The South Asia Channel
Repeat after me: Pakistan is not Egypt
Will Pakistan go the way of Tunisia and Egypt? Are we on the verge of witnessing throngs of discontented Pakistanis storming the streets of Islamabad and Karachi seeking an end to a wobbly democratic regime with an ever-attentive military establishment keeping a tight leash on its extraordinary privileges? It’s not completely fanciful. Some key similarities ...
Will Pakistan go the way of Tunisia and Egypt? Are we on the verge of witnessing throngs of discontented Pakistanis storming the streets of Islamabad and Karachi seeking an end to a wobbly democratic regime with an ever-attentive military establishment keeping a tight leash on its extraordinary privileges?
It’s not completely fanciful. Some key similarities do exist between Pakistan and Tunisia and Egypt. Obviously, they are predominantly Muslim countries, they have all experienced long periods of authoritarian rule, they have significant military establishments, and they are all U.S. allies to varying degrees. Despite the willingness of their political elites to work with the United States, especially on the "war on terror," significant segments of their populace remain either hostile toward or suspicious of the United States.
These common features might well lead some to conclude that Pakistan could be on the precipice of a political upheaval, and indeed, Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was recently forced to defend against the comparisons. Despite these seemingly compelling similarities, it is unlikely that Pakistan will witness a societywide political uprising that will challenge the existing political order.
Pakistan did see street demonstrations of some force that helped contribute to the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf in 2008. On that occasion, a large cross section of Pakistan’s legal community spearheaded the movement to unseat him. Yet Musharraf’s resignation, while paving the way to more free and fair elections, did not lead to any fundamental changes in Pakistan’s political order. The country’s constitution remained in place, familiar political figures contested the elections, and the prerogatives of the security establishment remained intact. Consequently, the street protests, though widespread, were almost completely focused on the removal of Musharraf from political office and little else.
Indeed, previous military dictators did resign as a consequence of extensive political disenchantment with their rules. (The most notable example is Ayub Khan, who resigned in 1969, upon facing growing opposition to his regime in the wake of an inconclusive war with India in 1965 and the subsequent sputtering of economic growth.) Yet the end of these regimes did not usher in democracy. Instead, Yahya Khan, another senior military officer, seized political power. It was only in the aftermath of the disastrous and bloody civil war in East Pakistan — now Bangladesh — in 1971, which invited Indian intervention and led to the breakup of Pakistan, that a fundamental shift took place in the country’s political dispensation. Following the breakup of the country, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto helped fashion a new democratic constitution in 1973.
Since then Pakistan has witnessed two military coups — in 1977 and in 1999 — but the constitutional order has remained mostly intact. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who overthrew and subsequently executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, did pass some draconian laws, but he did not seek to draft a new constitution.
Why has Pakistan not seen, and is unlikely to see, street demonstrations of the order that have swept aside the regime in Tunisia and now threatens the one in Egypt? The reasons are complex. Despite the elements that Pakistan has in common with both those states, there are important differences. Pakistanis have enjoyed, for varying lengths of time, the advantages of democratic, civilian rule even though they have yet to vote an elected government out of power. The all-powerful military apparatus has frequently stepped in when it has deemed that the civilian regime has either proved to be unstable or breached some invisible but nevertheless real boundaries. Despite the tenuousness of democratic regimes, they are not unknown in Pakistan, as they are in Tunisia and Egypt.
Separately, thanks to spasmodic experiences with democracy, Pakistan has a working judiciary. It is not always completely independent, but it is also not a plaything of existing regimes. Consequently, on occasion it has sought, however feebly, to assert its opinions. Most recently, Musharraf’s attempt to tame what he deemed was an unpredictable chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, provoked the wrath of the judiciary and led to the undoing of his regime. While the judiciary in Egypt had acquired a modicum of hard-won independence from the time of President Anwar Sadat, the same cannot be said for the courts in Tunisia.
Along with periodic, if not regular elections and a quasi-independent judiciary, Pakistan also has viable political parties. Internal democracy in these parties may be sorely lacking, but they do provide avenues for political association and mobilization. In a related vein, Pakistan has also seen the emergence of an incipient, albeit still minuscule, civil society. In Tunisia civil society has been anemic and in Egypt increasingly beleaguered.
Finally, even though it remains highly uneven in quality of reporting, Pakistan does have a free press. Indeed, some columnists and commentators have often displayed extraordinary courage in challenging the positions of the existing regime and have even dared to criticize the security establishment on particular occasions, something that rarely seemed to happen in Egypt and Tunisia. The Committee to Protect Journalists described press freedoms in Egypt as "deplorable" in 2010, and another press-monitoring organization characterized Tunisia as one of the "most repressive" conditions for journalists.
The existence of these institutions — elections, the judiciary, political party system, and a relatively free press — has enabled Pakistan to survive successive waves of sectarian violence, economic distress, political assassinations, and social instability in various parts of the country. Today even as the nation faces multiple social and economic cleavages and routine political instability, it can still cling to its anemic institutions with some hope. For most Pakistanis, the current political structure, though hardly felicitous, is preferable to a societywide struggle to usher in a new but entirely unknown political order. Pakistan’s political future is far from stable, but it is highly unlikely to go the way of Tunisia or Egypt.
Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science, is the director of research at the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington.