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Will there be mass protests?

EVEN as bullets and batons flashed across Cairo’s Tahrir Square, many wondered what it would take for a popular uprising to sweep Pakistan. MQM chief Altaf Hussain once again invited the army to support a peaceful people’s revolution; leftist organisations revived rallying cries; and the blogosphere speculated whether Raymond Davis’s killing of two Pakistanis would trigger mass protests.

Expectations became so intense that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was forced to defend his government and remind the world that Pakistan is not Egypt or Tunisia.

That may be so, but it is tempting to draw parallels. Like Egypt, Pakistan is home to a young, underemployed, media-addicted population well poised to take to the streets. A recent New York Times article offers a laundry list of reasons why Pakistanis should protest: the economy is teetering, food inflation is soaring, fuel shortages are rife, and the unemployment rate is up to 34 per cent. Add to that religious fervour, rabid anti-Americanism and rampant corruption and you’ve got a veritable Molotov cocktail. Despite these echoes, it seems unlikely that Pakistanis will mimic their Egyptian counterparts.

This is primarily because our social fabric is too frayed to hold us together. Our society increasingly emphasises difference rather than celebrates similarity. Decades of manipulative politicking under military regimes have fractured civil society and factionalised politics — we will always see ourselves through an ethnic, sectarian or socio-economic lens before we see ourselves as Pakistani. The rhetoric of our politics, education and sermonising is primed for exclusion, for shunning those who do not comply with our worldview as ‘others’, ‘foreign agents’, ‘blasphemers’, or worse.

But collective action is necessarily inclusive. Before we can take to the streets, we have to shelve mutual suspicions and agree on something — or someone — worth fighting for. In 2007, the person of the Supreme Court chief justice and the principle of an independent judiciary gave us reason to unite for change. But as Salman Taseer’s assassination revealed, much has changed since then. In a society that tolerates intolerance and rewards vigilantism, Pakistanis will find peaceful consensus of the sort seen in Cairo impossible to muster.

Moreover, it is challenging to have the courage of your convictions in a culture of patronage politics. Success and survival in Pakistan depend on who you know, not what you are able to do. Given the country’s history of tumultuous politics and takeovers, it is impossible to know who might one day be in a position to offer you opportunity, clemency, electricity or anything else you might need. Knowing this, many Pakistanis may be unwilling to take bold actions that could upset the person who will unpredictably hold power in the future.

Cynicism and fatalism also run deep in the Pakistani psyche, quelling the revolutionary spirit. The agonisingly cyclical nature of our politics, the perpetual seesaw between civil and military, always returning to square one — these phenomena have tainted the public’s belief in change. By now, Pakistanis know that while the façade might change, the facts remain the same.

There is, of course, one antidote to Pakistani cynicism, and that is charismatic leadership. Years of authoritarian rule have ensured that we suffer from a saviour complex. We lie in wait for that one person who has all the answers. As Abbas Zaidi recently blogged for Newsline, “Pakistanis are essentially tamashbeen, spectacle-loving people — and we will cheer on with gusto anyone who does our dirty work, while we sit and watch.”

The most remarkable thing about the throngs in Tahrir Square is that they don’t know what comes next. They’re not marching to install a new leader in Hosni Mubarak’s place; they’re simply marching for the right to choose who should rule, and within what parameters. Such open-ended protest is anathema to Pakistanis. We will only storm the streets when someone convinces us that they can fix our problems. The current system of dynastic politics that only offers the usual suspects and their progeny as alternatives suggests that a new personality to spur protests will be hard to come by.

Understandably, these social factors have renewed concerns about an Iran-style Islamic revolution in Pakistan. Mullahs could offer what is currently lacking: a fresh perspective, new leaders, and the all-encompassing panacea of Islam to help us transcend differences. But Pakistan’s pulpits are as polarised as its political circles — consider the recent case in Muzaffargarh where Deobandi-Barelvi tensions led to an imam being charged with blasphemy. Religious rhetoric will certainly facilitate cleaving, rather than the social cohesion that collective action demands.

Pragmatic considerations also limit Pakistan’s capacity for mass protest. A citizenry that contended with more than 50 suicide bombings last year will feel circumspect about taking to the streets. Protesters derive courage from safety in numbers, but terrorism has led us to fear crowds.

Pakistan is also highly weaponised and protesters are likely to carry arms, unlike Egyptians who relied on prayer and calls for peace to fend off security agencies and Mubarak’s supporters. This reality would likely lead to a more prompt and brutal state response to any mass movement in Pakistan, and could also spark secondary conflicts among protesters.

Still, there is little cause for government complacency. Overnight, the pervasive media could make today’s non-entity tomorrow’s protest leader.

Rapid urbanisation — half of all Pakistanis will be city based by 2030 — will also exacerbate conditions that foment unrest: poverty, joblessness, proximity and access to information flows. As long systemic problems are not addressed, Karachi, or Multan, or Peshawar could be the new Cairo.

Until then, instead of the scent of jasmine, we will have to make do with the stench of sociopolitical rot.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC. huma.yusuf@gmail.com


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