Feb 8, 2011

History in the making

The struggle to achieve meaningful social change cannot be equated with the demise of individual dictators

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

By the time this column is read, Hosni Mubarak may already have been ushered out of office by a combination of Egypt’s powerful military and the White House. Mubarak sealed his own fate on Tuesday during a public address in which he insisted on staying on until the next presidential election later in 2011, offering his version of a fig leaf by announcing that he himself would not seek yet another term in office. The tyrant’s ‘gracious’ gesture further angered Egyptians -- and popular forces all over the world -- who have been subject to Mubarak’s hubris (and sham democracy to boot) for almost three decades and have now taken to the streets to proclaim that they have had enough.

What has transpired in Egypt, Tunisia and to a lesser extent in Yemen and Jordan in recent weeks is nothing short of historic. The speed with which events have unfolded has been breathtaking. It would not be incorrect to suggest that distant observers -- not to mention those actually in the thick of the battle -- have been overcome by a distinct sense of euphoria. In fact, many Pakistanis may well be reminded of public sentiment some three and a half years ago when the anti-Musharraf agitation started in earnest.

Of course, it took us a lot longer to unseat our dictator than ordinary Egyptians have managed with Mubarak. But I believe there are numerous common factors that can -- and must -- be identified which may provide an insight into how things will evolve in the Arab world’s most pivotal state in coming days and weeks.

First, both Pakistan and Egypt are extremely important to the United States. As was the case with Musharraf’s stage-managed exit, in Egypt too Washington has been keen to avoid things getting beyond control. It is thus that the Obama administration finally came around to spewing out some rhetoric about democracy and the need for a ‘smooth transition’. In the final analysis, the US will ensure in Egypt that the post-Mubarak dispensation is not inimical to its interests. Shrewd analysts in this country knew even before Musharraf’s last stand that the incoming elected government would remain firmly within Washington’s orbit.

The second and related point has to do with the paucity of existing political alternatives. The inability of a people’s uprising to precipitate fundamental structural shifts in the polity in both Pakistan and Egypt can be explained in large part by the absence of the required subjective factor. We all know that Pakistan’s repeated experiments with military rule, and the fact that the military establishment retains so much power even when elected regimes are in place, have seriously undermined the political process, and emaciated political parties. Thus, when objective conditions to challenge state establishments and imperialism become favourable, there are no political forces actually willing and able to do so. One could argue that in the post-Cold War era anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist political parties have fallen by the wayside even in strong democratic polities, but the contemporary wave of radicalism in Latin America is a robust rejoinder to such a hypothesis.

Finally, and yet another related point: the right-wing ultimately benefits from such spontaneous agitations, even though it has little meaningful role in actually mobilising people in the first place. This is true because of the manner in which right-wing forces have been patronised by the state in varying measures throughout most of the Muslim world over the past few decades. Admittedly, the Muslim Brotherhood has enjoyed far less of a consensual relationship with Egypt’s military establishment than our political mullahs have with our kingmakers. Yet in Egypt, as in Pakistan (as in so many other Muslim countries), the combination of state and imperialism has systematically weakened secular democratic forces and, thereby, provided the right-wing with the space to establish social and political roots for itself within society.

The last point brings into focus a common criticism that has been leveled by certain progressives on other progressives in Pakistan vis-a-vis the ‘restoration of judiciary’ movement. Following his restoration, apex court chief clearly pandererd to right-wing political causes and even threatened to derail the political process. Those who were at the forefront of what I still believe was primarily an anti-dictatorship movement are said to have adopted a very short-sighted approach which failed to account for the fact that the chief was actually an unwitting tool in the hands of right-wing forces from the very beginning.

To the extent that this is true, it is a reflection only of broader social and political trends over the past three or four decades in the sense that the gradual decline of the left and the concomitant (state-supported) rise of the right has doomed all major social and political movements to be instrumentalised by retrogressive forces to forward their own ends. This does not mean that a majority of movements which emerge are inherently ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ (although some movement can most definitely be characterised in this way, particularly the prototypical agitations around ‘Islamic’ causes in this country). Real material issues inform political struggles and the fact that leftists are weak does not mean that they should cease to engage with such issues at all for fear of the right-wing taking advantage. This would be tantamount to suggesting that one should abandon politics entirely until there is a guarantee that outcomes can be molded to one’s own preferences.

All this having been said: If our experience is any indicator, Egypt’s people are likely to be gripped by euphoria for only a short while. Then the reality of a post-Mubarak government will set in: there will be no fundamental break from the imperialist grip (both American and Israeli), the neo-liberal economic paradigm will remain firmly in place, and the patronage-based political order will become even more cynical. Does this mean that the Egyptian people will have achieved nothing? In fact, they will have achieved a great deal. But the struggle to achieve meaningful social change cannot be equated with the demise of individual dictators, however symbolic such struggles may be. We Pakistanis have evicted Musharraf, Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan from power yet continue to be subjected to the whims of the military establishment and hopelessly compromised mainstream parties. History is hardly as romantic as we would like it to be. Yet in the long-run, progressive forces do win. We just have to have the stomach to wait out our turn.

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