Look at both Tunisa and Egypt: Modern and fairly secular in social outlook; educated societies more developed in their worldview than many of their Muslim brethren in other countries. Also, both have retained remnant effects of the composite culture of their colonising powers, while the structures of systems of governance and statecraft were Arabised to suit their needs. Egypt, which acts as a leader amongst the Muslim nations, has a peace treaty with Israel — a first for any Muslim country — and is considered politically progressive when the majority sentiment in the Middle East remains strongly anti-Israel. The intellectual tradition in Egypt is well-founded and continues to provide the underpinnings of a discourse parallel to that of the Ikhwan alMuslimeen which, in its own right, has strong intellectual foundations with views contrarian to those of the extremist Salafi bent. Al Azhar remains a paragon of Islamic learning far different than any extremist strain that is doing the rounds of the Middle East. Such informed sensitivity at the social level, founded on a strong intellectual tradition, raises the bar of consciousness in society, giving it a purpose and the options to make informed choices.
The negatives that these two nations have carried were Zine El Abidine, the Tunisian ruler of 23 years, and the omnipresent Hosni Mubarak, who has now ruled Egypt as a single-option kleptocrat for the last 31 years. Pakistan has had its share of kleptocrats, but they were saved from their omnipresence. Egypt boasts of a strong military and though all Egyptian rulers in modern history have emerged from the military it continues to retain the respect of its people. Pakistan, too, has a strong military but with a serious image deficiency; while it may be generally popular at the common level, there are always serious aspersions cast on it by the combined elite of the politicians, intelligentsia, the media and civil society. This keeps the military embroiled in a constant struggle for its public image. Perhaps that is why whenever it needs to intervene in national affairs, similar to what is happening in Egypt now, it does not restrict itself to the role of an arbiter only. It extends itself to a complete takeover to make up for insecurity stemming from partial public support.
Since the leadership of both Tunisia and Egypt is authoritarian, carefully nurtured around imposed personality cults, the leaders tend to retain a central core of loyalists. A single political party in Egypt ensures that there is never any opposition to the perpetual government of the man on top. In Tunisia, for a significant level of prosperity, El Abidine sought exclusive political power and this was accompanied by massive corruption.
In comparison, while Pakistan’s political and socio-economic condition is equally precarious, there are critical disabilities that do not enable coalescing forces that can generate a revolutionary momentum. To begin with, and as a rare positive, Pakistan’s political power is widely distributed, but in a negative twist, amongst the political elites only, who retain a stranglehold on all channels of national power, including politics, businesses, media and most societal organs.
A major gaping hole that stares Pakistani society in its face is the ideological space that lies bare and impoverished for want of any significant intellectual tradition. Pakistanis today are, therefore, not making informed choices, rather they base their choices on reactionary sloganeering. Intellectual discourse, which forms the single source of ideological underpinning, remains absent. The possibility, thus, of a secular nationalist movement as in Tunisia or Egypt is faint.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2011.