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Will the falling dominoes reach Pakistan?

The wave of popular uprisings that has driven out Presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt and is shaking other countries in the Middle East - could it swamp Pakistan?

Mohammad A.
30 March 2011

If there is a country that is ripe for mass protests and toppling of the government, it is Pakistan. Yet it has not happened so far. Is Pakistan different?  

Social conditions in Pakistan are worse than in either Egypt or Tunisia. It is a poor country of 170 million people (per capita income $980). About 60% of the people live on less than 2 dollars a day. It has a youthful population, 54% below 20 years of age. Galloping inflation and a ballooning budget deficit are threatening to collapse the currency and shatter the economy, which already is on the IMF support system. Over and above these conditions, terrorism, suicide bombing, ethnic and sectarian strife, insurrections and Islamic militancy take a daily toll of the killed, maimed and dispossessed. People are afraid of public places and gatherings. 

Social disparities sharpen the pain of insecurity and poverty. The rich and influential live in walled housing estates; they work and shop in protected offices and plazas and eat in fashionable restaurants where a meal costs more than the monthly wage of a worker. Luxury car sales in 2010 topped the past year’s record. 

There are calls for ‘people to come out’ by politicians in opposition, TV commentators, journalists and others. Even coalition partners of the government talk of the coming ‘French or Iranian revolution’ in the country. Almost every day somewhere people are blocking roads to protest at police brutality, the drying up of a canal or outages of electricity and so forth. Islamists stage at will large protest marches on issues such as the Danish cartoons, the release of the killer of the Punjab governor who had suggested amending the blasphemy law or drone attacks in the tribal areas. These agitations have not coalesced into a mass uprising yet. 

Pakistan has a democratically elected government. It is a fragile coalition of political parties led by the People’s Party of the late Benazir Bhutto, now headed by her husband Zardari. The government is ineffective, self-serving, mired in cronyism and besieged by the demands of coalition partners.  The military runs a parallel government, taking charge of foreign and security policies, deciding independently and negotiating directly with Americans for matters relating to Afghanistan, anti-Taliban actions and aid. It is the court of last appeal for feuding politicians and the hyperactive media. The government keeps its head down. 

How does Pakistan carry on?

There are some counterintuitive forces in operation that have kept the lid on things so far. For now, Pakistan is not a repressed society. About 1200 newspapers and magazines and more than 60 TV channels are literally outshouting each other with criticism and dissent.  

Pakistanis are not inhibited when it comes to overthrowing entrenched rulers. All four military regimes were either shaken or blown out by public agitations, strikes and in one case - armed rebellion. Even the overthrow of the populist Zulfiqar Bhutto was initiated by a countrywide agitation against his manipulation of elections. Only recently in 2008, General Musharraf had to step down after protests sparked by his tampering with the judiciary. Currently the venting of public anger is buying the government time.  

The government is more despised than feared. Yet all its alternatives, political as well as military are equally discredited. Major political parties in the parliament have stakes in the status quo. Most of the parties are family corporations organized around a lifelong leader. They do not have any grass roots. They rely on appeals to ethnic, regional or religious sentiments. None has a credible record to inspire people’s hopes. The memories of Musharraf’s military rule are too fresh to call for the military’s intervention. ‘All are corrupt and hopeless’ is the word on the street.  A state of despair and equilibrium of negatives, one has to conclude, is holding back the mass uprising. 

Islamists wait in the wings, but their violence and fundamentalism scare people.  In Madhrasas and Islamic students’ organizations, they have a youth force able to stage large demonstrations. But they offer no solutions to the pressing economic and social problems, except by promising a stern and austere social order. The militants’ terrorism could be fatally tarnishing the promise of Islamic rule. The possibility of an Islamists’ takeover may be dissuading  people from  kicking out the government. 

This government and Zardari are held in such such low esteem that they inspire more disgust than anger. 

A precarious balance of desperations may be keeping Pakistan from exploding in uprising. Yet any incident, a traffic accident flaring into a riot or a grisly disappearance at the hands of Intelligence Services, could prove to be the last straw.

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