The South Asia Channel

Why Pakistan’s D Chowk Is No Tahrir Square

Large anti-government protests in Islamabad have entered their second month. The protests have converged around D Chowk, a large public square in Islamabad’s government district, located in close proximity to the president and prime minister’s house, the Parliament, and the Supreme Court. The protestors remain divided in two camps: one led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Large anti-government protests in Islamabad have entered their second month. The protests have converged around D Chowk, a large public square in Islamabad’s government district, located in close proximity to the president and prime minister’s house, the Parliament, and the Supreme Court. The protestors remain divided in two camps: one led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, and the other by the Canada-based Sufi cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri. Both leaders have likened their respective sit-ins in Islamabad’s D Chowk with Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests of January 2011, and promised the swift demise of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s regime. However, more than one month on, the departure of the Pakistani government seems increasingly improbable and it is clear that fundamental differences between the Egyptian and Pakistani protests make such comparisons akin to wishful thinking.

To be sure, there are major similarities. Pakistan’s current protests are driven by a general frustration with a system seen as a failure. Corruption, crony capitalism, unemployment, and a worsening social divide are just some of the deep-rooted grievances that have brought thousands to the streets since August, similar to the 2011 Egyptian protests with the rallying cry for freedom and social justice. As was the case with Egypt, in Pakistan, the powerful military emerges as the only potential mediator in the crisis. Despite a turbulent history of political intervention, both militaries remain the most respected and efficient institutions in their respective countries.

Yet, there are glaring differences. First, public support for the protests in Pakistan is not as widespread as it was in Egypt in 2011. Unlike Egypt, last year, Pakistan saw a historical transition of power from one elected civilian government to another. While the protestors condemn the elections as rigged and therefore void, a vast segment of the population believes that the electoral fraud can be investigated without dismantling the current administration. An opinion poll conducted by Gallup in late August found that 66 percent of Pakistanis believe Sharif should remain in office, and 61 percent believe that Parliament should not be dissolved. Even as most Pakistanis share the grievances and the calls for reform, a large swathe of society continues to support the government so that democracy can take root. By contrast, Egypt, in its independent history, had not witnessed any meaningful free elections and thus lacked a segment of society ideologically invested in keeping the government intact.

Second, the roles played by the judiciary in the two countries stand in stark contrast. In Egypt, the judiciary lent its support to the protestors early on: the attorney general imposed travel bans on former ministers and government officials, froze their bank accounts, and ordered criminal investigations. In Pakistan, the judiciary views the protestors as setting dangerous precedents for the nascent democracy. On Sept. 14, an Islamabad court ordered the arrest of 100 protestors for staging illegal protests. Even though the court later ordered the release of the protestors, the Supreme Court refused to entertain Khan’s plea to disqualify Prime Minister Sharif for giving a "false statement" in the National Assembly. Given its history of judicial activism, the court’s ruling was highly significant.

Third, arguably, the motivations of the militaries in the two countries diverge. In Egypt, by 2011, the state security apparatus and a new economic elite increasingly marginalized the military. The Egyptian military, keen to reclaim lost influence, found the perfect opportunity in the groundswell of public protest. Although at pains to appear neutral in the unfolding crisis, by Jan. 31, 2011, the army had issued a statement recognizing the legitimacy of the protestors’ demands, vowing not to use force. This was widely understood as a green light to the protestors.

In Pakistan, the military similarly has a lot to gain from the current situation, but there is a possibility it may already have achieved its ultimate goal. The military has been locked in a confrontation with Prime Minister Sharif over the ongoing treason trial against former President Musharraf on one hand, and the possibility of a normalization of relations with India on the other. Currently engaged in a large-scale military operation against the Taliban and rescue efforts against massive flooding, the military is unlikely to seek political control of the country despite reports that the military may have played a key role in instigating the protests. But it is even less likely to allow the kind of civilian control of the military that Prime Minister Sharif has been coveting. The protests are providing the perfect amount of leverage for the military to get their affairs back in order. As a significantly weakened Sharif reaches out to the military to mediate, the generals are likely to regain control of the state’s security affairs and foreign policy out of the bargain. And so, the military seems close to achieving their objectives without necessitating Sharif’s departure. In contrast, the Egyptian military needed a complete overhaul of Mubarak’s regime to re-establish itself.

The grievances may be similar and the civil-military relations equally tainted, but drawing analogies with Egypt and Pakistan is naïve. There will be no clear winners in this fight, but perhaps the biggest losers will be the frustrated masses camped out at D Chowk.

Faiqa Mahmood writes on security issues in South Asia and the Middle East. She holds a Masters in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of London.

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