Saturday, January 29, 2011

A revolution in Pakistan is a bad idea...for now

As most of the people in the Pakistani blogosphere (at least on the political side of things), I have been glued to my computer screen tweeting and retweeting news, facts and opinions (often pointless and completely unnecessary) ever since protests have intensified in Egypt against Mubarak following the fall of Ben Ali government in Tunisia (protests are now also underway in Libya, Yemen and Jordan). Not that my interest in these non-violent movements/revolts/revolutions is purely political. Growing up in an oppressive society where the circumstance of your birth determines your future, where there is no opportunity for upwards mobility ( not if you're unwilling to be corrupt) and where survival is a daily struggle for most, these events are affecting me at an emotional level

When I was in my early teens, I would often ask my parents that if the government was so corrupt, dishonest, unaccountable and greedy, why didn't we simply overthrow it? Why didn't 150 million people simply march in the streets and take over? After all, only a few were in power and wasn't the majority was on our side? 

A few university level history courses later and I dropped these questions all together. Political change from a historical perspective usually involved violence (of course there is post-apartheid South Africa and the Velvet divorce). Most of the time a lot of people died. Revolutions required unification around an idea, and we were short on those. Also, I had ceased to believe that Pakistanis were actually capable of a political revolt. The success of the protest movement in Tunisia (and Egypt, god-willing), has changed my opinion on this. 

This of course raises the point of whether a revolution is a viable form of meaningful political change in Pakistan?  Given the demographic pressure, the lack of economic opportunity, the floods and the lack of proper response, the increasing gap between the elite (people like me) and the rest of the country, rising food and commodity prices, the apparent failure of state institutions such as health care and education and an ongoing Islamist insurgency, dissatisfaction with the current Pakistani government has never been higher. This does not automatically translate to revolution. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, no one person or party can be blamed for Pakistan's downward spiral. As much as I despise Zardari, he is not solely responsible for the condition that we are in. After all, Nawaz Sharif  bankrupted the country, Benazir Bhutto officially recognized and supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, the military established the policy of using Islamic militants against India, Zia ul-Haq introduced the blasphemy laws, Zulfiqar Bhutto declared Ahmadis as non-muslims to save his political ass, Ayub Khan promoted corruption and nepotism as official policy and no one invested national resources into health, education or social welfare. Pakistan is also an ethnically, socially and politically diverse country, perhaps more so than either Egypt or Tunisia, making it difficult for everyone to agree with each other on any political platform.

Let's assume for one moment, that a revolution is viable now. Does this necessarily mean that it is most appropriate course of action to take for tangible political and social change in the country? I don't think so.  Religious fundamentalism in Pakistan is at an all time high. We have an armed insurgency fighting to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. We have a power hungry military waiting in the wings to topple a weakened state. If there is to be a revolution right now, it would most definitely not be the one that we liberals are waiting for. The outcome would either be a same old same old military takeover (most likely) or a more disturbing prospect of Islamic fundamentalists and militants regaining power (less likely since the military will probably not allow this). And given long simmering ethnic and religious tensions, you can be sure that any peaceful protest movement is quickly going to devolve into a violent one with many breakaway groups competing for power.

If what we desperately desire in Pakistan is real social and political change, a revolution is not the way to go about least not now. If our government(s) are inept and corrupt, then we have to shoulder the responsibility of building the social institutions that are so desperately needed. Pakistani civil society, especially the liberal elites behind computer screens and English language blogs (myself included) need to create a critical mass of people willing to disregard their ethnic, political and religious allegiances to embrace a common goal of political change using non-violent means. In this process of reform, a revolution should be considered as the last step.


  1. A revolution is caused as much by opposition to an idea or person as much for an idea or ideology. The problem with Pakistan is that it tries to ape the Arabs in its one up manship for an Islamic identity. With no specific person or idea to revolt against, an Arab world in chaos, but the desire to show off being strong, the worry is that each political or religious entity tear the country apart.

  2. In the context you are considering it seems inappropriate to me to use the word 'revolution'. The term I prefer is 'explosion' - e.g. 'Tunisia and Egypt have exploded' - though I jokingly refer to a similar explosion in Pakistan as 'revolution, Tunisia-style'.

    That we need a change in government and, equally, our need to prise Pakistan out of its slavery to the USA, are self-evident truths. A solution I favour - and which is not without risks - is given in my latest blog post. The two immediately preceding blogs ["The end of conspiracy theories" and "Anne Patterson, Queen of Pakistan"] are also relevant as they lead up to this solution.

  3. @anon3:29
    I agree with your assessment of the lack of political cohesion in Pakistan today. Ahsan Butt (Asian Correspondent: Five Rupees) has a good post on the lack of political platform in Pakistani political parties

    @Sakib Ahmad
    I feel that explosion is probably a more inappropriate word than revolution when referring to political change movements. The word "explosion" reminds me of bombs going off instead...