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Revolution degraded?

February 23, 2011

THE ongoing upsurge in the Arab world against despotic rule has led to the use of the word 'revolution' in Pakistan more frequently than ever. However, there is little evidence of a serious attempt to understand what is happening in Arab countries or the nature of the change Pakistan needs.

The word 'revolution' means different things to different people. The offers a variety of meanings: i) “A period or instance of significant change or radical alteration of a particular condition, state of affairs, etc; ii) The complete overthrow of an established government or social order by those previously subject to it; iii) A forcible substitution of a new form of government; iv) The violent overthrow of the ruling class and the seizure of power through control of the means of production by a class to whom such control was previously denied.” ancien regime

The dictionary meaning of the term apart, 'revolution' has been understood by students of politics as a convulsion through which a people not only retrieve their sovereign rights from despotic rulers, aliens or of indigenous origin, but also bring about the changes in their socio-economic as well as political relationships that the had blocked. Thus, a genuine revolution is always taken to mean a positive development in a people's march towards winning their rights, towards their fuller self-realisation. Any turmoil that results in a curtailment of these rights is considered a regression or counter-revolution or a putsch at best.

It is on this criteria that the American, French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Iranian and South African revolutions have been recognised as genuine currency and the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile denounced as counter-revolution and Ayub Khan's claims of bringing about a 'white revolution' dismissed as a cruel joke.

There have also been far more numerous popular uprisings that miscarried for want of a leadership that had a clear vision of its ideal and also the means to achieve it. Whatever the extent of violence used in such eruptions and however complete a change of guard ushered in by them, these events are not accepted as revolutions. More often than not, they only denote a popular desire for a revolutionary change.

Before attempting an answer to the question as to whether the Arab revolt will carry over to Pakistan one may try to grasp the nature of this revolt. There is a special reason to be wary of describing these events as the second Arab awakening. The Arabs are still paying for their first awakening which is generally located in their revolt against the Ottomans, under the leadership of Lawrence of Arabia, a title coined in the imperialist military practice of adding to their heroes' names the territories conquered by them.

No doubt the Arab revolt of 1918-19 was to some extent inspired by their legitimate desire for self-determination. But its leadership was not indigenous and it had had little time to define its political ideals and the need for any socio-economic change was never mentioned.

What did this awakening give to the Arab people? They got rid of a crude despotism only to fall into the clutches of a sophisticated tyranny and they were divided into fiefdoms in the sole interest of the victors in the war for colonies in Asia and Africa. On the one hand, the seeds of disunity in the great Arab family were sown, and, on the other, the first step towards the creation of Israel was taken. The Balfour Declaration, the plan to divide Palestine and the establishment of Israel in 1948 all were the consequences of British seizure of Palestine as a mandated territory.

In the so-called second awakening of the Arabs there is as yet no sign of a forward-looking force capable of carrying out a positive revolution. The people have certainly given vent to their anger at decades-long repression and denial of basic rights, resulting in the creation of a situation in which a revolution could have been possible but is unlikely to take place.

In Tunisia, the head of state has been thrown out but the system has not been touched. In Egypt's 'faceless revolution', neither a revolution has taken place nor is the change faceless. What has happened is that the armed forces that protected Hosni Mubarak chose to stop doing so and rehabilitated themselves with the masses first by not killing them in the Tahrir Square and later on by giving Mubarak marching orders. In all the Arab states, the first beneficiary of the present wave of democratic stirrings will be the armed forces.

The Pakistani people can easily appreciate the real significance of the tumult in the Arab lands because it is broadly following the pattern of Pakistan's revolutions and counter-revolutions. If the Quaid's view of Pakistan as a self-governing state was revolutionary in concept, governor-general Ghulam Mohammad's use of armed forces to re-establish the colonial connection was a counter-revolutionary leap. Iskander Mirza used the armed forces to block the state's transition to democracy and the Ayub coup against him amounted to pushing the country back into the pre-democracy era.

The people did take to the streets in 1968-69 and 1977, but the nature of change was not determined by them. On both occasions, the armed forces decided the outcome by withdrawing their support from Ayub Khan in the first event and from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the latter case.

Once again, the people's anger at unbearable suffering is pushing them into a revolutionary-looking situation but they cannot see any political organisation in the field that might lead them to a revolution in their interest. The so-called mainstream parties are merely warning the people of the collapse of the democratic façade if they do not accept their leaders as absolute rulers. The religio-political factions are threatening the people with an end to the democratic experiment altogether and a return to the age of inquisition.

Pakistanis and Arabs are both paying for falling for the arms dealers' theory of state security. They have sought protection solely by buying or borrowing arms for their standing armies and suppressing democratic politics. All these states have brutally exterminated the elements that could create pro-people revolutions and allowed only such political factions that consider each other their worst enemies. In their zeal to eliminate political opposition, the regimes also eliminated their own political parties. In quite a few cases, these states have tolerated and even facilitated the rise of mosques and madressahs as the armed services' auxiliary centres.

In Pakistan the politicians have moved so far away from their legitimate calling that the dysfunctional head of a supposedly functional faction is saying to the people 'arise in the name of revolution, the armed forces will stand by you'. The freak exercise in sane politics that resulted in the Charter of Democracy has been forgotten and we are back in the 1990s when the first objective of each major political party was to destroy its civilian competitors. This path will surely lead to one putsch after another. The only way to escape this frightening prospect is to let the people forge the instruments of revolution through activation or establishment of political parties that merit this title.