A Tahrir effect in Kabul?

It was the late Samuel P. Huntington who coined the term "third wave" for the fall of the fascist but Western-supported regimes of Greece, Spain, and Portugal and their replacement by parliamentarian democracy in the 1970s. This wave then spread to most of Latin America and some countries in East Asia. Starting in 1989, when ...


It was the late Samuel P. Huntington who coined the term "third wave" for the fall of the fascist but Western-supported regimes of Greece, Spain, and Portugal and their replacement by parliamentarian democracy in the 1970s. This wave then spread to most of Latin America and some countries in East Asia. Starting in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, the fourth wave changed Eastern Europe and then spread to sub-Saharan Africa. Is this the fifth wave now, an Arab or even a "Muslim" one? It is only natural that journalists — and other people — wonder whether something like in Tunisia and Egypt might also happen in Afghanistan.

Of course, Ramazan Bashardost, the anti-corruption populist loner in the Afghan lower parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, has already uttered some words about Egypt, but without any visible response. (Remember his battered campaign minibus in 2009 which had the slogan "[Afghan President Hamid] Karzai Coach" sprayed on it, a play on words — when you write this in Dari, "coach" becomes kuch or "travel," like the nomads; in colloquial Dari the slogan meant "Karzai, move on," almost like the irhal or imshi of the Egyptian demonstrators.)

Since the protests in the Middle East started, there were almost a dozen round tables of Afghan analysts and experts, some of whom have worked and studied in Arab countries. Some newspapers and opposition websites have criticized President Karzai for his silence on the changes in Egypt. Dr Abdullah’s Taghir and Omid (Change and Hope) opposition coalition gave a statement that something like in Tunisia and Egypt would also happen in Afghanistan. Finally, and not very surprisingly, the Taliban have already issued a statement saying that President Karzai would be the next to fall. But all in all, the reaction has lacked the intensity of Tunis or Cairo.

There have been dozens of comments on social networks, in particular by those working in the media. They ask each other whether they should stage such demonstrations in Afghanistan, too. But many express their fear that this might drive the country further into chaos, and that opposition groups might take advantage of the protests.

But maybe demonstrations and unrest will come sooner than expected anyway, but in another form. In contrast to the AAN blog, the international media has not followed the continuing drama of the election for the speaker of the Wolesi Jirga very closely. There also has been less than impressive coverage of some worrying developments have happened over the past few days. Behind the scenes, President Karzai seems to be flexing his muscles. He is activating the Special (Election) Court which to which the newly elected MPs had so vigorously objected, only finally agreeing to indirectly accept it in order to get the President to inaugurate the Wolesi Jirga (apparently, 214 of the 249 parliamentarians signed a paper submitted by the President that they would obey any Specials Court decisions. See one of our blogs on this issue here). There are some 80 MPs who are said to be under investigation for fraud and in danger of being disqualified – this is almost on third of the house’s members. Now, the court has sealed all the ballot boxes from September 2010 (it says in order to prevent further manipulations), Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) members have reportedly received "recount or be dismissed" letters and have avoided turning up at work today. Finally, we hear that some police have even surrounded the commission’s offices. Attorneys have reportedly threatened to lock the IEC data centre as well, and are trying to find someone senior to investigate.

If Karzai really sees this through, the parliament might be suspended and rule by decree might be imposed. And it can be expected that the MPs will not accept this without … well, a fight? There have already been demonstrations by the "disappointed" candidates, (*) those who lost their elections – for whatever reason. Not many people joined, though, and the demonstrators remained in their hundreds. But two things were astonishing about these protests: For one thing, candidates of often radically different political backgrounds were joining hands; and on the other, that the demonstrations went peacefully – not only in Kabul, but also along the temporarily blockaded Gardez-Khost road, a blockade performed by the men of Pacha Khan Dzadran, not known for a cool temper. This can happen again, and might become bigger than last time.

But how much bigger? Will they resemble the (not completely peaceful) revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia? Most likely not. Most people seem to see the protesting candidates as following their own interests, i.e. getting their seat in parliament which, as everybody knows, can be worth a lot. It only will become bigger if whoever protests links up with the real issues Afghan people face, like insecurity, unemployment and the corruption that pervades daily life in Afghanistan.

So, it is not only important to ask what may happen and how – but what the circumstances are and whether they are favorable or not.

As Dexter Filkins correctly points out in his first blog post at the New Yorker:

Afghanistan is a long way from Egypt, and is a very different place, but the most important lesson flowing from Tahrir Square seems directly relevant to the American predicament in Central Asia: The quality of governance practiced by our allies matters, and we ignore it at our peril.

Indeed, there are obvious differences between both countries and the character of their respective regimes. To continue with Filkins:

Our local ally, Hamid Karzai, was democratically elected, albeit in an election, in 2009, that was flawed…And whatever else Karzai does, he does not imprison dissidents (at least the non-violent ones) by the thousands or otherwise employ legions of professional torturers.

But he also finds striking similarities: "Corruption in Afghanistan taints virtually every interaction that ordinary Afghans have with their government…and that the Karzai regime is "unpopular," even "hated" and that even among his "natural" base, the Pashtuns.

There is also the dependence of both regimes on U.S. money. Mubarak’s Egypt received $1.5 billion in financial support annually from Washington, $1.3 billion in the military and $200 million in the economic sector. For Afghanistan, the U.S. has spent some $55 billion over the past nine years – with a military/civilian ratio not too different from Egypt. And, as said above, there is mass unemployment, a growing number of university graduates but no jobs for them, rising food prices and so on.

Also the differences are not so big if one looks carefully. In his presidential election in 2005, Mubarak did face some competitors for the first time but even the most popular amongst them, Ayman Nour, did not really have a chance of victory. Karzai, in contrast, had to deal with challengers of another calibre who, on a level playing field, might have won. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, Mubarak made sure that the (officially still banned) main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, did not get a single seat; in the previous election in 2005, it won 88 of the 454 seats, and could probably have won more, but had decided to run for a third of all seats only, in order not to embarrass former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak too much. In Afghanistan, in contrast, the Northern Alliance (in its current incarnation, the Taghir wa Omid coalition) is very much legal, and manipulations were committed by almost all candidates running, on all sides of the political spectrum. Also, freedoms of association and expression are wider in Afghanistan than in Mubarak’s Egypt or Zine Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia. But at the same time, there is a lot of pressure, intimidation and even violence against journalists and human rights activists, Afghan (and international) officials behave secretively and there is a whole list of taboo issues Afghan journalists do not touch – from the role of the jihadi leaders to the dancing boys.

There was manipulation and interference by the executives in both elections in both countries. What distinguishes Afghanistan from Egypt is that the executive is not in all-out control, one could say: rather, the question of who controls Afghanistan has not been settled. The game was more open. Perhaps one could go as far to claim that if he could, Karzai would have tried to emulate Mubarak (see his ongoing attempts to possibly topple the whole Wolesi Jirga through the Special (Elections) Court).

And I am also not too sure about the torturers. There is routine torture in Afghan jails, especially by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), but also by the police (**) and issues of torture and arbitrary detention have been a factor in the rise of the Taliban.

But while the Egyptian state was "strong" and dictatorial, Afghan institutions are too weak to be really able to establish a functioning repressive regime of the type that could quell almost all dissent for decades as existed in Egypt and Tunisia. However, both Egypt’s and Afghanistan’s institutions are too corrupt to do good governance. And, as Filkins points out, the corruption in both countries was/is tolerated by the West for the sake of regime and regional stability.

The other major difference is the ethnic composition of Afghanistan compared with Egypt and Tunisia: while the two Arab countries are much more homogenous (although Egypt has significant Christian minorities), Afghanistan is a patchwork rug of different nations, tribes and languages. This is the basis for all those semi-autonomous power-centers not really controlled by Karzai. In Afghanistan, there is no central government control over the means of violence. Even parts of the official security forces are more loyal to their traditional factions and their leaders then to Kabul and the president – and even more so the semi-official new militias that have sprung up.

Under these circumstances, it becomes very difficult for popular discontent to focus on one enemy. There is simply no Mubarak or Ben Ali in Afghanistan but, as German journalist Marc Thörner writes, "any number of mini-Mubaraks or small Ben Alis." But when your own mini-Mubarak is armed and above the law (and even protects you from other mini-Mubaraks), false loyalties and fears are created. In a quasi-civil war – or whatever the exact definition of the current Afghan turmoil is – you really cannot expect people to turn to the streets because who exactly are they against and what exactly would they want and who exactly would they fear. Even if they often must feel like protesting publicly.

Finally, those who are really sick and tired of the Karzai regime have another option: to join the Taliban. Where else can they go? There is no middle ground, and those who could have become Afghan versions of Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaredei or current Arab League President Amr Moussas squandered their chances to build a viable third force and preferred to join the regime again, instead of taking up the grievances of the people. Unfortunately, the development of political parties has been neglected, not nurtured, so there a very few opportunities for a legitimate and sustainable opposition.

Some Egyptians had already tried the Taliban path earlier on, with the Islamist-jihadist uprising of the Jamaa al-Islamiya, also in the 1990s, which was brutal and which was also brutally crushed. This lead to two completely different developments: On one side, some of those tens of thousands thrown into Mubarak’s jails where they were often terribly tortured were radicalized further. Forced to escape super-repressive Egypt, they carried their jihad to other shores: in Afghanistan, the Jamaa remnants under Ayman al-Zawahri merged with Bin Laden’s Maktab al-Khedamat which had supported the anti-Soviet mujahedin from Peshawar and founded al-Qaeda. In that sense, Mubarak was al-Qaeda’s original midwife, an interesting footnote of history. On the other side, the mainstream of the Jamaa renounced violence and joined the Muslim Brotherhood in an astonishing political evolution towards (more) understanding of pluralism, individual rights and freedoms.

So, if there is a "Tahrir effect" in Kabul it might become much messier than in Egypt or Tunisia. With many different actors and divergent interests, it might end in turmoil. And if demonstrations in Kabul start, it does not automatically mean that the cities of Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif or Kandahar will follow – or go in the same direction. Moreover, the Egyptians were building on past mass actions – workers’ strikes and the Kefaya (Enough) movement. Mass popular protests are much rarer in Afghanistan.

Finally, there are the international troops. How will they react if demonstrations and turmoil happen and the Kabul government comes under real pressure? And what will the international community do? Both troops and diplomats have the mandate to support the "central government" interpreted as being the same thing as the "Karzai government" so far, swallowing corruption and celebrating massively manipulated elections as "progress." As in Egypt, sooner or later the West will end up at the end of the one-way street. Then the tough question, which they have hoped to sit out, will demand clear answers.

(*) After the 2009 parliamentary elections, there also were some (Iran-inspired) mini-rallies in Kabul where protestors also asked ‘Where is my vote?’

(**) See a recent report on links between torture, arbitrary detention and the rise of the Taliban here and a discussion of NDS torture here and here.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where a version of this post was originally published. He speaks Pashto and Dari. 

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