First it was Tunisia. Then Egypt. Then Bahrain, Libya, Oman. It seems that every day another Islamic Conference country is witness to widespread pro-democracy protests within its borders. In Pakistan, people are watching with bated breath.
After all, Pakistan has much in common with many of these countries: a strong military that is never far from the seat of power, widespread corruption, a nepotistic system of personal gain and advancement for a small elite, lack of employment or educational opportunities for the greater part of the population, and rising food and energy prices. These same ingredients led to boiling points in North Africa and the Middle East.
Different political realities
Last weekend a few thousand people took to the streets of Karachi to express solidarity with the people of Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt. The demonstrations were peaceful and, unlike recent responses in other countries, the government made no move to stop demonstrators. According to some regional analysts, such freedom of expression is one of the key reason why Pakistan is unlikely to see upheavals like those spreading through other Muslim countries.
“These protests are not going to translate into mass protests for a change of government [in Pakistan],” says Imtiaz Gul, Executive Director for the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “What people are agitating against in Libya and other countries are dictators or families who have been sitting in power for decades. People had started to look at these leaders as parasites blocking personal and political freedoms.”
In comparison, Pakistan has seen frequent changes of power since independence. There have been regular elections – and not infrequent coups – over the past 40 years. Gul says that these shifts in power relieve political tensions in the country, as do a multi-party system and an active civil society.
“All shades of thinking in Pakistan have representation in a party or group, all of which take part in elections,” Gul says. “We also have a very open, private, independent media. This allows people some ventilation.”
Relations with the Muslim world
However the foreign upheavals are already affecting Pakistan in other ways. Thousands of Pakistani citizens work in Egypt, Libya and other Middle Eastern countries. The government has been slow to evacuate its citizens abroad. According to government statements, 18,000 Pakistanis are still stranded in Libya alone.
Aparna Padne is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, specializing in Pakistan’s foreign relations. She says that – immediate humanitarian concerns aside – repatriating those workers will have long-term implications for Pakistan.
“Pakistan will lose income from foreign remittances,” Padne says. “Pakistan has had good ties with many of these countries, especially Egypt. Some of these countries have given humanitarian and development aid. Gaddafi has given military aid and the two countries have been cooperating on nuclear weapons programs.”
Similar economic concerns
It will take many months for new structures to emerge in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. Finding new balances of power domestically will naturally lead to changes in foreign relations. Pakistan’s role in the Muslim world is sure to shift, but just how and when remains to be seen.
Back in Islamabad, Imtiaz Gul says that the overseas uprisings might motivate some people to take to the streets over Pakistan’s economic problems. He says that some citizens to protest the country’s high unemployment rate, poor infrastructure and rising inflation. For the time being, he says, such protests are likely to be the most obvious expression of how upheavals abroad are affecting Pakistan.