by M. Shahid Alam
Pakistan’s rulers and ruling elites may well be thinking that the wave of people’s indignation that started in Tunisia and is now working its way through Egypt, Jordan and Yemen will never reach them. Perhaps, they are telling each other, ‘We are safe: we are a democracy.’
The Arabs who are pouring into the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen are not protesting only against their dictatorships. Simultaneously, they are also protesting against governments that have sold their dignity and bartered the honor of their country. Nearly, all the Arab rulers are self-castrated eunuchs in the courts of foreign powers, who have turned their own countries into police states, and who jail, maim, torture and kill their own people to please their masters.
The Arabs are venting their anger against elites who have stymied their energies by turning their societies into prisons. In complicity with foreign powers, these elites have ruled by fear, blocking the forward movement of their people because this movement collides with the imperialist ambitions of Israel and the United States.
It is true that Pakistan has had ‘elected’ governments alternating with military dictatorships. Increasingly, however, these governments, whether civilian or military, have differed little from each other. The priority for both is to keep their power and US-doled perks by doing the bidding of the United States and Israel.
Starting in the early 1990s, Pakistan hurriedly embraced the neoliberal paradigm that emanated from Washington. Hastily, successive ministers of finance and privatization – all of them IMF appointees – went about dismantling Pakistan’s industries, selling off for a song its state-owned enterprises, and empowering Pakistan’s elites to engage in unchecked consumerism.
In other words, Pakistan’s military, landed, and trading elites chose to align their economic interests with that of global corporations. Without a protest, they allowed Washington to impose a new colonialism with the glib mantra that ‘liberalizing’ Pakistan’s economic regime would bring massive flows of foreign capital – and enrich Pakistan.
The neoliberal paradigm is a lie: it subsumes the economic interests of the great powers. It has brought waves of devastation to Latin America and Africa, and while Pakistan has been spared a devastating blow, two decades of neoliberal policies have prevented Pakistan from acquiring any new growth-driving industries. To this day, Pakistan relies on the products of its farms and low-value manufactures for the modest volume of its exports. Pakistan’s capitulation to the IMF and the World Bank – added to the calamitous economic policies of the 1970s – has prevented Pakistan from climbing on the trajectory followed by China and India. If Pakistan has been spared economic bankruptcy, in part this is because of the blood money it has ‘earned’ for waging America’s war against its own people.
Pakistan’s bouts of democracy have been a farce. The country’s elites jostle for power in the offices of foreign embassies or fly to Washington to present their credentials to their ultimate masters, each faction offering to outdo the others in doing Washington’s bidding. The farcical elections bring the same gaggle of wealthy parliamentarians, who have repeatedly proved their appetite for corruption, mismanagement, and untiring loyalty to foreign paymasters. Consider the shame of a country of nearly 200 million people, whose leaders often turn for patronage to the potentates who own oil wells in the Persian Gulf.
Since September 2001, these betrayals of Pakistan’s sovereignty and the erosions of its dignity have been sinking to new depths that know no bottom. Sham democracy or dictatorship: they do the same things. They have Washington, betrayal, inefficiency and corruption written all over them.
These governments trade in the lives, livelihood and dignity of their own people. In September 2001, at the sound of single threat from Washington, the ruling generals – who had recently usurped power – irrevocably committed Pakistan to fighting America’s sham global war against terror. Without consulting the people, they gave away Pakistan’s air space, air bases, and land corridors to the US military.
General Musharraf and his co-conspirators were ready to commit tens of thousands of Pakistani troops to fight the Iraqis, alongside US and NATO troops. They repeatedly tried to give full recognition to Israel: and Pakistan’s English media ably pleaded Israel’s case by touting the many advantages that the Jewish lobby in the US could confer on Pakistan. What blindness: what treachery. These plans had to be shelved in the face of mounting street protests from Pakistan’s mullahs.
Over the past decade, Pakistani governments have caved in to virtually every US assault on Pakistan’s sovereignty and dignity. For the first time in its history, thousands of Pakistanis have disappeared to be secreted in prisons, tortured, and renditioned to the United States. One thought that these things happened only in the brutal military dictatorships of Latin America; they could not happen in Pakistan. Once the US made the demands, disappearances quickly became common in Pakistan.
General Musharraf boasted in his autobiography of the blood money he took from the United States for kidnapping and renditioning ‘terrorists’ to the United States. Periodically, the US needs these ‘terrorists’ to lie to its own people about the progress it is making in its phony war against ‘terrorism.’ ‘You can feel safe (at least for now),’ the White House tells Americans. ‘Our loyal ally, Pakistan, has knocked a few more ‘terrorists’ out of operation.’
Pakistan’s rulers have turned its military into a mercenary army and worse. Not only have Pakistani rulers been using them against the Afghans fighting to free their country from foreign occupation; this army has been attacking and killing Pakistanis who give shelter to the Afghan fighters.
In retaliation, the Pakistani Taliban started attacking Pakistan’s military and – in desperation and folly – they have carried on a campaign of murderous attacks against civilians. These naïf’s do not know that Pakistan’s rulers will not change course to avoid any loss of life except their own. Don’t they know that this same army had carried out military operations against its own people in what was then East Pakistan? It is an army whose generals still behave like their British predecessors in India.
Soberly considered, is there much to choose between Mubarak and Musharraf, between Zein Ali and Zardari. Equally, under their rule and that of their likes, Arabs and Pakistanis have suffered from a calamitous loss of dignity. For too many decades, these nations have faced the same shameful deficits of sovereignty, justice and dignity.
Can we hope that the wave of protests that are now sweeping across the Arab world will sooner rather than later also reach Pakistan’s shores? The contagion of a people in motion, striding forward and making sacrifices, respects no cultural or religious boundaries. The impact of the new and still-spreading Arab intifada against US-Israeli hegemony, operating under the cover of local tyrannies, will be felt across the globe, wherever people suffer under the same imperialist yoke.
This is a wake-up call for Pakistan’s middle classes. In their often mindless pursuit of consumerism, their neglect of the knowledge-oriented culture of their ancestors, their excessive fascination with all things Western, Pakistan’s middle classes have lost their historical agency. They have not been the force that they could have been in shaping the laws, the knowledge and institutions that could move them forward while retaining an organic connection to the best traditions of their own heritage.
If Pakistan’s middle classes and its workers fail to act, Pakistan’s elites and their Taliban alter ego – the extremist backlash evoked by their treachery – will continue to push the country towards collapse. That collapse may not be too far away, unless Pakistan’s young generation – like those in Tunisia and Egypt – take matters into their hand.
Let a million voices tweet, let a million Pakistanis assemble in every major city, and produce the energy, the electricity, vibrations and waves that will coalesce into a thousand creative projects for reconstructing their society, projects to regain the knowledge they have lost, to recover their stolen dignity, and drink again from the spiritual fountain that alone gives meaning to life.
God has honored the children of Adam, the Qur’an says. Shamefacedly, Pakistan’s elites have dishonored the children of Adam in Pakistan for more than six decades. Now is the time for the Pakistani children of Adam to raise their hands and their voices to regain the honor that they have lost and that is theirs by God-given right.
M. Shahid Alam Professor of Economics
Northeastern University Boston, MA 02115