Why is there no revolt in Pakistan?
By Farhana Qazi
The opinions expressed are her own.
A week after Bin Laden’s death, Pakistanis are restless. An overall atmosphere of instability and insecurity looms over the country. Islamabad is trying to respond to daily accusations and admonitions from abroad and from its own citizens. Record fuel and food prices leave millions starving. The government in power lacks the respect of most citizens. The country’s spy agency has links with militants it will not acknowledge. The country’s politics is punctuated by political assassinations and periodic truces with ethnic and tribal-based groups that often fail. One might conclude that Pakistan is a country ready for revolution.
And yet, there is no revolt, nothing akin to the street power that is witnessed on the streets of Tunis and in Tahir Square. Why not? Why are the people in Pakistan not revolting against a government that is corrupt, conniving and clearly confused on how to handle the Bin Laden operation? Where is Pakistan’s youth, the essential drivers of change? Where are the university students, doctors, engineers, rickshaw drivers, musicians and more?
The answer is simple. Pakistan is a divided country that lacks the tools to organize a mass protest, much less a full-fledged, well-organized revolution. The vision for a united Pakistan espoused by the Western-educated, secular founder of the country, Muhammah Ali Jinnah, evaporated when he died on September 11, 1948. Pakistan is torn by ethnic, tribal, and religious loyalties. Add terrorists and troublemakers to the mix. Include the mafia and mystics. Suddenly, Pakistan becomes what most refer to as a “complex” state and society.
As a lecturer on Pakistani topics, I subscribe to the famed axiom that is used to describe the nation: Pakistan is a country of contradictions. I have tried to resist this slogan. But in December 2007, when the respected diva of the Pakistan People’s Party Benazir Bhutto was killed during a campaign rally, I repeated on CNN what I have learned from Pakistanis themselves. Benazir herself, and the hundreds of Pakistanis who mourned her demise, could not change the political climate. Instead of opting for reform, Pakistanis voted for her widower, the current do-nothing President Asif Zardari, who has become a household joke. Or an American stooge.
To be fair, even within this stifled climate, I have seen extraordinarily devoted Pakistanis fight for human rights, gender equality, individual freedoms, legal transparency, and basic social services, such as roti, kapra aur makan—food, clothing and shelter, the slogan of the current party in power.
Surprisingly, Pakistanis do take to the streets at selective times of crisis. The lawyer’s movement in 2007 is the most telling example. When the Chief of the Supreme Court Justice Muhammad Iftikar Chaudury was ousted by then-General President Pervez Musharraf, the men in black united to restore their leader. Coupled with intense media coverage, the revolt arguably forced Musharraf’s resignation months later. The return of Chaudury was for many Pakistanis a historic and sea-change event that symbolized the return of democracy.
On other occasions, people chant in unison against domestic policies and international incidents, such as inflation and the Danish cartoon controversy. But these revolutionary-like Pakistanis do not represent the interests of the masses. They belong to a select non-profit organization, represent a specific ethnic group, identify with a particular religious doctrine, and choose a political affiliation tied to an ethnic brand. Given this incredibly complex web of identities, Pakistanis revolt as collectives, not as a unified movement.
This explains why small-scale protests have not altered the business of the state nor yielded long-term tangible results for millions of Pakistanis—many of whose lives are directly affected by the political, economic and social realities of the country.
The political storm that we witness in Pakistan today over the Bin Laden fiasco is not enough for a snowballing protest movement. Alas, there is no new Jinnah. There is no savior to chant the we-are-all-Pakistanis mantra. Clearly, a leaderless revolution cannot stage a “day of rage.”
In the current post-Bin-Laden crisis, it would seem like an opportune time for the Pakistani youth to capitalize on anti-state rhetoric. An agitated population could demand an overhaul of the elites who have little to no accountability or authenticity. This is the time for Pakistanis to seize the momentum and ally with longtime opposition leaders and groups to stage a revolution. And yet, Pakistanis lack the imagination and intuition to join together for a common cause. If Pakistan’s citizens miss their chance to transform the country, then their crowning moment may never come.
Farhana Qazi is a Pakistani-American and a former counter-terrorism analyst in the U.S. government. She currently lectures on Islam and Pakistan to the international community. (She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.