Pakistan is not about to erupt like Egypt. Fundamentally because Pakistanis have never been gagged
ISLAMABAD - If you’re holding your breath for a revolution in Pakistan, you should stop and inhale deeply. There is no mass street protest movement that is about to envelop Pakistan. The intoxicating images from Tunisia and Egypt have inspired people all around the world, but that doesn’t mean every country that gets Al Jazeera on TV is about to ignite with popular protests against ineffective and corrupt governments, swarming into the streets and demanding change.
Change in Egypt is a good thing. Any change. There is a long way to go towards a democratic Egypt, but as change goes, getting rid of Hosni Mubarak is potentially transformational. Egypt is a country in which speaking freely until about three weeks ago was not just scorned by the state, it was ferociously prohibited. Torture, disappearances and beatings-to-death were awarded all too frequently to those who sought to speak louder than Mubarak’s Egypt could bear. During the 18-day protests that began on 25 January, Egyptians of all persuasions came together to demand a country where they can speak freely.
Pakistan is no beacon of freedom of expression, and just about everybody who can spell ‘existential’ has expert views on its ‘existential problems’. Still, Pakistan is no Egypt. There will be no revolution in Islamabad.
This doesn’t mean Pakistan is not in need of dramatic change. The Pakistani state, dominated by a perennially resource-rich and unaccountable military, and managed by the myopia and corruption of its bureaucratic elite, is in desperate need of wholesale transformational reform. The days of a Pakistani bureaucracy that evoked images of the efficiency of the Indian Civil Service are long gone. The British Raj had trained the Pakistani state in only two things, but it had trained it well: collecting revenue and maintaining law and order. The fact that insolvency and terrorist violence represent Pakistan’s two most potent headaches is no accident. The capacity of the state to function normally, by collecting revenue and maintaining law and order, stands desperately eroded. Pakistanis (and those who worry about a Pakistan uncorked) can thank a disembowelled elite bureaucracy for this state of affairs. In Pakistan Version 2011, the quality and integrity of bureaucrats is so far removed from their Indian Civil Service ancestors, that any reference to a common bureaucratic tradition between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh needs to be seen for what it is: wishful thinking.
Pakistan’s social fabric is possibly in need of even more urgent repairs. The torn outer edges, where the military and political elite have always hung their dirty laundry, are now visible smack at the heart of both Pakistan’s society and state. The heart of Pakistani society bleeds—at Sufi shrines, at mosques, and on rabid TV talk shows. The heart of the Pakistani state is blackened—by the fear of speaking out, fear of demanding fast and indiscriminate justice, fear of much that ought to be a source of comfort. Fear pulsates palpably through Pakistan.
Once upon a time, it was the military that got rid of its least favourite politicians through judicial processes, as General Zia-ul-Haq did with Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Today, the military watches the second- and third-generation products of Zia’s twisted ideological manipulation of the country assassinate politicians, as happened with Bhutto’s daughter Benazir and their party stalwart Salmaan Taseer.
In a country that seems to be for the elite and by the elite, one may have expected some kind of judicial efficiency to address such murders of the elite. No such luck. While the terrorist and extremist genies are out of the bottle and on a rampage, the scars of sustained abuse of the country’s institutions are unmistakably bared. The military’s appetite for power in Pakistan has not only cost the country a fortune in dollars and cents. It has cost the country an infrastructure of functionality.
Yet, for all this darkness, the deep structural problems of Pakistan are only visible because nobody has been able to switch off the lights in Pakistan. No part of the elite enjoys immunity from the country’s constantly nitpicking media and urban chatter. Neither the military, nor the politicians, nor the bureaucrats, nor the extremists have any chance of stifling dissent or muffling debate. Circumstances, such as those created in the aftermath of Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, tend to temporarily limit the range of what can be said in the country. Yet, the overall ambient quality of freedom to express oneself in Pakistan remains an outstanding model for Muslim-majority countries to learn from and adopt. As messy and incomprehensible as freedom in Pakistan is, it’s a walk in the park compared to the state of affairs in most Muslim-majority countries. It is certainly miles and miles from the suffocation of thought and expression that defined Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.
Thanks to the millions that turned out at Tahrir Square over the last three weeks, the world now knows that Mubarak had been in power for 30 years. The world knows that Mubarak and his family accumulated assets estimated to be worth anywhere between $40 and $70 billion. The world knows that the Egyptian economy is being ravaged by inflation, joblessness and corruption.
Yet, one of the less commonly understood facets of Egyptian life, at least until Wael Ghonim’s incredibly moving interviews on Egyptian television, was the degree of frustration and anger among Egyptian youth. The absolute intolerance of dissent by the Mubarak regime simply exhausted young Egyptians. With Mubarak having been forced to let go of his iron grip on power, many are rightly concerned about military dictatorship and the true extent of change it will allow in Egypt. Yet, no matter how free and democratic this revolution eventually helps make Egypt, the country will never be the same again. With the curtain lifted, the revolution has already achieved unprecedented success. It has unveiled the neglect of Egypt, and possibly the rest of the Arab world. The days of dictators like Mubarak serving as guarantors of sedate Arab populations are gone. Al Jazeera has roused the Arab/Muslim world with liberating scenes of fearless Arabs, first Tunisians and then Egyptians who would not be silenced. Civilian or military, Egypt’s future leaders dare not treat dissent with the impunity and brutality that Mubarak did.
Six months ago, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped spark the revolution, may not have made it out of the custody of Egypt’s secret police alive. This week, after 12 days of being held, Ghonim was back on Twitter, on Facebook and all over Egyptian television, fearlessly speaking in a manner two generations of Egyptians have only been able to dream of. Egypt may not turn into Sweden anytime soon. But no Egyptian or Arab leader dare do to its young dissenters what Mubarak did to Khalid Said. Last summer, a blogger from Alexandria by this name who had exposed two policemen involved in the narcotics trade was tortured to death in broad daylight by Egyptian police. The ‘We are all Khalid Said’ Facebook account came to form the Egyptian revolution’s ground zero. The consistent obliviousness to the extent of disaffection demonstrated by Mubarak and his rogue-in-chief, the monstrous Omar Suleiman, was not feigned at all. It was real. The Mubarak regime was a dictatorship without a Facebook account. For the last decade, it had entirely missed the point of social media, of blogging and of the tremendous sense of empowerment technology has afforded the Egyptian youth—empowerment that their parents never knew. In doing do, it also missed the volcanic lava that its repression was helping fuel. From Mohammed Refaat, to the Matabbat blog, to Abdul Kareem Suleiman, to Sandmonkey and Ghonim, Mubarak routinely had bloggers persecuted.
Khalid Said’s story was among the few that the Western media found palatable enough to tell. Yet, before the Twitter and Facebook generation of Tahrir Square, an entire generation of Egyptians was silenced by Mubarak with the same brutal tools of suffocation. In those days, most of the dissent came from the Muslim Brotherhood. For the West, it was easy to look away. No Al Jazeera feeds, no images of articulate Egyptians like Mona Eltahawy’s on Twitter and all over the US media, and therefore, no common cause.
The 25 January revolution has defeated the longest standing twin enemies of a free Egypt—the fears of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, and the curtain of secrecy behind which Mubarak and Suleiman choked all dissent. This victory was enabled by a largely secular agenda and the presence of social media that turned news and reactions viral. Mubarak ran Egypt under a state of emergency for 30 years. But Egyptians had been living without constitutional rights almost uninterruptedly since 1967. It took a meticulous effort to be rid of him.
To compare this Egypt with any version of Pakistan—past, present or future—is not just inaccurate, it is downright preposterous.
The most obvious difference is that there is no Mubarak in Pakistan. Whatever failures they may have accumulated in nearly three years, the PPP and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani won the freest election in Pakistani memory, according to European Union observers who monitored the 2008 election closely. President Asif Ali Zardari is much reviled but also a lightning rod of sorts, absorbing the bulk of negative criticism in Pakistan, and allowing the government and military to bumble their way through a simultaneous national security and economic crisis. There are probably more vile SMS and email jokes about Zardari on any given day than Mubarak had allowed in 30 years. The 2008 election that put Zardari in power was not a rare election. Since 1988, Pakistanis have had a chance to vote in and vote out their political elite as many as six times.
The constitution in Pakistan is fully functional, with no constraints imposed by either the President or Prime Minister. Even though many suspect that General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani is always game to tweak public opinion, Pakistan’s army chief has no formal instrument of control over the population.
Pakistan, even under military governments, has operated largely under its constitution. The only time in recent memory that basic rights were suspended was in 2007 for 42 days. That remains the only ‘emergency’ that Pakistanis of Wael Ghonim and Khalid Said’s generation have known. Those 42 days of mayhem began on 3 November 2007, when General Musharraf declared a state of emergency to try prying himself out of a political crisis of his own making. Driven by ego and impatience, he forced himself onto parliament for another term as President, having tried to fire the Chief Justice six months earlier. Musharraf’s state of emergency lasted all of six weeks. Why? It was simple. Neither he nor the Pakistani military (nor any of their allies) could handle the heat they took for suspending the constitution. The combined might of all of Pakistan’s institutions and resources firmly in hand, Musharraf was exhausted by the 42nd day.
The reason had little to do with his benevolence. It had to do with a culture of free political expression. Pakistanis are a resilient people. But they don’t like to have their intelligence insulted. After having watched him spend eight years tinkering with systems and replacing corrupt politicians with corrupt politicians loyal to him, Pakistanis found the notion of yet another extension of Musharraf’s rule a little too much to take.
Out came the bullhorns, the moral outrage, the op-eds, the front-page analyses, the abrasive TV talk shows. With each withering bit of criticism, a little bit of the Musharraf era died. Once he restored the constitution, there was an effort to also restore confidence, and he went on an all-out charm offensive, but the end was nigh. Less than a year later, in August 2009, Musharraf was able to craft an exit that allowed him to leave the country. Today, he runs a political party that has hardly any politicians and even fewer followers within Pakistan. This hollow political empire’s crown jewel is, ironically, his Facebook account—where thousands of disaffected expatriate Pakistanis shower ignorant praise on him and the ‘glory’ of his era.
The Musharraf takedown didn’t require massive street protests. While the movement to restore the judiciary and the election of 2008 certainly played a central role in dulling Musharraf’s appeal, it was the popular voice and reinforcement of Musharraf fatigue that did him in. That freedom, to openly and outrightly attack the head of the military, head of state and head of government is a freedom about which little is understood outside Pakistan. It is also the lifeline of an uncomfortable but stable political equilibrium in Pakistan that is often stirred, but almost never shaken.
This is a particularly bleak time for optimists in Pakistan. In the aftermath of the Taseer assassination, there seems to be a kind of zombie-like consensus within the mainstream media to ignore facts, and to allow fear to overtake the courage of our convictions. Yet, it is hard to ignore the role of the media in Pakistan, especially since 2002, when technology and a liberal licencing policy allowed dozens of news channels to emerge.
Pakistan’s obsession with news and talk shows is not hard to understand. With Lollywood in disrepair, and Pakistani sports in disrepute, news talk shows are the nation’s primary source of entertainment. They are also a convenient and powerful proxy for political participation. Watching them grants people a sense of ownership of the conversation about their country. This undoubtedly reflects a measure of the weakness of Pakistani democracy. Yet, it is also a sign of the complete absence of any imminent outbreak of mass protests.
When people have something to say about the government, about mullahs, about the military, or about the rich, they say it. Or laugh about it. There are, of course, several holy cows within the country’s political and social milieu, but for the most part, there is no ban on ‘meat’ in Pakistan’s political discourse.
The spontaneity and mass appeal of Egypt’s revolution is anchored in an inter-generational muzzling of the press and free expression in Egypt. Egyptians like Wael Ghonim have grown up literally without ever having experienced what it is like to openly and freely criticise those who hold power in their country. That is an entirely alien concept for Pakistanis. No generation of Pakistanis, even Zia’s, has ever had to deal with such restrictions.
Despite these differences, there is one serious similarity that does exist between Egypt and Pakistan, and it must not be ignored.
The underwriter of the Mubarak regime for its entire 30 year duration has been a military that has cultivated a positive and patriotic image, whilst enjoying the rewards of a national security quid pro quo with the United States. That sounds remarkably similar to the military in Pakistan, which is enjoying a post-Musharraf image makeover, thanks in part to its 2009 efforts in fighting terrorism in Swat, and in part to the incompetence of the political class. Indeed, there is also wide speculation that at least some of the image sparkles come from a section of malleable journalists all too eager to trot out the GHQ line. Elections come and go in Pakistan, and there is a vocal set of voices to counter the military’s dominance of the national discourse. Yet, the military continues to be an all-weather navigator for Pakistan—with ample assistance from the US.
Comparisons of Egypt and Pakistan are therefore likely to become much more realistic and reflective of reality once Egyptians get used to the ability to freely, openly and vigorously criticise politicians, judges and generals on prime-time television. As Egypt learns the ways of freedom, it is not Pakistanis who should be looking at Egypt for lessons, but rather Egyptians who should carefully be examining Pakistan. With freedom comes great responsibility. In Pakistan, we’ve yet to live up to it.
As Egypt’s generals prepare for a brave new Egyptian world, the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square must look to Pakistan for lessons on what to avoid. Freedom without the opportunity to shape the most important decisions on the future is a compromised freedom. Pakistanis know it only too well. Egyptians would do well to avoid it.