Change in the Muslim world

The new Pakistani government seems more responsive to people’s wishes, not just to its own constituency.

Shahid Javed Burki July 07, 2013
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

‘Stable’ and ‘stability’ are not the words that would be commonly associated with the current situation in Pakistan. But that is precisely how one should view Pakistan in the context of what is occurring in some of the large countries in the Muslim world. Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president was brought down by the military after several days of protests against his regime. The men in uniform have returned to the political stage. The Muslim Brotherhood’s defiance of the military’s 48-hour ultimatum did not result in a settlement between the contending parties. The Brotherhood’s refusal to accept the military’s return may plunge the country into another bloody turmoil. It is worth noting what President Barack Obama told the Egyptian president in a telephone conversation. He said that the Egyptian president should hear what the opposition was telling him. Obama stressed “that democracy is about more than elections; it is also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government, including the many Egyptians demonstrating throughout the country”.

The Muslim Brotherhood had no record to defend against the voices raised by the opposition. It gained power through the ballot but sought to translate that victory into absolutism. They wrote a constitution that seemed not to listen to what the other groups — the liberals, the secularists and the minorities — were saying to the elected government.

It is the leadership’s inability to listen to the voices of all people that also shook Turkey in June. This is the second largest Muslim country that is engaged in the process of political transition. Its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had taken the country much further along the democratic path before a very large number of people turned out at Istanbul’s Taksim Square to protest against the prime minister’s style of governance. They were prepared to forego everything that Turkey had achieved during 10 years of rule by the Justice and Development Party that had strong Islamic roots. What they were protesting against was not the economic performance of the regime that held the reins of power but the manner in which it had ignored the other voices in society.

Given what is happening in these two large Muslim nations, Pakistan appears to be an island of political stability. This is for at least two reasons. The Islamic parties in Pakistan don’t have the kind of hold on the citizenry that is exercised by them in Turkey and Egypt. In Turkey, Erdogan’s party has won three consecutive elections, each time with an increasing share of the total vote. In the last election, the majority voted for the party. In Egypt, the Brotherhood and the Salafist group won a clear majority in the presidential poll of 2011. In other words, citizens of these two countries have strong attachment with Islamic groups. That is not the case in Pakistan. Here, Islamic groups have never secured more than 10 per cent of the total vote. There is a reason why there is relatively little support for Islamic political groups in Pakistan. There is a consensus in the country that the solutions to their many problems are not to be found in religion. They will be provided by modern political institutions and practice of good governance.

Second, even with repeated interventions by the military, Pakistan has an institutional structure that made it possible to bring about a peaceful transition of power from one dominant political party to another. This happened following parliamentary elections in May 2013. The military did not have to orchestrate the change. Democracy seems to have been institutionalised in the country. In this respect, Pakistan’s situation is similar to the one that prevails in Turkey. In both countries, civilian political institutions have succeeded in pushing the army back into its barracks.

One conclusion to be drawn from the experience of these three large Muslim countries is that elections alone will not usher in a democratic order. This requires an institutional structure that is inclusive and not exclusive. What has produced reactions in Egypt and Turkey is the apprehension on the part of a significantly large number of people that their voice was not being heard by those who hold the reins of power. The new Pakistani government seems more responsive to people’s wishes, not just to its own constituency.

There is one thing the three Muslim states share: uneasy relations with the United States. The rapid political transformation of the Muslim world caught the United States often on the wrong foot.  Accustomed to dealing with autocratic rulers for decades, Washington must contend with the will of the populace. The old ‘grand bargain’ has broken down. According to it, as long as three American interests were protected, the rulers could govern whichever way they wished. The autocrats had to ensure a steady flow of oil to the West, keep open sea lanes for international shipping and show some accommodation to the state of Israel. Thus, assured of support, the autocrats and military dictators could amass personal fortunes. That bargain is no longer in place. The energised populace has little patience for poor governance. As the May elections showed in Pakistan, they will punish even their elected leaders if they don’t govern well. They will also not let the rulers serve Washington’s interests.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2013.

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OnYourFace | 8 years ago | Reply

@Hamza: " you have the guts to say it on our faces?" .... Please let us meet so I can fulfill your wish and say that on your face. We are not used to talk sweet in front and stab on back as Pakistani establishment has always did, last one being Kargil (in case you have already forgotten). I have quite many Pakistani friends ...yes sir "friends"......with whom I have pleasure to discuss the shortcomings of both India and Pakistan and I do repeat this with enough reasoning and statistical backing to prove why Pakistan is "almost" a failed state. the day when USA stops funding you and IMF and EU stops giving you concession and treat you like the other nations they treat, you will be far worse then Somalia. There is a good reason why Pakistan is called begging bowl of world. Ofcourse the people living in Pakistan who never traveled abroad or met non Pakistanis will never be aware of this harsh impression of Pakistan. @moderator. This response is simply to express the frustration of many Pakistanis who do not understand the pain we go through which becomes the reason for making ourselves heard here in blogs. You can choose to not publish it, but you will simply be unfair towards freedom of expression.

Tas | 8 years ago | Reply

I have a rather strange feeling by reading this 'nice' article. First of all you say:'Given what is happening in these two large Muslim nations(Egypt and Turkey), Pakistan appears to be an island of political stability. Yes, it is true viewed superficially. In my view, the real reason is that the Pakistanis as nation have fell asleep and religeous extremism does not bother them too much. Then you say:'there is a consensus that the solutions are not be found in religeon and yet, 84% or so of Pakistanis are for the sharia law. Finally, can you please clarify if any 'Pakistani Govt. has been responsive to people's wishes'? Is this article written for self satisfaction or an analysis of the problems of a country where hundreds of religeous groups are at war with the state?

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