`West wary of Arab revolt spreading to Pakistan`

The people’s power has once again come to the fore, giving autocratic regimes a real tough time.

Arab uprising has taken the entire international community by surprise. The people’s power has once again come to the fore, giving autocratic regimes a real tough time. At a time when the revolt from Tunisia and Egypt threatens to swallow the whole of the Islamic world, Pakistan cannot be seen as an exception. After all, US Vice President Joe Biden has already hinted that “a lot (is) going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into -- all the way to Pakistan.”

In a bid to calm the hue and cry, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has dismissed the possibility of protests similar to the ones taking place in other countries, saying Pakistan’s “institutions are working and democracy is functional”.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Dr Gareth Price, an expert on Asian affairs, compares the situation in Tunisia and Egypt with that in Pakistan’s.

Dr Gareth Price is head of the Asia Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House.

Kamna: Are there any similarities between the situations that led to revolt in Tunisia, Egypt, and that of Pakistan?

Dr Price: While it is on the edge of the Middle East, Pakistan faces similar problems of inflation, lack of employment opportunities and widespread corruption. Corruption has been cited as a major cause of protests in both Tunisia and Egypt.

According to Transparency International`s Corruption Perception Index, Tunisia ranks 59th, Egypt 98th, and Pakistan stands at 143rd out of 180 countries.

Corruption - The corrupt kleptocracy in Egypt is a major cause of discontent, particularly among those excluded from patronage networks. Poverty has endured during the past three decades of Mubarak`s rule, while the ruling elite have grown rich. 40% of Egyptians live on less than USD 2 a day while some estimates suggest that the President`s family may have amassed between USD 40 billion and USD 70 billion. In Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari spent eight years in prison charged on several counts including the embezzlement of USD 1.5 billion of government funds. Although he was never convicted in Pakistan, a Swiss court convicted him for money laundering in 2003. Zardari denied the charges.

Price rise - Inflation, and in particular rising food prices, is another commonality. Pakistan faces particular problems because of crop losses due to last year`s floods. A 40% increase in the cost of maize, used for birdfeed, has resulted in a similar increase in the price of eggs. A longer-term failure to increase production in line with demand has led to significant rise in other food costs, such as edible oils. Egypt too has faced significant, and in some cases overnight, increases in the costs of some foodstuff.

Unemployment - Egypt and Pakistan face similar concerns about unemployment. In Egypt 700,000 graduates are chasing 200,000 positions. In the years following 9/11, when Pakistan`s economy boomed, its failure to increase employment was stark. In some ways, Pakistan is worse off than Egypt. Levels of infrastructure are worse and Pakistani businesses have been faced with frequent gas and electricity cuts. The textile industry has in particular suffered with hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs. Pakistan`s demography lags behind Egypt; 36% of Pakistanis are under 15, and in the coming decade millions will be seeking employment, a large percentage, on current trends, in vain.

But while there are real similarities between Pakistan and Egypt, there are major differences that mitigate a replication of events in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrations against the government are entirely plausible. But were they to occur, the dynamics would be different.

Kamna: Why is that so?

Dr Price: The protestors in Egypt are expressing revulsion with a de facto one-party state. Pakistan does have political parties and in 2008 held a free and fair election. Despite the controversy that already surrounded President Zardari, he received a comfortable majority of votes and left his two main competitors lagging behind.

Secondly, Pakistan is significantly poorer and less educated than Egypt. While many Egyptians are poor, Egypt`s GDP per capita is more than double than that of Pakistan. As many as 60% of Pakistanis live on less than USD 2 per day. While unemployed graduates may well be in the vanguard of events in Egypt, this group is a much smaller proportion of the Pakistani population. And it is hard to envisage that such events in Pakistan would be driven by social media, rather than by the mosque.

Third, and most importantly, it is difficult to envisage an alliance ranging from liberals to Islamists coming together in Pakistan. This was most vividly illustrated by the recent murder of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. He was killed by his bodyguard after speaking out against Pakistan`s blasphemy law, following the sentencing of a Christian woman to death. Under the law, members of minority groups are susceptible to blasphemy accusations when in dispute with members of the Muslim majority. The actions of Taseer`s killer were defended by politicians, religious figures and lawyers, who even honoured him with garlands during his first appearance in court.

Kamna: Is the West scared of the revolt spreading to Pakistan?

Dr Price: Pakistan is not immune from events elsewhere in the Islamic world. But were Pakistanis to take to the streets in protest against the government, opposition would undoubtedly be expressed through radical Islam. If the West has struggled to create a policy response to events in Egypt, decision makers must be crossing their fingers that "contagion" does not spread to Pakistan.

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