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March 2, 2011

Utopia and reality

Top Story

March 2, 2011

The Arab world has been convulsed by people power that has as its vanguard a younger generation taking on regimes entrenched for three decades or more. In quick succession, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya have faced a transformational upsurge with Jordan, Algeria and Yemen registering seismic shocks that are being contained with instant reform packages.
The people of Pakistan watch this panoramic change with an emotional mélange of pain, amazement and, perhaps, envy. The conventional wisdom is that this revolutionary wave will peter out short of Pakistan’s shore. This view is widely held despite the fact that many of the explosive ingredients that have rocked the Arab states are more abundantly present in Pakistan’s body politic. Judged by the traditional drivers of revolutions such as poverty, disease and other manifestations of social marginalisation of vast segments of society, Pakistan should be a more likely candidate for a mass upsurge for change than many of the Arab states.
Since 1990s, alike under political governments and General Musharraf’s dictatorship, resource-constrained Pakistan has been more exposed than most of the Arab states in turmoil today to the darker side of globalisation; the capacity of the state to intervene and reverse impoverisation of millions has visibly shrunk. It is unable to maintain law and order or, for that matter, deliver any kind of security. At the emotive level, the people share the ubiquitous Muslim outrage at injustice – an ingrained Islamic cultural attribute – and there is an extraordinary apprehension of betrayal by the political class. As amongst the Arabs, Pakistanis have a deep sense of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers with which their own government is aligned. Yet there is a sense of complacency that Pakistan is neither Tunisia nor Egypt.
What is the wellspring of this faith that the people of Pakistan will not look for Liberation Squares in their fast disintegrating cities? What

are the building blocks of the breakwater that would roll back the revolutionary wave? The most cogent factor that the dominant political class cites for this optimism is that Pakistan has functioning safety valves such as democratic institutions and considerable freedom of speech. Then there is the collective memory of the people that the final outcome – the denouement – of past mass movements was very different from the one dreamt by the huge but poorly led marches because of forceful interventions by the “deep state” and the military. The Utopia of imagination just dissolved into the grim reality of dictatorship.
Where the rulers may be wrong is that many of the dykes have become vulnerable. Political challenges emerge unpredictably. The internet, the Facebook and the SMS provide alternative means of mobilisation; the minimum they do is to accentuate the disconnect between the younger generation and the ruling elite. New modes of communication, such as 24-hour TV, are driven by market forces to align themselves with popular sentiment rather than an unconvincing official narrative of stability and progress.
Above all, having denuded “reconciliation” of substance, the political class is returning to confrontation. This will impinge negatively on every factor from economic recovery to armed insurgencies.
The present scenario is, admittedly, not conducive to a quick liberating revolution; in fact, it portends something worse: descent into anarchy, drift and inane violence spreading from megacities like Karachi to small towns and even rural areas. Revolutions can have a creative dynamic; anarchy only breeds nihilism. Pakistan has not reached the proverbial tipping point as yet. It needs to radically rethink domestic and foreign policies and not retreat into facile optimism if it wants to protect democracy.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: [email protected]

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