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Opinion

January 7, 2015

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The perils of protest politics

As we busy ourselves with the tasks of engineering a national front against terrorism, it would do us well to also reflect on the political unrest of the passing year. It was a positive decision by the PTI leadership to end their dharna in the wake of the Peshawar tragedy, one that was welcomed across the country with a collective sigh of relief. Till that point, though, there seemed no end in sight to the politics of protest, with the possibility of a violent clash with the government always imminent.
Both Khan and Qadri invoked images of the Arab Spring, drawing parallels between D-Chowk and Tahrir Square and infusing, into the otherwise prosaic environs of the Constitution Avenue, a heady sense of revolutionary fervour. But the problem with protest politics is that there is always only a fine line that separates a peaceful protest from one that is violent and eventually destructive. Egypt, Libya and Syria present the most recent and relevant examples.
The euphoria and promise of the Arab Spring has been turned into dust in these countries and, in the case of Syria and Libya, has been accompanied with the large-scale ruination of physical infrastructure, mass killing of civilians and near total displacement of population. In Egypt alone such disaster has been contained, but only through replacement of the democratic government with a dictatorship now described as being even more stifling than Hosni Mubarak’s. In all these cases, what began as a peaceful, political and civilian protest transformed into a mass militant insurgency in each country against the prevailing order.
As the world hastened to celebrate the end of dictatorial regimes, with the west jumping in promptly with its bombs, guns and sanctions as the sole champion of human rights, mayhem and chaos spread across Syria and Libya threatening the fragile peace of the neighbourhood. In the heat of the moment the arbiters of violent change and their western allies either forgot to formulate

a substitute model of governance with a strategy for its implementation once the desired change had been obtained, or arrogantly and ignorantly imagined that the western democratic model would be handy as the panacea, and plausibly take root without much trouble. They were wrong.
With Qaddafi dead and the General National Congress of Libya declaring the formation of a national government, armed militias – the original vanguards of the Libyan civil war – refused to lay down arms, claiming that the revolution was not over. Similarly, with Basher al-Assad refusing to concede power and upping the ante with the carpet bombing of rebel strongholds across Syria, the rebel alliance began to disintegrate into pockets of resistance with independent, disorganised and ineffective leadership. Such has been the fallout of most of the Arab Spring, the logical outcome of armed uprisings with no structure and no leadership to govern and temper their ambitions, to combine them into a single cohesive movement with the essential purpose of restoring peace. Having endured four years of armed conflict, therefore, each one of the ragtag militias across Syria and Libya have decided that the only acceptable end is one that will see them lodged in the seat of government. Violence, drift and absence of direction define this new hapless situation.
The state of the remaining civilian populace is indeed tragic; in both countries they have lost families, jobs, homes and personal capital. Most are handicapped and traumatised with the horrors of a mad war. None possess any hope of ever reclaiming the normal lives they enjoyed prior to the conflict. And all now regret ever becoming part of the movements that had naively promised for them a better future. Other than the human cost is the decimation of history that both countries have endured, with their monuments, museums and most heritage sites reduced to the rubble of the revolution that failed – mute reminders of human fallibility.
Another common denominator in radical politics of the last two decades is the decidedly religious idiom through which such movements have either been forged, or which have eventually co-opted such movements in their entirety. Across the Middle East, religious groups, both militant and pacifist, have lain in wait to capitalise on the spoils of political unrest. The Muslim Brotherhood was looking to cement its rule in Egypt but was ousted by the military. In Libya and Syria, however, militant Islamist outfits continued to grow in size and now, having captured ever larger swathes of territory, are pitching themselves as the main contenders of political power. Forebodings of a violent and virulent Islam are rampant across the sands of Arabia, its tentacles now reaching the verdant soil of South Asia as well.
There are lessons, then, that ought to be learnt from the recent civil wars of the Middle East. In the main, we must note that a functioning system of governance, no matter how hackneyed and ineffective, is easiest to dismantle but quite difficult to reform or replace. If the former option is chosen, we should caution ourselves with the awareness that a terror infrastructure is well-entrenched across the length and breadth of our country, the enabling environment for which is a reductive and backward religiosity that pervades our social and political landscape.
Any experiment of protest politics, therefore, that aims to overthrow the current political order is likely to spiral into chaos similar to that in Libya and Syria, with stability only perhaps being guaranteed in the event of an army takeover – the Egyptian model. That would cripple any hope of democracy ever being able to consolidate itself again and as history repeats itself (refer to the 80s and 90s of Pakistan), will fuel the forces of sectarian and ethnic strife and sound the death knell of our attempts to resolve the insurgency in Balochistan.
The alternative, a takeover by radical and backward religious elements is liable to attract foreign intervention and, as witnessed in the last two decades of world history, will only result in widespread death and destruction. Back in August, when the mob attacked parliament in Islamabad, we had a close encounter with chaos of the Arab Spring kind. We are fortunate that sanity prevailed and can only pray that the voices of reason continue to reign supreme during this most precarious moment in our country’s history. We have the example of China, which did not impose its governance model on Hong Kong after taking charge and allowed the colony to continue with its system. As a result the recent sit-in, perhaps inspired by foreign elements that cannot digest China’s rise, failed to appeal to the mature citizens of the island and ultimately petered out.
For the PTI and PML-N, and all political parties, it is therefore the time to sort out their differences peacefully and work towards the consolidation and continuity of democratic rule and the supremacy of parliament, both of which have entered 2015 besieged, injured and in need of defence.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kmushir

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