The Muslim world’s current turmoil has one key cause that is rooted in neither religious ideology nor sectarian struggle. In Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey, rapidly-growing and increasingly-assertive middle classes want a say in politics and greater economic opportunity. Modern communication ‘in particular the extensive use of social media’ has enabled this rising middle class to find its voice and to have its voice heard.
What this new middle-class ‘Muslim Street’ wants is an inclusive political system ‘a demand heard not only in Egypt, but also in Iran, as Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the country’s presidential election in June attests. Likewise, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning government has met with considerable resistance as it has sought to define public policy along ever-narrower religious lines. Protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square this summer, triggered by plans to develop a city park, resonated countrywide, because Erdogan has increasingly governed with too exclusive a public in mind.
This conflict, like the one in Egypt, will be resolved only when political systems that institutionalise respect for pluralism and the sensitivities of minorities are established. It also highlights another important aspect of protest politics in the Muslim world. While members of the new middle class appreciate economic progress, they no longer want it to come at the expense of political rights. Economic development must be accompanied by respect for ordinary citizens.
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson advance this line of thought in their recent book ‘Why Nations Fail?’ They emphasize the importance of inclusive political development as a prerequisite for sustained economic growth. Political systems in many emerging countries, they argue, become unstable because their composition is insufficiently representative and their policy preferences are excessively narrow.
Long-term stability requires both political inclusion and equal access to economic opportunities. One large Muslim country, at least, seems to be increasingly determined to reflect the aspirations of middle-class youth while maintaining its Islamic identity. Pakistan may not be the country that springs to mind when people look for an example for the rest of the Muslim world. But Pakistan has been moving in this direction ‘uneasily to be sure’ since before the Arab Spring protests began.
In the last few years, Pakistan and Turkey have managed to push the military away from the centre stage of national politics. Throughout the post-colonial period in the Muslim world, it was the military, as the best-organized public institution, that filled the space occupied elsewhere by political parties, well-established government agencies and professional civil services.
The creation of these institutions is a slow process. Repeated military interventions in large Muslim nations ‘Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey’ have impeded orderly political development. But these countries’ rising middle classes have begun to move their political systems in another direction’ a testament to the power that they now wield.
That progress is likely to be interrupted, but not halted. Given this, the military takeover in Egypt, no less than Erdogan’s violent crackdown on protesters in Istanbul, will be regarded in the long term as a hiccup, not a reversal of the inexorable rise of the Muslim middle class.
The writer, former finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank, is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy in Lahore.