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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Egyptian Turmoil and its Likely Impact on Pakistan

That Egypt is in deep turmoil is an understatement. Just a week before the troubles started there, there was an unprecedented wave of anger in Tunisia which saw the long-running autocracy of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali come to an end with Ben Ali seeking asylum in Saudi Arabia, the ultimate refuge for scoundrels of Islamic countries. The long-exiled religious leader of Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, has returned invoking memories of the triumphant return from Paris of Ayatollah Khomeini thirty years back that has thrown a liberal Iran back to an Islamist state today. No wonder then that the Saudi monarchy, led by the octogenarian King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, has supported the long running autocracy of Hosni Mubarak as well. Another King Abdullah, a much younger one and this time of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is also deeply worried as protests have surfaced there as well. Apart from other West Asian countries, which seem to be ripe for such a revolution, a la Orange, Rose and Pink Revolutions in Central Asian Republics about five years back, there are other countries in their immediate neighbourhood that may also be worried about the fall out of the on-going Egyptian crisis. One such country must be Pakistan, where the situation is far more critical and explosive than in Egypt or Tunisia or Jordan. While the Arab countries suffer from autocracy or autarchy, the situation in Pakistan is rapidly moving to anarchy. A worried Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, eager to scotch the idea of a ‘Green Revolution’ reacted to say that “the situation in Egypt and Tunisia cannot be compared with that of Pakistan as our institutions are working and democracy is functional”. This is certainly a blatant and unadulterated lie, something which Mr. Gilani seems to have said with a very straight face. Long before Mr. Gilani, a rampaging dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq had justified to his American counterpart that a Muslim was permitted to lie for a good cause.

The Egyptian uprising seems to be well coordinated, with a simple message that the loudspeakers of mosques across the country seem to be carrying: “You have a right to protest”. People have taken this message to heart and have poured out to the city centres and town squares with the Egyptian Army seemingly standing as mute spectators. It will be impossible for the Army to fire upon the protestors or even use strong arm tactics, though it seems to engage in a show of strength to intimidate the protestors, a tactic that has borne no fruits so far. Curfews have had little effect as the Army is unwilling to enforce them for fear of bloodshed, after the police, target of people’s wrath, have simply disappeared. Hosni Mubarak’s replacement of the Prime Minister, appointment of a Vice-President and the reshuffle of the cabinet are merely cosmetic and are not going to materially alter the ground situation. The masses are protesting directly against Hosni Mubarak himself and therefore these changes are not going to cut any ice with them. The fact that foreign governments are evacuating their stranded citizens and even their consular staff and their family, go to show how serious the situation is.

Egypt’s recent history, at least since World War II, has been characterized by instability, violence and espousal of Islamist ideology. Even the relatively calm period of Hosni Mubarak after the assassination of Anwar Sadat has been punctuated by violent Islamist terrorist attacks now and then, court dramas, and ruthless police action. One has to look at recent history to understand the current situation perhaps.

When the Ottoman empire was dissolved in c. 1924, it left a deep sense of loss and listlessness among the Muslims of the world as a nearly 1300 years of Islamic Caliphate came to an end. The overwhelming might of the Western countries, against which the Muslims seemed to be utterly powerless, ignited an urge to seek inwards for solutions to their problem as the Believers imagined that Islam was in danger of being wiped out. Egypt was thus naturally pushed to a central stage in the revivalist movement. For long Al Azhar was the most important sunni theological centre. Islamist thinkers like Afghani, Mohammed Abdu and Rida had already laid the foundation for reform of Islam in consonance with modern and emerging world by arguing the case for ijtihad. In the turbulent times following World War I, the dissolution of the Caliphate and the rise to power of fiercely secular nationalist leader Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, was born a new star in Egypt, Hassan al Banna. He established the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwanul Muslimeen) in c. 1928. He is An important member of the modern day Islamist revivalist movement. He wrote Risalat-al-Jihad that has become fountainhead of indoctrination for modern day Islamists and jihadists. Another important pillar of the Egyptian movement was Syed Qutb. He was often described as ‘First thinker of Islam in our epoch’. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the important leader of the violent Al Gama al Islamiyyah of Egypt and later the second in command of Al Qaeda, has been shaped by Qutb’s thoughts.

The question here is not whether the current uprising is justified or not. Today, one can definitely see the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan ul Muslimeen) behind this uprising. The exhortation from the mosques, the invisible hand that seems to coordinate the as yet leaderless unrest throughout the country all point in that direction. The sudden, united and synchronous chorus against the regime is otherwise impossible in a large country such as Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is possibly exploiting the widespread feeling of disenchantment among the Egyptian masses for the unchanging Mubarak regime. However, a significant number of protestors also are against the entire gamut of politicians, both in the ruling National Democratic Party and the Opposition. This is certainly playing into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. The people’s anger is also directed against the ‘ugly’ Americans who are seen as having bought out this regime through aid packages etc. Recent Wikileaks revelations have come handy in this respect. The already simmering hatred for the Americans because of their steadfast support for the Israelis will only erupt more forcefully now. The Hosni Mubarak regime is thus finding that the American support is turning out to be an albatross around its neck.

The distance from Alexandria to Cairo (apprx. 220 Kms) is eerily similar to the distance from Lahore to Rawalpindi/Islamabad on the Grand Trunk Road (250 Kms). The 2009 Long March by lawyers, Nawaz Sharif and the masses forced an adamant Zardari to reinstate the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The Army intervened as the situation threatened to go out of control and the Americans began to put pressure on all stakeholders in the drama. President Zardari was forced to eat the humble pie very quickly. The probable Long March in 2011 as part of a Green Revolution can be violent and far more threatening than the earlier one as the deprived masses shepherded by the Islamist parties such as Jama’at-e-Islami (JI), both factions of Jama’at-Ulema-e-Islami (JUI), Jama’at-Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and the sectarian jihadi outfits of Punjab such as the resurrected Sipah-Sahaba-e-Pakistan (SSP) and other outfits, take on a much harassed government teetering on collapse. The assassination of Salman Taseer has united the Islamist parties of various sects, both Sunni and Shi’a as their Karachi meeting of January 13, 2011 showed. Even the pro-military Jama’at-ud-Dawah (JuD) joined the protests. If any uprising were to take place, JuD cannot be expected to remain non-participative as that would quickly lead to its own decimation. JuD is already under pressure as its cadres are finding it attractive to join the other Punjabi Taliban group such as Brigade 313 who are more aggressive.

One can reasonably expect that the over three dozen terrorist tanzeems would perforce join such an uprising especially if the reasons for such a revolt are carefully crafted to appeal to Muslim sensibilities. These along with the Islamist political parties are capable of amassing a few million people if they join for a common cause. The trick therefore lies in finding a common ground for protests. As Muslims are more prone to emotions, especially in a Pakistan which prides itself to be guarding the ideological frontiers of Islam and as the only Muslim Nuclear Weapon country, the fire can spread easily. The silent majority will remain silent as usual or a significant section may even support the revolution because of the dire economic and security situation. The sectarian jihadi tanzeems will be emboldened in the coming weeks to think of such a window of opportunity in months ahead. Such a revolution would also be a Godsend opportunity for the beleaguered Haqqani group in North Waziristan whose leaders have accepted that the intense and prolonged US drone attacks are taking a heavy toll of them. They, along with the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, will also be correct in thinking that a change of regime in Pakistan would inevitably suck the oxygen out of the US fire as a new regime, which could be more Islamist in nature, may take tougher stance vis-à-vis the US in transit routes, military engagement and political dialogue to find an Afghan solution. The Pakistani Army, might decide to remain neutral in the revolution as the Egyptian Army appears to be currently doing, for fear of the situation going out of control and leading to a lot of bloodshed or even a mutiny within its own rank and file. Unlike Egypt, where ruthless and high-handed government action for over three decades have almost decimated terrorist groups, the all-pervasive terror tanzeems in Pakistan would certainly exploit the situation especially as they have a large number of supporters in the Police, Army and the Establishment.

(To be Continued). . . .

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