You know things are out of control when the Middle East starts protesting dictatorship. It only took that part of the world most of the post-Pliocene period to consider the possibility of democracy. To be fair, maybe countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan just wanted to make sure the rest of the world had gotten the kinks out of the system before trying it out. Now though, with all of Egypt posing in front of tanks and Hosni Mubarak having to consider the possibility of living the rest of his life in Saudi Arabia (hotels in Jeddah offer a free breakfast voucher to all exiled former dictators seeking refuge), it seems as though change is well and truly at hand. All it took was for a lone fruit seller to set himself on fire in Tunisia to set off a chain of events that might just see the largest collection of autocracies this side of Africa discovering the power of the mob. That and decades of authoritarian oppression, failing economies, crumbling infrastructures, rising unemployment and bottomless corruption. But chances are it’s the fruit seller who will be remembered. Not since Gavrilo Princip kick-started World War I by leaving a deli just in time to get a few bullets into Archduke Franz Ferdinand, has one man affected so much change with a single act of violent protest.
Mubarak’s fate was, of course, sealed the day Hillary Clinton announced that the government in Egypt had things under control. Any Pakistani dictator can tell you that nothing signals a fast approaching end like show of support by the United States. The last week has seen truly inspirational footage of impassioned Egyptians battling valiantly for an end to authoritarianism. Which will make their subsequent disappointment with the reality of democratic rule all the more depressing. It’s not all freedom of speech and cakes for dessert after the first free and fair election. That is something any Pakistani civilian can tell you. That’s our missed opportunity right there: Maybe we should advertise ourselves as consultants specialising in Post-Dictatorship Democracy. We know all the ways of doing it wrong. Let someone else learn from our mistakes.
Those in Pakistan getting too readily aroused about the possibility of a revolution here need to be reminded that we already had ours. We just recently removed our dictator through the agitations of the (increasingly ironically titled) Civil Society. President Zardari won’t have to worry about the ripples of revolution reaching him, largely because we can just vote him out next election. Our own Long March to Freedom didn’t have quite the same domino effect across the rest of the world because the rest of the world views us less as a source of inspiration and more as a slapstick routine that involves pratfalls, pies in faces and an ever-inflating sense of self.
Very soon Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, maybe Jordan, definitely not the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (their populace is too busy suffering the effects of endemic lethargy and tossing phone numbers into each others’ cars to worry about freedom and self-rule type stuff) will have to learn that while dictatorships mean an unrequested abdication of responsibility for the population, democracy means something much, much worse: Taking responsibility back. Their failures will be their own fault now. So if they find themselves persecuting minorities, celebrating murder, indulging in Olympic levels of corruption, killing each other in the streets, using religion as a means of cynical political gain, effecting economic ruin through a combination of negligence and incompetence, refusing to acknowledge the threat posed by extremism, using ignorance and fear to increase television ratings and not firing Ijaz Butt, they will have only themselves to blame. Fixing those problems won’t be as easy as a few mass protests. They require real hard work and time. Welcome to freedom Egypt. Don’t let it break you.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2011.