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The Arab Spring in Pakistan?

Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis and Yemenis are occupying the streets and blogging furiously. Europeans and North Americans have followed suit to create their own Liberty Squares. To varying degrees, all are middle and working class movements that appear to recognize the manner in which the current global order serves a select few at the expense of the many, world-wide.

The middle and working classes of Pakistan are occupying an altogether different space. Political parties from so-called Liberals to Islamists have arranged spectacular rallies across the country of late, both pro and anti-government. But they were mostly of the rented variety – a plate of biryani, as they say, for every man, woman or child ready to chant party slogans. Those who don’t need the free food have stayed home.

That is not to say that Pakistanis are oblivious to the ‘Arab Spring.’ Although Pakistanis are not Arabs, journalists and bloggers have ensured that at least the middle class is well-informed. The papers and TV channels continue to report on daily events in the Arab World. Editorialists and bloggers offer a dizzying array analysis. Neither the distance of ethnicity nor a dearth of exposure can be assumed to explain why similar movements have not risen in Pakistan, when they have in New York or Madrid.

Nor can lack of empathy with the ideals of the Arab Spring be considered a constraining factor. In a recent study of Pakistan’s middle classes, Iftikhar Malik found “increased clarity and unity…regarding democracy…accountability, and a vocal criticism of Talibanization and the American militarist interventionism” (Pakistan: Terrorism, Democracy and the Building of a Nation (2010), 122). Malik adds that mobilization as a class has been historically inhibited by the tendency to cleave along liberal and conservative, pro- and anti-military, ethnic and sectarian lines, only incidentally coming together to protect “against encroachment from the lower classes” (112-22). Yet, the Arab Spring itself illustrates that such fissures do not necessarily prevent anti-imperialist, pro-democracy activism. The alienation of the Pakistani middle and working classes from the activism of the Arab Spring requires further explanation.

One contributing factor seems to be Pakistani attitudes and relations with the Arab World. For example, a widely read Dawn-blogger, Nadeem Paracha, advises those admiring of Arab activism to remember that “Pakistan was actually the first Muslim country (in the post-colonial world) to have a ‘revolution’ like the ones we are celebrating today.” From 1968 to 1970, the mobilization of the “urban bourgeoisie…pushed the country out of a dictatorship and towards democracy.” It was a failure in the long-run, he admits, due to the same types of cleavages identified by Malik, but only to offer the Arabs “lessons” on the pitfalls ahead of them. He does not take-on the differences between the activism of the 1960’s and the present, and makes no argument for or against ‘revolution’ in Pakistan today.

Sidra Jafri goes a step further in New Pakistan. She views calls for a “Pakistani Spring” as an invitation to “anarchic mayhem.” She explains that people in Arab countries “have to build institutions. We already HAVE institutions. We have the office of the President, Prime Minister, a number of Ministries, a National Assembly. We have the executive, legislative and judicial branches, each with its own catalog of powers and jurisdiction.”

Paracha and Jafri’s attitudes, which resonate more broadly through Pakistan’s middle class, illustrate the role of nationalist chauvinism, a naive appraisal of Pakistan’s political institutions and utter ignorance of Arab history in shaping Pakistani responses to the Arab Spring. That this is an apologetic pride has been implied by various measures, the latest being 107th place (out of 110 states) on the 2011 Legatum Prosperity Index. Needless to say, the assumptions of such indexes leave room for error, but it cannot be ignored that all of the Arab countries included measured higher, despite their supposedly late moves “out of dictatorship and towards democracy.”

Such chauvinistic and apologetic attitudes are complemented by a more insidious silence on actual relations with the Arab World. The Pakistani political elite is, in fact, working to undermine the Arab Spring and its global ripples. President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani have been busy shuttling between Pakistan and the US-backed Gulf Arab states most threatened by the voices of change. The expansion of ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain is a matter of public policy, no matter the party in charge of Pakistan. Although framed in economic and cultural terms, these relations are not restricted to jobs, foreign exchange remittances and Muslim brotherhood. It should be recalled that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have provided refuge for two former Pakistani ‘democrats’ in self-imposed exile: Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, respectively. Military cooperation is no less important. In the case of Bahrain, Pakistani police and army personnel have been exported to shore-up the beleaguered monarchy’s security forces. Little else can be expected from a Pakistani establishment that is no less autocratic and no more sovereign than Gulf emirs. The Pakistani middle and working classes’ scant regard for these realities speaks of different problems altogether.

The failure of Pakistan’s political elites – military and civilian, secular and Islamist – to provide even sufficient electricity and water for the needs of the country’s people clearly augments the appeal of Gulf Arab states for many Pakistanis. No matter the abuses of labor and discrimination faced, hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis of all classes are already residents of the Arabian Peninsula. For the middle classes, apart from jobs and pay commensurate with their educations, the Gulf further compensates with a stable infrastructure and the amenities of a consumer lifestyle. Although the experience exposes these Pakistanis to Arabs from Morocco to Yemen, the Arab World relayed to Pakistan passes through the lens of Riyadh and Dubai. There are no substantial Pakistani communities in Tunis or Beirut. Economic reliance on the these Gulf states, along with a distorted image of the broader world of Arabic-speakers, undoubtedly promotes chauvinism and apologetics, while playing a part in crushing coordinated activism with Arab protestors in Egypt or Syria. In fact, the Pakistani middle class seems to be on the same page as the country’s political elites on this issue, perceiving interests to lie with the very Arab monarchies under fire.

Finally, the power of fear must be considered. While Islamist “terrorism” dominates global headlines associated with Pakistan, non-Islamist and state terrorism largely pass under the radar. The Asian Legal Resource Center reports that between May 2010 and 2011, over 120 people have been extra-judicially killed by the state, while thousands have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, abduction, torture and disappearance. According to the World Association of Journalists and Newspaper Publishers, Pakistan topped the list for journalists killed in 2010, and is running second only to Iraq in 2011. This year alone, Karachi’s millions have been caught in the crossfire of running street battles between the armed militias and hired thugs of major political parties, including members of the ruling government. More than 1,500 innocent lives have been lost so far. The state has provided no accountability or justice in any of these cases. Not just livelihoods are at stake. Far too many lives have already been taken.

The bottom-line is that middle and working class capitulation of the streets of Pakistan to the country’s politicos, in the rare moment that so many Arabs, Africans, Europeans and Americans are occupying their own, is ultimately explainable in socio-economic terms. That it is so belies the realization among Pakistanis of that which throngs from Cairo to New York have come to appreciate. The problems of the world’s middle and working classes are the rooted in the current global order – one long dominated by the West, but facilitated by its client political elites in the rest of the world. Pakistan is no exception. Yet, whether as a result of nationalism, the economy or psychology, Pakistanis do not appear to recognize themselves in the people occupying streets and blogging furiously against the incumbent order’s global grip.

M. Reza Pirbhai is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at 
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at: rpirbhai@lsu.edu

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M. Reza Pirbhai is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. His latest book is Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (Cambridge, 2017).

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