Pakistan after the Arab Insurrections

By Anjum Altaf

What do the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt portend for Pakistan? The question is on many minds. One approach to attempting an answer might be to try and infer it from below by investigating the morphology of Pakistani society and noting any significant similarities and differences in the process.

A convenient point of departure is the elementary error that most people make in their characterization of Pakistani society. It is often argued that the portrayal of Pakistani society as religious is incorrect because people do not vote for religious parties in elections; the latter hardly ever get more than five percent of the votes cast.

This error flows from an uncritical conflation of religious beliefs and voting behavior. The fact that people are religious does not mean that they are oblivious to their material interests. A defining characteristic of Pakistani society is that it is hierarchically structured along relationships of dependence. People do not have impersonal access to their fundamental rights, social protection, services, justice, or employment. The individual who represents them politically also acts as one of the patrons who negotiate their interactions with the state.

It is therefore not surprising that in electing a representative people opt for the patron with the most leverage vis a vis the state. Such leverage, by and large, is possessed by the owners of capital (land in the rural constituencies) and not by the clerics. Hence, individuals from the same politically influential families are chosen in election after election. Voters do not mind if their representatives change political affiliations as long as they retain their access to privilege and patronage.

The fact that voters prefer a particular set of political representatives does not mean, however, that they are under any illusions regarding their moral probity. On the contrary, virtually every voter characterizes the representatives as thieves – “they are all thieves” is the most frequently heard phrase in the country. Even staunch supporters of a party do not disagree with this verdict; they just prefer their own set of thieves to someone else’s.

Given this perception, what form of governance would the people prefer instead? It is here that things get complicated and the main differences from Egypt and Tunisia become clear. Pakistan has not been frozen in time under authoritarian rulers who have been around for three or more decades, who routinely get elected by over 90 percent of the vote, who have crippled all secular opposition, cracked down on the religious parties, and muzzled the expression of popular opinion.

Quite the contrary: the media are free, political parties form and disband at will, elections are held from time to time, and religious elements are patronized and given extensive leeway in the service of power. Over the 60-plus years of its existence virtually all modes of governance have been tried in Pakistan – feudal, military, populist, left socialist, Islamic socialist, technocratic, corporate, etc. All have failed to deliver tangible benefits to the vast majority of the population that in economic terms is now gasping for survival.

One implication of this is that the overwhelming yearning in Pakistan, unlike the Arab countries, is not for freedom or release from suffocation. People in Pakistan are quite free – they may be free to die of many preventable causes but they are free nonetheless. The latent demand is for good governance.

At the same time, since the mid-1970s, a major investment has been made in the Islamization of Pakistani society and institutions of ideological reproduction ceded to religious forces by so-called secular rulers. Over three decades of indoctrination have limited the intellectual vision of the kind of change conceivable in Pakistan. It is now religious dogma that drives the political imagination and the ensuing vision harks back to the golden age of Islam.

It is this imagination that has fueled the surge in fundamentalism, the emphasis on rituals and the insistence on literal adherence to divine commands. Pakistani society is religious in the sense that an overwhelming majority would, if asked, approve of stoning for adultery, amputation for theft, the separation of the genders, the restoration of the caliphate, etc. This is not to say that individuals would not accept alternatives or are any more pious in their daily lives than they used to be – many Quranic injunctions are casually violated where personal gain is involved. The crucial point is that the normative vision of the desired society is now couched in a religious idiom and confined to the one that flows from dogma.

As a consequence, the situation differs from Tunisia and Egypt where the lead has been taken by the young demanding freedom with religious forces having to adapt to the popular sentiment or risk being marginalized. Pakistanis have not agitated for freedom or jobs; they have protested to demand death for blasphemy, for declaring various groups un-Islamic, for promulgation of Shariah, and for recording religion on passports. It is the secular elements that have had to adopt the religious discourse couching their message in the language of Islamic values – truth, justice, and compassion – consonant with their platforms.

In this context the situation in Pakistan is much closer to Iran before 1979 than to Egypt today – the secular groups are in the slipstream of a latent religious challenge to authority. But there is crucial difference as well – unlike Iran there is no unified theocratic hierarchy that leads the religious challenge in Pakistan. If and when the Pakistani population is forced into the streets by unbearable economic realities the dominant ideology would be that of Islam but without a united leadership to channel the energy.

Like Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets, the various Islamic factions would be unlikely to agree with each other or over any one interpretation of the divine message. A period of chaos would ensue that would most likely be ended by the intervention of external forces and the imposition of a Karzai-like figure to provide the breathing room for more feasible solutions to be explored.

This analysis of the morphology of Pakistani society acknowledges the likelihood of popular unrest but concludes that its nature would be different from what is being observed in the Arab world. The initial trajectory would likely follow the Iranian pattern but in the absence of a united religious hierarchy it would lack stability and dissolve into chaos. In brief, a period of anarchy centered in religious strife seems to be looming for Pakistan.

This article was cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily on February 13, 2011.

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  • Haris
    Posted at 22:48h, 07 February Reply

    It is very positive that Arab societies are going through this change, and it is likely that as politics is opened up in these countries there will be even less room for maintaining the shallow fiction of the ‘ummah’ as a political community. For all the commentaries we have read over the last 20 years about an ‘Arab street’ or even a ‘Muslim street’ obsessed about what happens in other Muslim countries, Tunisia and Egypt have shown that it is domestic issues that make people move. Egyptians and other Arabs will become deeply involved in their own politics, as we have been for decades. This is good for them, and also good for us too.

    Pakistani society is divided along lines of class, region, ethnicity and religion. Islamist parties cannot bridge these divides except on one or two issues such as blasphemy and the status of the Ahmadis, and that too for short periods of time. Official Pakistani nationalism has a shrinking constituency too. In Egypt the protestors have no problem using patriotic symbols. In Pakistan, outside of some regions, this is a non-starter among oppositionist movements. Most political parties and political trends in the country, including mainstream ones like PPP, ANP, MQM and PMNL-N, i.e. including those that have had close ties with the security apparatus harbour no illusions about the security apparatus. It is hard to imagine a protest movement in Pakistan where the military troops will be playing the role of event marshalls. In fact if such a movement does emerge it will be immediately exposed as being engineered by the military itself, and will lose any legitimacy. And no Pakistani protest or political confrontation will be limited to stone-throwing. There are just too many weapons in the hands of private citizens and political organisations. Just contrast recent events in Cairo with May 12 2007 in Karachi, when not just one side of the argument was firing guns.

    For all the divisions in Pakistani society it must be acknowledged that political parties have stable bases in society, and despite their serious limitations these parties have shown some willingness and ability of trying to work together. Countries that are opening up to politics today have a long distance to travel yet before they will have such a rich political culture. Along the way they will experience many setbacks, conflicts, violence and upsets. Hopefully they will overcome those obstacles. Pakistanis for their part need to recognise the assets they already have and learn to strengthen and nurture them to overcome some of the more serious social divisions that come in the way of progress and development.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:13h, 08 February

      Haris: Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree with most and would like to pursue just one for now. The one aspect the post did not discuss was the potential role of the military and I would like to be sure of what you mean when you say the political parties harbor “no illusions about the security apparatus.”

      It would seem that the military (or security apparatus more broadly) in Pakistan shares much with Egypt and even pre-1979 Iran. It is a key player in governance, ruling indirectly if not directly, and is closely tied in many ways to the US. But we know how the class composition of the military has been changing over the years. So, in a hypothetical scenario in which the military is confronted by a popular movement in the name of religion, what is the likely outcome? Would the military split or not? Would the soldier on the front-line follow through on the orders from headquarters?

  • yayaver
    Posted at 02:55h, 08 February Reply

    I am reading about Pakistan from last 1 year. It is quite puzzling in nature. I have two questions in this respect when you portray that Pakistan is much closer to Iran before 1979 than to Egypt today

    1- People often quote “‘If only Pakistan imposes true Islamic system and Sharia laws, we will be able to get rid of the hypocrisies committed in its name.” Why are People looking towards Arab state as model of development despite of their poor human rights record ?

    2-Even the most educated young Muslims have lost the capacity to question the false doctrines. So I am seeing a future of religious discord and violence in Pakistan. What is this tendency of Islamic nation to always look back for mythical age of ‘purity’ ?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:59h, 08 February


      1. When people make this observation they are not referring to any contemporary Arab state. They are referring to the “unblemished” Islamic state that existed at the birth of the religion.
      2. This is not a factual statement – people have not “always” looked back to a mythical age of purity for models of governance. In fact, this is quite a recent phenomenon. People have experimented with most other forms of governance. Where these experiments have failed to deliver and simultaneously education has been infused with religion, the attraction of the only untried one has increased.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:05h, 08 February Reply

    It is wrong inference to make that hardly 5% vote for religious parties. When you have an overwhelming Muslim majority, a saturation dose of Islam, there is no reason for them to vote for religious parties. Change the situation you might see a different voting pattern.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:50h, 08 February

      Anil: The fact that the overwhelming majority is Muslim in Pakistan does not mean that all political parties offer the same choices. Some have an explicitly religious platform like the Jamaat-e-Islami – they promise a much more Islamic state than the mainstream parties. The fact that is often pointed to is that these explicitly religious parties get a very tiny share of the votes cast. Analysts differ on the interpretation of this fact.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:18h, 09 February

      I think you may have missed Anil’s point. I also think Anil’s point is only tangentially relevant to this post.

      Correct me if I got you wrong, Anil – what you tried to say was that if Pakistan had a 45% non-muslim majority in it, the religious parties wouldn’t have looked all that unattractive.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:04h, 09 February

      Yes Indeed.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 15:09h, 09 February Reply

    Anil: What you are implying is possible given a particular configuration of circumstances but it does not follow automatically. Malaysian population is 50% Muslim and 50% non-Muslim but religious parties are not the most attractive to anyone. This is a hypothetical scenario – nobody knows what Pakistan would have been like today if it had a 45% non-Muslim population.

    However, as Vinod mentions, this is tangential to the argument of the post. The essential underlying question being asked is the following: What do voters try and achieve with their votes?

    The point that I have made (which can be challenged) is that voters in Pakistan as it exists today are not using their votes to turn their religious aspirations into reality which the religious parties promise to do. Rather, they are using their vote to make their day-to-day life better which the other parties are better placed to ensure.

    The inference is that voters are rational – they keep their religious and material concerns separate and they use their leverage for what is more important to them. There was a post earlier on this blog that develops this idea further:

  • Armchair Guy
    Posted at 12:58h, 13 February Reply


    I am curious to what extent people in Pakistan believe there should be separation between religion and the state. I understand there is a component of Islamism. But what about the “moderate” voters? What percentage is moderate, and do the moderate voters believe in a separation between religion and the state, or are they mostly moderate simply because they haven’t yet been radicalized?

    The idea that Pakistani voters are free is interesting, but it is a limited freedom — they are not free to blaspheme, for example.

    The last para of your last comment sounds correct — but this is true of voters everywhere. They use their votes to influence not the most important issues, but the most important unsolved issues.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:36h, 15 February

      Armchair Guy: There is always a gap between what people say and what they accept. The majority would likely say that there should be no separation but have been living under a system patterned very much on Western, not Islamic, models of governance. As was mentioned in the article the vast majority of the voters is religious but does not vote for parties that promise a purely religious state. So, one might say the voters are conservative in the religious domain but moderate in the political one. And, yes, given the right combination of circumstances there is the potential of radicalization – but this is a general phenomenon, not a Pakistan- or Muslim-specific one.

      In that sense, voters are never entirely free anywhere – there is always some line or the other. In many countries the voter is not free to deny that the Holocaust occurred.

      I am not sure which last para you are referring to. I don’t believe voters are too concerned about important unsolved issues but perhaps I am missing your point.

    • Armchair Guy
      Posted at 18:35h, 15 February


      The para I was referring to is this:

      “voters in Pakistan as it exists today are not using their votes to turn their religious aspirations into reality which the religious parties promise to do. Rather, they are using their vote to make their day-to-day life better which the other parties are better placed to ensure.”

      The point I was trying to make is that this type of rationality doesn’t imply anything about the voters’ religiosity. The system in Pakistan already satisfies most right-wing religious aspirations, so this is not something the voter needs to worry about. Hence s/he focuses on the more practical unsolved problems. If there was a real chance the blasphemy laws would be repealed, how would the voters react then?

      My first question is more than just whether people could be radicalized under the “right” circumstances. As you say, this is true in every country (though to varying degrees, I think). My question is whether most voters in Pakistan who self-identify as moderates are already radicals at heart. Would most so-called moderate voters support reversal of blasphemy laws, be willing to socialize with atheists, or tolerate people who claim that the Quran is wrong?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:45h, 16 February

      Armchair Guy: Your two questions are tied together. If we assume that the system in Pakistan already satisfies the most right-wing aspirations of voters then the system is stable. What we observe is the extent to which voters want the society to be organized around religion. If, on the other hand, we believe that voters are really religious radicals at heart, we would have to explain why they are not using their vote to transform that desire into reality? The religious parties are more than ready to be the vehicle for such a transformation.

      On the blasphemy law, one has to put that it the context of human behavior. The law was not introduced in response of some massive popular demand by voters. It was an opportunist tactic by a government to win the political support of religious leaders. However, once a favor like this is granted, it is very difficult to reverse it because sentiments can be roused by those who lose out in the bargain. The psychology is the same for non-religious benefits that are attempted to be withdrawn after being conceded – e.g., affirmative action benefits.

  • Pingback:Rug Pundits | egyptian implications on pakistan
    Posted at 15:22h, 13 February Reply

    […] s1);})(); On comparing events in Egypt with Pakistan today at the SouthAsiaIdea Weblog. It’s reasonable, compared to a lot of crap on that topic out […]

  • Vivek Tandon
    Posted at 19:45h, 13 February Reply

    This article touches upon some fascinating aspects of Pakistani ‘Democracy’:

    1- I believe that since the Pakistani Army has almost always been, and certainly is today, the power that can – and endlessly does – override any policy/action of an elected government, it would be inaccurate to term Pakistan as a democracy. It is, and has been, a de-facto military dictatorship working through cosmetic layers of democracy.

    2 – The ‘free press’ dare not cross certain lines that the ISI-Military complex lays down.

    3 – Even in the wider ‘free’ space, there have always been too many ‘Islamic’ lines that no-body could cross – though this, arguably, is a particular manifestation of ‘democracy’ is a particular kind of society.

    These factors take Pakistan far beyond even the greatest imperfections of genuine Democracies.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:40h, 15 February

      Vivek: In fact, this is one of the central threads running through this blog – that South Asian countries (including India) are characterized by a very peculiar kind of democracy that is far removed from its canonical form. South Asian systems retain many features of monarchy (note the dynastic patterns) cloaked in the forms of democratic governance. You will find the arguments elaborated in the series of posts on democracy:

      2. This is slightly more complex than what you have portrayed. Over time the strategy has become more nuanced. In general, the English language press can cross many more lines than the local language press.

      3. Every democracy has a (moving) line somewhere or the other, so this by itself does not render the society undemocratic.

    • Vivek Tandon
      Posted at 01:55h, 16 February

      Anjum: My point addresses precisely this ‘central thread running through this blog.’

      I agree that democracy can be practiced in forms ‘far removed from its canonical form’ – however, this does not apply indefinitely. Pakistan is not a genuine democracy – its army has simply been very skillful in playing with forms of democracy, and the democratic urges of the people. But the Army is totally in control.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:27h, 16 February

      Vivek: I agree that Pakistan is not a ‘genuine’ democracy. I was not making the point that the democracy in Pakistan is just some other form of democracy. Rather, in my view, it is a monarchal system garbed in the cloak of democracy. When we extend the argument to the other countries in South Asia we need to define what we mean by a ‘genuine’ democracy.

  • aharpe
    Posted at 11:34h, 14 February Reply

    similar to Iran and unlike Egypt in some ways perhaps, but unlike both in a key way as Haris points out. Both of those countries have a strong sense of shared deep history and national identity; Pakistan has neither. Thus far, the only two ideas that have had any success in drawing the nation together are ‘not India’ and ‘Islam’, both of which are ultimately destructive and increasingly divisive and exclusive markers of what it means to belong, to be a worthy Pakistan. It remains to be seen whether a period of crisis like Anjum describes would lead to not just chaos but break-up of the country, or whether that crisis would spark some sense of togetherness beyond the two mentioned which would bring the people together. Perhaps some conflation of muhajir and ‘Indus valley man’ is possible?

    Regardless, the fundamental problem remains as Anjum notes that in Pakistan people vote for their patron, not for their ideals. The only way that will be resolved is if there is some sort of welfare state in place that provides people with their basic needs and security regardless of political affiliation. There are numerous reasons why this will be incredibly difficult to bring about, but one thing that is surely a prerequisite is a stronger economy and therefore a larger tax base. A period of state supported and managed industrial development along the lines of Ha-Joon Chang’s recommendations is in order; the question is, can we have a state in Pakistan that is strong enough to withdraw support when the time is right?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:13h, 16 February

      aharpe: Both you and Haris make the very important point that unlike Egypt and Iran, Pakistan does not have deep history and national identity. This will have a major impact on the trajectory of future events. I had left the analysis anticipating a crisis without venturing into how it might unfold. The feature you highlight will be a critical ingredient in that unfolding. For the moment, I am skeptical of the emergence of a sense of togetherness. I am also skeptical of the emergence of a welfare state because that presumes the presence of a sense of togetherness. In that sense, it is premature to think about the eventuality of the state being able to withdraw support at the right time. I doubt, it will get there. Some of the reasons are discussed in the guest post on the blog – From Indo-Pak to Af-Pak:

  • Haris
    Posted at 11:36h, 14 February Reply

    Anjum: When I say that the mainstream parties have no illusions about the state security apparatus I do mean that all the main players have been badly treated by the military. Even if they collude with the military for political gain the do so with an understanding that the military cannot be a stable partner, and also that the military has a lot to do before it can prove that it regards the political parties as a stable partner. For this reason Pakistani political leaders find it increasingly difficult to offer invitations of the type that ElBaradei issued to the Egyptian army last week.

    There is no longer any space left for a popular Islamist Pakistani nationalist movement outside of north-central Punjab, a pivotal region which nevertheless accounts for just two-fifths of the population, and is itself divided along sectarian lines. In all other regions Islamist Pakistani nationalism has few takers. Even in KP where Islamism might be strong it relies on Pakhtun rather than Pakistani nationalism as its more durable prop. There are few issues on which Islamists can offer a united front – blasphemy and Ahmadis. Beyond these issues the Islamists can only unite under the direction of the state security apparatus. The class composition of the military might have changed (though we have no solid evidence of it), but whatever evidence we do have of its regional-ethnic composition does not suggest any major changes.

    Governance is an important issue, no doubt, but it is not the only one, and certainly not one on which a popular cross-regional movement can be based. Resource distribution, or even rent distribution between rural-urban areas and regions are very important issues in Pakistan. Our political class is moving ahead on these, even as perceptions of bad governance soar.

    The Islamist Pakistani nationalists had their ‘revolutionary’ moment in 1977 with the PNA movement, when they had a presence in virtually all major urban centres. Their revolution sustained Zia’s regime, and was consumed by it.

    The analogy with Iran 1979, if it holds, might be the following. There is an Islamist Pakistani nationalist movement in north-central Punjab, partly directed, or at least tolerated, by segments of the state security apparatus. This takes the lid off regional movements that have to date been thwarted by federalist parties that also have a presence in north-central Punjab. Yes, the state security apparatus may split, but so will political society, and it would do so along regional-ethnic lines. You will recall that there were uprisings in virtually all ethnic regions of Iran alongside the 1979 revolution, and these were suppressed as joint enterprise between the revolutionaries and the army, even before this alliance was fully consolidated in the Iran-Iraq war. In Pakistan the Islamist revolutionaries and the military will not be able to suppress the regional movements who will certainly get much foreign support and will move to secede in a Balkan rather than southern Sudanese timescale.

    Not a good outlook, to be sure, for a ‘Pakistani revolution’, but reasonable prospects for gradual incremental democratisation.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:32h, 16 February

      Haris: Thanks again for the critical feedback. I have the following observations:

      1. I agree on the military but would like to add that the Pakistani military has never really waited on invitations from political parties. It has acted unilaterally when it has felt its interest threatened. But this has been in the context of a musical chairs environment where different factions of the elite have rotated power. We are now considering a hypothetical scenario in which the military might be faced with a popular insurrection motivated by a religious ideology. And the relevant question is: Would the soldier in the front line fire upon his co-religionists who would be so much like him in so many ways?

      2. I agree on the implausibility of a popular Islamist Pakistani nationalist movement. My view was that it would start out with that illusion and then flounder – it will not be sustainable for the reasons you articulate.

      3. There are certainly other issues. I was making the point that these other issues are buried under a yearning for good governance which is assumed to take care of the other issues. The overwhelming popular sentiment I hear is that if only we had good leadership all our problems would be solved.

      4. I agree that that the trajectory beyond the point that triggers a crisis would likely take the Balkan route for the reasons you mention.

      5. I do not understand the basis for your concluding comment especially following the preceding observations. To what are you attributing the reasonable prospects for gradual incremental democratisation?

    • Haris
      Posted at 22:38h, 20 February


      1. We already know when and where the Pakistani military are willing to fire upon civilians. I did a rough review of all instances of ‘counter-insurgency’ in Pakistan – that is, the sustained use of lethal military force against political dissent. As you might expect ALL ‘counter-insurgencies’ have been outside Punjab. Of course, it is good that political dissent in Punjab is not treated like an insurgency, but this does make absolutely clear when and where the Pakistani military will open fire. I don’t think that the Islamist banner necessarily saves anyone from the state’s wrath. The Pakistani military has finally come up with an internal rationale for dealing with Taliban in Swat and some parts of FATA, where it has suited them to do so for now. And as for non-Islamist dissent, well the ‘counter-insurgency’ in Balochistan continues.

      2. What is striking about Pakistan is the remarkable willingness on the part of political parties to acknowledge each other’s ‘mandate’ – or more correctly, that all parties do represent some segment of society. And also their willingness and ability to negotiate and accommodate. This, very roughly, is the essence of what is needed in fractured societies such as Pakistan to take the first step towards political consolidation. Yes, political parties are weak compared to the military, but in their own domain (i.e. parliamentary politics, and even street politics) they have shown that they can make important agreements. Egyptians and others are going to have to write a constitution, and it is said that the military wants to shepherd that process. We already agree on a constitution which was written without the military’s interference. Moreover, we made important amendments to it, as an entire polity, less than twelve months ago. So, we have shown the ability to renew our adherence to the constitution, and made it more democratic and more federal. Of course, we are not over the hump, and noone can predict how long the political process will continue. There are far too many unknowns. But at least we’re making a serious attempt at addressing some long-standing problems, and that gives me cause to say the democratisation is still on. Not just that, it is political process or bust, and many in the political society seem to understand this. (Recall that even Chaudhry Shujaat wanted to negotiate with Akbar Bugti, Musharraf scuppered his attempts).

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:05h, 22 February

      Haris: Both points are convincing in their essence.

      1. The real test of the military will come if and when it is faced with a popular movement in the Punjab centered on religion. As long as movements can be conveniently labeled (nationalist, secessionist, terrorist, etc.) there will be room for the use of force even if the banner is Islam. When such labeling fails to work, the outcome would be less certain.

      2. This is an important insight. The real issue is whether the system has enough strength (especially economic) left to come out whole on the other end. Any bout of hyper-inflation or serious popular unrest could derail the process. I also do not see the mechanism whereby the process, organic and positive as it is, can throw up a better quality of leadership that could negotiate potential economic and social crises. For the moment we are still locked into the dynastic model. In addition, we do not have parties that throw up leaders but leaders who coalesce parties around themselves a la Convention ML or ML (Q). Actually, if one looks back, the quality of leadership has been declining.

    • Haris
      Posted at 01:01h, 23 February


      1. Ok, so this is interesting to war-game: An Islamist nationalist mobilisation in Punjab will be basically populist fascist in its politics, and will be supported by the military up to a point. It will look to ‘patriotic’ officers for leadership. They key strategic resource, in case we are forgetting, is Pakistani nuclear weaponry, and international (read US, but also India, China and others) tactics will enter the game early on. So, any serious ‘revolutionary’ upsurge in Lahore becomes an international issue far quicker than comparable situations in other countries.

      2. Right now it seems as though everything in the world is bent upon derailing our fragile democracy – high commodity prices, weak global demand, incoherent American policy. Of course we could always do with higher calibre of political leadership and stronger parties, but sometimes societies are burdened with mediocrity. After all, set aside politics for a moment, where is the calibre or vision in other areas of public life? Journalism? Law? Academia?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:26h, 24 February


      1. I agree with the scenario. We could push the war-game forward and try to think through the options the external agents would have and the ways they could enter quickly. Both the US and Israel had huge stakes in Egypt as well, minus the nukes, but were unable to figure out an effective entry. At best the strategy was to ensure ‘stability’ in the transition, i.e., to make sure power remains with elements with whom the external agents retain some leverage.

      2. It is really not a question of asking for an unrealistic quality of leadership. I agree societies can be burdened with mediocrity but the trend needs to be positive for one to hope for improvement. What I am concerned with is the steep negative trend. This has an effect on everything else because a weak leadership drives out talent from all other fields as well. If you look at the names at Government College or Radio Pakistan Lahore in the 1950s and compare them with the present you will get a sense of the decline. Perhaps this is irrelevant but I would like to be convinced.

    • Haris
      Posted at 01:15h, 25 February


      Fair enough about quality. I’d say that violent obscurantism will have its long-term effects, though one need not get trapped in a chcken-egg thing over this. Question is, what breaks the cycle? I think ultimately the working classes do through their support for democracy, something to which middle classes have little commitment. But this is another story.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:18h, 14 February Reply

    This again is not directly relevant but I am curious if this Gandhian style Egyptian ‘takhta palat’ would have been possible without the glare of international media?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:27h, 15 February

      Anil: I don’t think the glare of international media is the determining factor; it is the international leverage that is much more critical. Egypt was a client state (like Iran earlier) and when the patron decides to pull the plug, for whatever reason, it marks the beginning of the end. For a counter-example, think of Tienanmen Square – the glare of the international media was the same but without the international leverage, the state could retaliate with a much freer hand and get away with it.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 09:51h, 16 February

      Is Pakistan a client state?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:28h, 16 February

      Anil: In my view, it is. What is your opinion?

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 05:37h, 17 February

      Isn’t it a case of tail wagging the dog?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:59h, 17 February

      Anil: It might appear so at times but the relationship is very asymmetric.

  • Ethan Casey
    Posted at 19:44h, 15 February Reply

    I appreciated Anjum’s analysis, particularly this:

    “… the overwhelming yearning in Pakistan, unlike the Arab countries, is not for freedom or release from suffocation. People in Pakistan are quite free – they may be free to die of many preventable causes but they are free nonetheless. The latent demand is for good governance.”

    and have shared the link on Facebook and Twitter.

    I’ve tried to elicit some of the same discussion with my own article – the title is deliberately phrased as a question:

    “What Does Egypt Mean for Pakistan?”

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:21h, 16 February

      Ethan: Thanks for the comment. I read your article and agree that the question you pose is very important. It is important if only because in looking for the similarities and differences between Egypt and Pakistan we will be forced to examine the structural features of society in Pakistan. Without a structural overview we will not be able to arrive at any meaningful hypotheses.

      The analysis I have presented is not necessarily correct but it does try to infer hypotheses from a macro view of the important trends and forces operating in Pakistan today. My hope is that it provides a basis for the kind of debate we need at this time. What I find unhelpful is the expression of hopes or opinions that are not based on concrete observations or flow from extrapolations of isolated features in society. One illustration of that is the comment of the PM in Kuwait earlier this week where he is reported to have said the Egypt and Pakistan should not be compared – “Gilani dismissed likelihood of developments in Pakistan on the pattern of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and said no one could claim to be more revolutionary than the PPP.”
      What does one make of a statement like that?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 00:21h, 24 February Reply

    This post emphasized the prevalence of patronage politics in Pakistan – the dependence of a citizen on a patron with access to power in order to obtain basic needs and services. The argument was that this dependence drives a wedge between voting behavior and the non-material preferences (say, religious) of voters.

    This article on the support of Muslim voters for the BJP in Gujarat provides concrete examples of the same phenomenon with the same consequences:

    “The answer perhaps lies in the fact that India’s is a patronage democracy wherein resource distribution depends on the discretion of elected officials as a form of market good rather than an entitlement. Staying close to the power centres in government is the key to survival. “

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 16:26h, 02 March Reply

    Olivier Roy has written an article (This is not an Islamic Revolution) worth thinking about on the recent events in the Arab world from which we can make extensions to Pakistan.

    An intriguing question: Where have the Islamists gone? An interesting answer: to Pakistan.

    A very important conceptual distinction: “This is not to say that the demonstrators are secular; but they are operating in a secular political space.”

    An observation to note: “The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia show that Islam is now less potent politically, even as its social dominance grows.”

    • Vinod
      Posted at 05:13h, 08 March

      Anjum, there is evidence to suggest that Islamist parties began to reconsider their approach well before all these insurrections.

      Rasched Ghannouchi, who was sent into exile in France and has spent a considerable effort in counter-acting the ‘plitical idieology’ of Islam, though he use to be an “Islamist”, moved towards this trend of Islam through ‘renaissance’ because of his contact with Malik Bennabi, meaning it came from within the “Islamic movement” itself.

      Ghannouchi was influenced by Bennabi in the 60s, and he met him in the 70s. Bannabi’s ideas had already influenced many senior members of Ikhwan, Jawdut Said in the 60s, meaning it was before the ‘failures’ of ‘Islamism’ even began to surface. In fact, Sayyid Qutb himself was aware of Bennabi’s approach, and attempted to criticize it, and it was in one of Bennabi’s lectures that responded to Qutb’s comments, where Ghannouchi realized the superiority of Bennabi approach.

      In fact, the original stance of the Jam’aat Islami, was the realization of a Muslim society through democracy and reformation, not revolution. Arb students had tried to convince Maududi in the 60s, I believe, to affirm support of what is often termed as “Islamism”, including ‘violence’, and he starkly opposed the idea. It was in the reign of Zia, where Maulan Maududi actually aligned the Jamaat with a military dictator, and this was a mistake, as even admitted by the jamaat. One is now witnessing the failures of this stance. It was seen as an act of strategy and not one of frim prciniples by Muhammad Nejatullah Siddique.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:43h, 08 March

      Vinod: I don’t know enough of the history but other accounts seem in line with your observation. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had renounced violence a long time back and desired to participate in electoral politics but Mubarak stood in the way. When he took a chance and the MB won a fair number of seats he pulled back with the blessings of the Americans. Clearly, the Americans support democracy only if their candidate wins; otherwise they are happy with the dictators and the monarchs.

      I enjoyed this satire:

  • hassan
    Posted at 05:49h, 06 July Reply

    The only reason people do not like islamist parties is their lack of vision. We are going through a very hard time right now however the islamist parties are busy engaging in useless activities. Their agenda (such as making it compulsory for women to wear burqas, asking all men to keep beards changing the word president with khalifa to make it look more islamic cutting all diplomatic ties supporting taliban etc.) is based more on metaphorical ideas then reality. Our real problems are ecomony law and order, education clean water etc. We do not care how long someones beard is or how big their niqab is however these are one of the major issues for parties like jamat-i-islami. We want a party who lives in the real world who realizes what threats we are facing and who is not dilousioned

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 12:01h, 06 July

      Hassan: How would one explain the survival of the religious parties if people do not like them? While the real problems are what you have mentioned, no one is focused on them. The religious parties are not because they believe the first task is to make people good Muslims (by their definition) and usher in an Islamic republic. That will by itself solve the problems. The secular parties ignore them because they feel they do not translate into votes. This seems to be a correct assessment because people rarely protest about the lack of clean water but they are more than ready to protest about not listing religion on passports. Yet, when the PPP did focus on real problems (Roti, Kapra, Makaan), it swept the elections. It is another matter that it promptly forgot about its program. Perhaps, people do not trust anyone anymore. It is a very confusing situation. Do you have any thoughts?

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