The rather dramatic ongoing wave of violent public upheaval against the ‘traditionally’ ruling classes in a number of Muslim countries in North Africa and Arabian lands is a clear indicator of the speedily evolving and spreading phenomenon of grassroots, social change. Basically, it is being initiated and powered by the widespread urge of the masses of those countries. However, as usual, the attention of the media has, by now, shifted to other topics of ‘hot currency’, relegating this phenomenon to occasional reports. An immediate critical examination of this phenomenon is of crucial importance for people of Pakistan, because the somewhat similar social unrest has already become quite strong in our country too. Though in its applied aspects this phenomenon does reflect slightly different shades in the various Muslim countries that are under its grip, yet the case of Egypt has many similarities with that of Pakistan; and, hence, the pointers from the ongoing societal change in Egypt are of significance for us for drawing lessons and guidelines. Those pointers are clearly discernible in the surveys and analyses published by many Egyptian and international organisations and institutes, including the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI), Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, US and European institutes, Gallup, etc.
(1) The initial outburst for change, which shook the government down, was basically from the urban multitude of the mostly educated youth and professionals, etc;
(2) Though the US government and its close allies showed ‘not-too-delayed’ sympathetic tilt in support of those demonstrators, yet in the ultimate outcome that lot could not find a place in people’s election of their parliamentary representatives;
(3) The known Islamist parties in Egypt were not part of the initial demonstrations, due to their decades-long brutal suppression by the government;
(4) A bit later the main Islamist, albeit known to be moderate, Freedom and Justice Party of Muslim Brotherhood, also came in the limelight demanding a civic societal change, including the establishment of a really democratic government in the country;
(5) Al-Nour, the second Islamist party, known as salafist being more close to the fundamentals of Islam, was under such severe government repression that it got just a few months before the elections to even bring it into the required electoral framework;
(6) By the time the first phase of elections commenced, 50 parties and about 6,000 candidates were in the field; and in the elections to the People’s Assembly that were by and large free and fair, over 27,000,000 people voted at a very high voting percentage of about 60 percent, showing the much heightened public involvement;
(7) Initially, for months prior to elections, most Egyptians of the poor and very poor constituencies had remained indecisive in expressing their voting support; however, close to the elections that ‘undecided majority’ tilted firmly and overwhelmingly in support of Islamist Freedom and Justice Party and Al-Nour Party, giving these and their allied Islamist parties over two-third of the votes;
(8) Out of the 498 contested seats of the People’s Assembly, the ‘Moderate Islamist’ Freedom and Justice Party secured 213 seats and its allied parties secured 22 seats; the ‘Islamist’ Al-Nour Party secured 111 seats and its allied parties secured 13 seats; the ‘liberal’ Wafd Party and ‘left-oriented’ Egyptian Bloc were almost sidelined with 38 and 34 seats respectively; and the previously ruling parties were rejected;
(9) That major tilt towards the Islamist parties of the rather non-rich ‘have-not’ Egyptian voters who form the majority, on the one hand, indicates the finally formulated trust of the Egyptian people that the socio-economic justice provided by Islam is the only remedy for the much aggrieved masses; and, on the other, it may also be a simultaneous indicator of a possibly evolving class struggle.
A proper grasp of this phenomenon of the ongoing societal change in Egypt leads to the clear identification of a number of significant pointers; and their comparison with those from the current societal turmoil in Pakistan helps in discerning the projected picture.
First: It is an acknowledged fact that the Egyptian people had remained suppressed and socially powerless for about six decades under successive dictatorial quasi-military governments. The sudden emergence of such a vibrant social strength in the same people, which compelled the government to leave for the establishment of a democratic public-mandated government, is, therefore, certainly most unprecedented. It clearly shows the dynamics of the already evolved new potential of the previously hapless masses in such Muslim countries, which empowers them to compel the ‘traditional power wielders’ to leave the reins of political power. In the case of Pakistan, such a precedent already exists, when in 1970 a similar upsurge of the socio-economically aggrieved masses under the guidance of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto toppled the traditional power wielders. A repeat of such sweeping political change through elections in Pakistan can, therefore, not be termed difficult; specially so, because in 1970 the people were ‘frustrated and badly vying for change’; whereas, now the situation is much more explosive because they are ‘desperate and dying for change’.
Second: In Egypt, the socio-economic variables define five clusters of voters, i.e., rich, middle-1, middle-2, poor, and very poor. In the case of Pakistan, the voter clusters are approximately the same, i.e., rich, upper middle, lower middle, and poor (with a possible segregation of very poor). The election results of People’s Assembly have shown that the vast majority of the voters of not only the poor and very poor, but also the two middle classes tilted to support the two Islamist groups, giving them over 70 percent majority in the Assembly. In Pakistan, the case may be fairly close to such a possibility, but may not assuredly be exactly the same, because though the poor and very poor segments of people are also desperate and dying for change, yet the unfortunate ground reality cannot be ignored that a certain proportion of them may still finally cast their votes in favour of their traditional feudal lords or ‘spiritual lords’ who are also their traditional rulers.
Third: In Egypt, the majority of the urban educated youth that initiated the protest, reportedly, did not provide electoral support to the Freedom and Justice Party. However, in case of Pakistan that aspect is different, because the urban educated youth is already vibrantly supporting the ‘Moderate Islamist’ party PTI that, like Freedom and Justice Party of Egypt, is the most popular flag-bearer of societal change. Since this segment, obviously, is the main constituent of about 35 million fresh voters, who are expected to be part of the new voting list, the number of the electoral supporters of the PTI-led struggle for societal change is most likely to swell much more than merely compensating for the number of voters voting for their traditional feudal or spiritual lords.
Fourth: The sudden and sharp rise of public acceptance of the Islamist parties (Freedom and Justice, especially Al-Nour) in Egypt is an important aspect to be noted. It provides very important pointers for Pakistan. According to a Gallup survey, the public acceptance graphs of Freedom and Justice Party was as low as 15 percent to 16 percent from July to September 2011, till it climbed sharply to 50 percent by December 2011; and that of Al-Nour Party was a mere 5 percent to 7 percent from July to September 2011, till it also climbed sharply to 31 percent by December 2011. A number of possible reasons are generally mentioned by certain analysts to explain this very surprising phenomenon, such as the organisational skill of Freedom and Justice Party, and of the massive use of mosque sermons by Al-Nour Party, etc. However, the most probable reason was the fact that the Egyptian masses, who were desperately in need of societal change, ultimately found only these two parties worthy of trust for bringing in the desired societal change for remedying the grievances of the masses. That fact has also been so highlighted by Bassem Sabry, an Egyptian in the American University Cairo. He mentions that Egyptians voted for the Islamists due to a number of reasons, including:
(1) The belief that the Islamist parties were the only truly experienced and organised technocratic entity that could serve the country at this critical juncture;
(2) The belief that politicians with strong personal religious credentials would hopefully be less vulnerable to succumbing to the rampant corruption that has been at the leading feature of Egyptian politics and economics for decades;
(3) The feeling that the Islamists deserved a chance after going through decades of regime-sponsored repression;
(4) The people knew them personally from their neighbourhoods, as well as from their charity and community work long before there were even elections;
(5) Because the Islamists did the most and best electoral awareness and campaigning on the trail; and
(6) There were many who voted for them, hoping for a political-ideological project that imbued or fused politics with religious values.
In Pakistan, the electoral credential of the Islamist political parties has never been truly high; in fact, it fell to further low after their stint of governance in the then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtukhwa) province; and is stooping further low due to the continued ‘attachment’ of JUI-F with the federal government despite open public dislike. Factually, therefore, none of the Islamist parties in Pakistan can be expected to play the role of Freedom and Justice Party of Egypt. However, the ‘Moderate Islamist’ PTI with its clean record, trustworthy charismatic leader, and very high and widespread public acceptance, can play the role of the Freedom and Justice Party. Similarly, JI with its long record of ‘corruption-free’ social service projects, organisation skills, and really democratic political credentials can find a place in the upcoming electoral spectrum; albeit not at a much larger scale, unless it works in alliance with a political entity of public acceptance like PTI. In essence, the observations of Bassem Sabry provide very significant pointers for all those, voters and parties alike, who desire the societal change in Pakistan.
Fifth: In the case of Egypt, the electoral panorama was not much complex, because out of the 50 parties there were three main prominent party groups/alliances in real contest, i.e. the ‘government’ parties, the liberal/socialist parties, and the Islamist parties. The other smaller parties were not of much electoral consequence. However, as for the parties’ political agenda, almost all of the major groups/alliances and the smaller parties were presenting a somewhat similar political agenda, ostensibly for ‘public good’. On their part, for making a voting choice of a party or electoral alliance, the Egyptians very apparently applied the crystallising criteria of a combination of four aspects, i.e. party’s susceptibility to corruption, previous record of being public-apathetic or public-beneficiary, capability of state-craft, and strong ideological credentials of the party leaders to pre-assure their capacity for leading the nation out of the economic morass. Consequently, the election results proved that, when tested on that criteria, the government parties were rejected, the liberal/socialist parties faired very poorly, and the Islamist parties succeeded with a very high mark of public trust and confidence. In the case of Pakistan, the electoral panorama is a bit complex. All national level parties are propounding a ‘public good’ political agenda as usual; but there are certain regional parties whose political focus is mostly related to the socio-economic emancipation of their respective nationalities/communities. Though these parties have their limited vote banks and are not in a position of forming even a significant segment of any future governmental setup, yet many of their grievances are genuine and granting due weightage and accommodation to these parties in the political mainstream is crucial for ensuring a harmonious and smooth socio-political arrangement in Pakistan. In the main electoral contest, therefore, there are three distinct groups, i.e. the ‘government alliance’ group (mainly PPP, PML-Q, MQM, ANP, and Islamist JUI-F), the ‘friendly opposition-cum-government’ party (PML-N), and the ‘real opposition’ group (mainly PTI and Islamist JI). The two main Islamist parties and the previous MMA partners (JI and JUI-F), therefore, stand in different camps now. Certain other Islamist parties have also started emerging, propounding Islamist political agenda; however, for now these do not reflect the potential of any weighty political entity, though their subsequent political alliance or support to any party/alliance maybe of some electoral consequence. Despite that complexity of the electoral panorama, the mood of the voters of different segments of Pakistani society is by now well crystallised and firmed up; the whole nation wants the present and previously tested corrupt and public-apathetic political stalwarts and their parties to go, and the other parties under corruption-free, honesty-proven, competent, and sincere-to-public leaders to take the political reins of the country. As for the most likely voting pattern in the upcoming elections, the undeniable ground realities clearly reflect that the criteria for voting choice of at least 80 percent of the voters in Pakistan, is almost certainly to be not much different from the mentioned criteria applied by the vast majority of Egyptians; thus, leaving not even a shade of doubt that commencement of a major positive societal change, as desired by the masses of Pakistan, is not far away.
The writer is a retired brigadier and a PhD in Central Asian Studies from the University of Peshawar.