Why Pakistan is not Egypt

People are wishing for a revolution in Pakistan like the Middle East without any intelligible points of reference between the two

Jubilation at the momentous events taking place in the Middle East has rapidly and perhaps predictably, been accompanied by comparisons between the situation in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya with that of Pakistan. Talk shows, newspaper columns and even casual conversations are all littered with what Hamid Dabashi has perceptively identified as ‘lazy cliches, phony metaphors, and easy allegories’ meant to prevent people from properly understanding the precise nature of the events in the Middle East where despite similarities, each country has its particularities.

Everyone from Altaf Hussain to Imran Khan is talking about a revolution without uttering a word about what it means and what it would look like in Pakistan. Confusion surrounding the lessons of the uprisings is so high that a group of young protesters recently gathered in Liberty Roundabout, Lahore (perhaps Pakistan’s ‘Tahrir Square’ according to the protesters?) in support of the Egyptian people’s struggle as well as to ‘condemn democracy’ and call for an Islamic Revolution for the establishment of a Caliphate in Pakistan.

It seems as if people are simply wishing for a revolution in Pakistan now that the process has begun in the Middle East without any intelligible points of reference between the two. However, if history is anything to go by, the problems and prospects of the Pakistani revolution are going to arise out of the country’s specific history despite similarities with the Arab world.

The starting point of the discussion has to be the fact that all countries are a part of the global capitalist system that has been in the making for the past 500 years. Moreover, unlike current mantras of ‘globalisation’ this world system is built on the difference between the underdeveloped (formerly colonised and subjugated) countries and the developed formations. Therefore, at a high-level of abstraction there are similarities between all underdeveloped countries (and not just between an ‘Imagined Islamic Community’ as the Islamists assert) due to their shared histories of colonial and post-colonial domination that was once encapsulated in the notion of the ‘Third World.

The countries of the South have all been subjected to neo-liberal restructuring that has inflicted widespread poverty, inequality and unemployment on these societies. There are of course other similarities: one relates to the so-called demographic time bomb whereby the majority of the population (more than 60 per cent) in Pakistan and Egypt is below the age of 30 years.

The unemployment unleashed by neo-liberal prescriptions has hit sections of the youth the hardest with youth unemployment extremely high in both these countries. Lack of jobs coupled with increased access to education and a longing for social mobility has created widespread frustration which has been instrumental in fuelling the present resurgence of Arab nationalism in the Middle East; this nationalism is precisely the point of departure between the revolutionary process in Egypt and the situation in Pakistan.

The sense of a continuous shared identity is extremely well-engrained in most of the Arab world especially Egypt, which was the birthplace of modern Arab nationalism. That nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s was built on the foundations of anti-colonialism, secular citizenship and social welfare but the ‘political form’ for implementing these changes were authoritarian, one-party states with strong military apparatuses (minus of course the Gulf states where monarchies of various ‘Islamic’ colours rule to this day). The current wave of unrest is challenging precisely this authoritarian political form with the aim of greater democratisation within the nation-state. Nowhere are the people questioning the contours of the nation-state itself; in other words, there is no ‘national question’ around the territorial integrity of the nation-state but a straight forward ‘political question’ around the best form of managing the existing territory.

This is in stark contrast to Pakistan where the very basis of the nation-state has been under attack from ethnic nationalism since its very inception and the political and national questions are inextricably linked.

As the culmination of a sub-movement within the Indian struggle for independence, Pakistan shared little more than a ‘Muslim’ identity which soon clashed with ethnic identities of the provinces that became Pakistan. The increasing use of Islam by the state was first and foremost meant to counter the competing ethnic nationalism of the Bengalis, Balochis, Sindhis and Pakhtuns who wanted greater economic, political and cultural representation in the new national dispensation.

The military-bureaucratic state failed to realise that Pakistan was and continues to be a multi-ethnic and multi-national state where a composite instead of unitary nationalism would be the best guarantee against territorial fragmentation.
Instead, it chose to suppress the demands of the different provinces resulting in a proliferation of ethnic nationalism.
One does not have to be reminded of the East Pakistan tragedy nor the current conflagration in Balochistan to realise that the greatest difference between the revolutions of the Middle East and Pakistan’s situation is ethno-nationalism. Unfortunately, in their eagerness to draw parallels between Pakistan and Egypt, the mainstream media in Pakistan has conveniently overlooked this basic distinction between the two.As the Arab youths take to the streets and topple one tyrant after another, it will no doubt inspire young people all over Pakistan. However, it would be useful to remember that it is in fact young people (and not waderas and sardars as the common stereotype goes) who form the backbone of the ethno-national movements in Balochistan and Sindh. Thus, while youths in the Punjabi heartlands may be inspired by the movements in the Arab world, the young people of Balochistan and Sindh may draw a different inspiration from these revolts.

The only hope for a nationwide movement and the emergence of a truly representative Pakistani nationalism is the recognition of difference alongside the forging of a common struggle for democracy, social justice and freedom from oppression.

By: Muhammad Ali Jan

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