A Pakistani revolution of the Optimus Populares

Published September 11, 2014
Pakistan’s current revolutionaries are somehow managing to be both Populares and Optimates at the same time.
Pakistan’s current revolutionaries are somehow managing to be both Populares and Optimates at the same time.

I keep thinking about the Gracchi brothers. It’s Roman history stuff, so bear with me while I expand on this — I swear there’s a point to it.

Halfway through the next paragraph, your eyes will glaze over and you’ll start switching to the tab with your Twitter feed or your Facebook, or whatever subreddit you haunt. Go ahead, check it and come back. I’ll still be here expounding into the void.

The Gracchi Brothers (a great name for a line of designer men’s togas) lived over a hundred years before Caesar, in the days of the republic. Back then, Rome was run by the senate, which was comprised entirely of aristocrats, who either inherited their positions or bought their way into them.

Sound familiar?

While a member of the plebian class (the average Roman without a great deal of wealth to command) could, in theory, take part in the election, it was priced out of their reach through mass corruption. Everyone got to a position of power through a combination of gross bribery and birthright. And unless you had the money to buy your votes, you were never going to be a contender.

Sounds modern right? You’d think 2,000 years later we’d have a better system in place.

The problem this created was that the entire system — government, economy, military service, land ownership — all got manipulated so that they only benefited the aristocracy. The plebeians got cut out of everything, and they discovered they really had no avenues of approach to voice their complaints. Or rather, they could voice them, but just not loud enough to be heard.

Into this vacuum stepped Tiberius Gracchus, the rich son of a politically powerful family, with all the aristocratic heritage needed to guarantee a cushioned seat in the senatorial ranks. Except, he didn’t take that seat.

Instead, Tiberius snubbed his rich and powerful peers and got himself elected to a position that represented the interests of the plebs. Then, he used that position to demand genuine changes in the system that would create equality and limit senatorial control.

It should come as no surprise that he was clubbed to death by his senatorial opponents not soon after.

His brother, Gaius, took up the bloodied baton and also appealed to the masses, using their popular momentum to propel himself against the senatorial elite and demand the same fixes to the broken and corrupt system that his brother had.

He was chased out of the city and had to commit suicide to escape a violent and painful death.

In the end, however, it was too late for the senators. The fuse that the Gracchi brothers had lit, sparked its way through many other populist leaders. Each one was put down violently by the entrenched powers and each subsequent one evolved a thicker defensive hide (usually made up of supporters) and a more aggressive offensive approach (usually also made up of supporters).

In the end, after civil wars and enough dead Romans to choke the Tiber, the system was damaged irrevocably and the fixes came too late. Rome went on for many centuries as an empire, but the Republic was too fractured to continue.

That’s all historical fact. We know it happened, but that’s not what interests me. The part that I like to wonder about is why it happened.

Why did the Gracchi brothers take up the cause of the suffering masses?

Was it because they were empathetic to their fellow Romans?

Or, was it because they realised it was another way to gain power and prestige?

Republican Rome was a notoriously competitive society, in which exceptionalism was the demand placed on every individual. In games like that, the better players soon realise that cheating gets you closer to the top ranks, than the slow and inexorable route prescribed by tradition.

Were the Gracchi brothers motivated by a need for attention and power, or because they wanted to see equality and justice? And even more importantly, does it matter? Should actions be judged by the intentions behind them? The grievances they spoke to were legitimate, even if their personal objectives more selfish.

So what’s this got to do with Pakistan?

If you made it this far into my thesis, the rest should be fairly straightforward.

Do the intentions motivating Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri change their goals?

Should they? I don’t know.

I think with Imran Khan the motivations are an interesting blend of personal ego and genuine idealism. I think anyone who doubts that Tahirul Qadri is a self-serving fraud is smoking some truly potent stuff that I’d love to try some time. I also think the entire current crisis has to do with the fact that neither man is willing to sit another five years on the sidelines and that impatience is what is causing this preemptive demand for a fresh election.

But it doesn’t matter what I, or anyone else thinks, because the argument they make is indisputably valid.

Also read: ‘Contained’: Imran, Qadri protest to the same tune

Claiming that the previous election was free of rigging and corruption is silly. Most of the columnists and opinion-makers issuing such claims these days were just as vocally pointing out the rigging during the election. They have all developed convenient amnesia now because they can’t quite bring themselves to admit that just because Imran Khan and TuQ are saying it, doesn’t make it wrong.

The protesting duo are right in that the system is horrendously corrupt and Nawaz Sharif probably stuffed more than a few ballots to get back into the Prime Minister house. Just because the truth comes from a place you dislike, doesn’t make it any less honest.

What worries me is where this will go.

There is a standard template for these sorts of populist sit-ins. It starts with the protest, then there is a violent response to the protest, then there is either an overthrow of the government necessitated by the violent response, or a retaliatory punch-counter punch dynamic settles in, which leads to an eventual civil war.

Sometimes that initial violent response against the protest is discovered to be fabricated by outside forces hoping to escalate the confrontation (army, other political parties, CIA wanting compliant governments during the Cold War, etc.). Other times it’s caused by stupid leaders making stupid decisions. PML-N showed themselves predictably capable of just such stupidity during the Model Town incident, although they’ve managed to rein in their baser instincts this time around (so far, anyway).

If, however, violence does break out and Imran Khan is hurt or worse, then things will escalate very quickly. So far, the mass of middle class supporters, the PTI’s real power which the other parties don’t have access to, has sat at home. They’ve limited their protests to online trolling and gone about their day jobs. But if they are motivated to take to the streets in anger, then Pakistan could see some truly uncontrollable violence again.

I personally don’t think it’ll come to that. I think Nawaz Sharif has copied a page from Asif Ali Zardari’s playbook and decided to just look the other way and pretend none of this is happening. It’s how the governments have always dealt with the pleading relatives of massacred minorities, and Baloch activists.

It seems unlikely to work though, only because both Imran Khan and TuQ have staked their reputations here.

TuQ might slink away, burrowing under his container until he tunnels his way through to the Canadian Embassy, but Imran prides himself on his stubborn refusal to accept defeat. He might change his attitude if some face-saving concession is offered, but either way this’ll probably drag on for a while if the current approach continues.

However, the slowing pace of confrontation seems to speak to the main weakness in this protest.

I began by detailing the Gracchi brothers because I wanted to raise the question of whether intentions affect the purity of the demand. It’s a philosophical question that I have no easy answer to, but I do think it’s worth considering.

Do we want Tahirul Qadri to end corruption in Pakistan, if it means he gets greater authority over our lives?

But the other lesson to be taken from the Roman brothers is that both were attacked by the entrenched powers, because the changes they demanded were a direct threat to that entrenchment. They weren’t going after a single leader or a single political party, but the entire structure of leadership and all the major political parties.

The current protests in Pakistan, however, are being tolerated because they are focused on the PML-N. They do not demand any genuine alterations of the system that might take resources from the elite and redistribute to the masses.

Tahirul Qadri’s charter is vague and generic enough to not really be worth anything. Imran Khan only wants a re-election. Neither is asking that those with authority and control relinquish any of that same authority and control.

The Gracchi’s were ‘Populares’, in that their every action favored the people. The opposite of the ‘Populares’ in Rome were the ‘Optimates’, those who sought to increase the power of the senate elite and suppress autonomy of the plebs. You were either one or the other, and usually the former gained strength and prestige from the intensity of reaction presented by the latter.

The more the guys in-charge hated you, the more the guys below loved you.

Pakistan’s current revolutionaries are somehow managing to be both Populares and Optimates at the same time, which means they aren’t a threat to the system overall.

It makes me think that even if there is a re-election and the PTI wins the seats it realistically should have in the last election, and somehow Tahirul Qadri manages to fool everyone into installing a container in the Prime Minister house (you’re a fool if you think he’ll settle for anything less), things won’t change overall. In fact, they might stay disappointingly similar to how they currently are.

There is one other aspect that bears watching though. Every Roman populist after Tiberius and Gaius learned from the lessons presented by history. One was stabbed when he left his house, so the next didn’t leave his house. That one was murdered in his quarters, so the next one ran away from Rome altogether. They formed gangs to protect themselves, then ran gangs in the street to preemptively attack their opponents and detractors. On and on, until Julius Caesar came along and decided the only way to truly achieve populist goals was to march an army on Rome and declare himself dictator for life.

What, I worry, will be the lessons learned by the next generation of populist agitators in Pakistan?

Will they see that playing the democratic game only gets you a rigged election and a morose, borderline farcical sit-in at the Red Zone, but it also keeps you alive?

Or will they decide the prize is worth the risk and gamble for complete power by breaking the system entirely?

Whatever it is, and whenever it happens, we’ll have to decide what is more important — the motivations driving the change, or the change itself.



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