

In current Pakistani politics, however, ‘revolution’ is often used as a subterfuge for military intervention in politics — although it is camouflaged with various caveats, after the ennui and disgust suffered by the country from this ill-served option since its birth. Increasingly, though, the centre of gravity is shifting from the Constitution Avenue in Islamabad to GHQ in Rawalpindi.

The vague hope of sudden transformation in the economic and political system, which the hallowed word evokes, however, continues to account for its mass appeal and popularity. Inspired by the images of thousands of people marching on the streets in various countries in the Arab world in recent weeks in solidarity against perceived injustices and deprivations being committed by the incumbent regime headed by a small group of people, often a single dictator or predator, have created an indomitable passion for change among the burgeoning underclass in Pakistan.

The people are beginning to realise that despite frequent changes in governments, civilian interspersed with military, their basic problems have remained unsolved and — in most cases — their living conditions have steeply deteriorated over time.

Their faith in the democratic system of governance is eroded continually by the in-fighting among different elite groups, whose professed goal is to save the country and serve the poor, but whose real aim is to grab power for their own and their group’s benefit.

The theoretical possibility of electing their own representatives to power is confronted with the practical reality of being stuck with the scions of a few powerful feudal and business families, who, along with the bureaucratic, military and industrial establishment, shape their destinies. The political parties differ only in the extent to which the part of power spectrum honed by them can manipulate their respective constituencies.

With the rise in economic inequalities and deepening of poverty, unemployment and decline in purchasing power, and the increasing inaccessibility of most basic necessities, a revolution of sorts is waiting to happen in Pakistan. The question is when and how, rather than if, such a cataclysm will occur.

However unpalatable and frightening this option — pregnant with the possibility of widespread chaos and prolonged social instability — may sound to those enjoying relatively comfortable and peaceful, not necessarily luxurious or intemperate, lives, the prospect is hardly daunting for those for whom such chaos, turmoil and lawlessness has become a new normal in their daily lives.

The wave of popular unrest sparked by the Tunisian revolt against an out-of-synch dictatorial regime early this year, which has caused only mild tremors in Pakistan, seems to have spread like a wild fire across the globe.

It started in an obscure central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, when an unemployed graduate engineer’s self-immolation caused protest demonstrations, which within a couple of weeks had engulfed the whole Arab world and set in motion a domino effect, shaking the region’s powerful tyrants and upsetting their plans for dynastic succession.

Cataclysmic events often come clustered in history. The French revolution of 1848, called the Springtime of the People in Europe, spawned some 50 local and national uprisings on the continent, hitting the Italian states and German principalities, eventually reaching the remote outposts of the Austrian empire, all in the name of liberty.

The Middle Eastern uprisings of 2011 may well turn out to have a wider reach and a broader message. History’s ways are strange and, as observed by Lenin, there are decades when nothing happens, while decadal changes can occur within a few weeks. The Middle East after a slumber of three decades seems to be awakening again to make up for the “lost decades”.

The recent uprisings in the Middle East took place in the backdrop of the evolution of oppressive post-colonial regimes, which failed to deliver the promised renaissance after gaining sovereignty and the nationalisation of oil and other natural resources.

After the first oil shock in the 1970s, the region was flush with money and had it been properly husbanded, it could have changed the fortunes of ordinary people not only in the Arab world, but in the developing countries at large, whose migrant labour has helped transform the Arabian desert into a farcical heaven on earth.

Instead, that wealth was dissipated in luxury consumption and real estate investments with the collateral damage of concentration of wealth and social underdevelopment in the Muslim world, along with massive purchases of armaments and the amassing of financial assets from developed countries in the elusive pursuit of “security” — both internal and external.

The metamorphosis that took place in the region’s economic development strategies is worth recapitulating. In the wake of Nasser’s Egyptian revolution, many of the Arab countries swung to the left in the 1960s, with Syria adopting the Soviet model and Egypt moving in the same direction, though not that far.

Large parts of the economy were nationalised, along with the introduction of welfare measures such as healthcare, education, subsidies on food, etc., which were tabooed by traditional development economists.

However, since the late 1970s and early 1980s the process began to be reversed. In Egypt the regime under Sadat, Nasser’s successor, started to move back under the influence of IMF and the World Bank. Privatisation became the new gospel. In Tunisia, 23 years ago, when Ben Ali assumed power 80 per cent of the economy was under state control.

Ben Ali dismantled state enterprises by privatising whole swathes of the economy, along with reducing the state’s role to a minimum. A similar picture could be seen across the whole of the Middle East.

These policies, aided by the avarice and acquisitiveness of global capitalism, put most of the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries
— with the exception of Iraq and Libya, who briefly flirted with the former Soviet Union — firmly ensconced in the lap of the US. For decades during the Cold War, US policy in the Islamic world has been aimed at suppressing secular reformist and leftist movements.

Beginning with the CIA-engineered coup against a secular democratic reform government of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 because of his demand for a better deal on oil, Washington has propped up dictators, coaching these regimes in the black arts of torture and mayhem against secular liberals and the left.

The advent of 9/11, combined with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, further strengthened the US hegemony in the Middle East, giving the region’s dictators –as quid pro quo — a blank cheque to continue their misrule, throwing thousands of the regime’s opponents in jail and misappropriating public funds for personal glory and dynastic perpetuation, instead of public welfare and inclusive development.

Driven by Washington’s “irrational, obsessive anti-communism,” US foreign policy in 1970s backed extreme Islamists over secular movements or governments that were either Soviet-allied or feared to be so.

After 9/11, the US took a U-turn, and aimed its guns on the latter, instead of the former — and so did its lackeys. In the event, both opponents of the regime were effectively kept out of the political process.

The unrest in the Middle East needs to be viewed in a broader context, with the confluence and political and economic factors, corruption and oppression providing the tinder for the explosion of public anger and inflation — especially of food and fuel, which hit the poor hardest — setting it alight.

However, the upheaval is not over yet and its tremors are being felt far beyond its North African epicentre and its echoes are reverberating all over the globe, from the mountains of Nepal to the lakes of Wisconsin.

The much-acclaimed process of homogenised globalisation is meeting its nemesis in global protest movements. Even ordinary Americans, chafing under the Great Recession and unemployment, are deriving inspiration from these uprisings.

What the world is witnessing in the second decade of the new millennium is both an awakening and a yearning of peoples all over the world to make their rulers accountable for the privileged existence of a few and the unacceptable limitations on the
access of opportunity for social ascendance and economic advancement of the many.

It is not merely a desire for regime change alone — the so-called incumbency factor — which every ruler, however well-meaning, faces if he persists in perpetuating his rule.

The world seems to be on the brink of a long war between the people and the ruling classes. The intensity of the people’s seething anger, long simmering, is unfathomable and on the verge of a volcanic eruption in many lands. The deprived and oppressed can’t take it lying down any more and have decided to come in the open — on the streets and squares, both real andv virtual.

The weak have discovered new weapons to confront the powerful, often invented to enhance their own power and wealth.

What is more, the powerful can’t find loyal warriors to subdue the weak and have to increasingly rely on mercenaries, often foreign in origin.

Who is going to rule is now getting less important than how people want to be governed. The distance between the rulers and the ruled is becoming intolerably large and there is a persistent demand for transparency, accountability and speedy redress of public grievances, within the framework of an equitable and credible social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

The demand for such basic rights as food, housing, health and education and protection from natural and man-made calamities, including inflation, poverty and unemployment, is becoming ever more pervasive and ubiquitous. Although secondary, the freedom to air dissenting views, receive and disseminate information, as well as religious and cultural freedoms, are also being recognised as undeniable rights.

While the battle cries are spoken in different tongues, the underlying themes are the same, albeit contextualised by local, national or regional issues, agitating the masses and wilfully ignored by the rulers.

The final straw that breaks the public’s back may be different in any given context, but the accumulated load being carried by it — both through the predatory corporate greed and inept public policies — has become a crushing burden, which the rulers seem incapable of relieving.

The end-game of this new global war, hopefully, would be a new process of globalisation and integration driven not by the military-industrial complex, as at present, but by the voluntary, equitable, engaged and empathetic cooperation of different segments of society across the globe.

Although this utopia is unlikely to be realised in a few years or decades, but the Middle Eastern spring of the last few weeks seems to have laid the foundation of an eternal spring in which billions of flowers could bloom, unaffected by the inclemency of deprivation, oppression, hate and intolerance.


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