Following the remarkable events in Egypt over the last five days has been truly a paradigm changing experience. Even a cynic like me can’t help being taken in by the idea that this is a genuine revolution, contrary to the CNN and Fox news tickers of chaos, crisis, etc. Egypt and Burma have always fascinated me in their similarities in various ways to Pakistan. I guess growing up in post-Ziaist Pakistan, I have a morbid fascination for countries with a political vacuum. Almost a year ago, I remember reading a brilliant article by Adam Shatz about Egypt’s political vacuum and thinking that Pakistan was lucky, by contrast, in that it at least had a political class and a political tradition, no matter how flawed.
This paragraph in Shatz’s article (in which he quotes the Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrullah) has stayed in my mind over the last year:
As Hani Shukrallah, an editor at Al-Shorouk, one of the new independent papers, points out, ‘the regime has pursued a deliberate policy of selective repression based on class.’ Shukrallah, a veteran of the student left of the 1970s, illustrated this by describing an aerial photograph of a Kifaya demonstration in downtown Cairo. ‘You can see three circles: the first is composed of the demonstrators, a few hundred people. Around them is a circle of several thousand police officers, and around the police is the people. The people are onlookers, spectators. The middle-class professionals in Kifaya can chant slogans like “Down with Mubarak” because they risk, at worst, a beating. But most Egyptians live in a world where anything goes, where they’re treated like barbarians who need to be conquered, and women are molested by the security forces.
It reminded me a lot of the pictures you see from the protests in places like Lahore and Islamabad against the emergency rule. What it made me realize is that ultimately, every authoritarian regime rules, not by force, but by the tacit consent of a small but influential class of urban opinion-makers. (When Musharraf lost the support of this class, he was doomed). I remember reading a quote by Anatol Lieven in which he made the observation that dictatorship in Pakistan has always been a relatively “soft” one. I don’t know whether Lieven was right or wrong. Certainly, the arm of the Pakistani state has not been soft on those it has – at various times – perceived to be outside the limits prescribed by Pakistani nationalism. But it is correct to say that the brilliance of the Pakistani military regimes has been that they have always left a great degree of breathing room to those whom it accepts as part of the class whose own institutional interests the Pakistani army represents. The kinds of opinions that the Pakistani English newspapers are able to express are an example of this. And this is what came to my mind when I read Shukrullah’s description of the three circles – the inner circle of the privileged, well-connected urban middle class, surrounded by the arms of the state and surrounding both of them, the rest of the population.
Maybe what we are constantly complaining about as the moral failure of the military is really just the destiny of resource-poor, post-colonial states with a small but well-connected class of modernist nationalists at the helm. Maybe it’s not really worth complaining about because it’s a structural issue. It fascinates me that the Egyptian military, for example, is looked at, by the protestors, as a saviour or at the very least as a potential arbitrator against the current regime. In a way, the army’s arrival to save the Cairo Museum from looters and the collective sigh of relief at this arrival symbolizes the basic dilemma – the military is always seen as a saviour because it is better organized and more developed. Here’s a (terrible) analogy: As the youngest in a family of five, I was always resentful of everyone else’s ability to make better decisions for me. I always wanted to do things by myself but had this strange, rebellious streak where I would rebel to be contrary, make really stupid decisions and then breathe a sigh of relief as someone smarter and older took control of the situation for me. Structurally, the situation is that the political class is so stunted, so far behind in development to the overdeveloped, nationalist military that the modernists always end up running back into the warm cocoon of the military’s embrace. The alternative is just too horrifying to contemplate. What is this but a form of colonialism? It’s no coincidence then, that political transitions often consist of the various actors courting the military’s good favour for a temporary shift in the status quo.
But it’s not good to be so pessimistic. It’ll be interesting to see how Omar Suleiman’s appointment as Vice President will go down.
“What concerns us now is this is clearly a military takeover,” said Mr. Shahin. “I would not be surprised if Mubarak disappears tomorrow or after tomorrow.