Party like it’s 1969

Posted in politics by jrahman on February 13, 2011

SMS, e-mail, facebook — all forms of modern communication told me as I woke up yesterday that the Mubarak regime had fallen.  This had continued throughout the day.  And rightly so.  As my friend Naeem put it in a facebook conversation:

A 30 year regime’s figurehead has been ousted only through people power. Although there are many roadblocks ahead, including the presence of the army as broker, but still, still… can’t people genuinely feel happy, just for one day, get carried away, just a little bit. How often are there revolutions to celebrate in this tired, broken world?

Yesterday was the day of celebration.  Now for some analysis, which begins with noting that the upheavals sweeping through the Arab world is something that few pundits and experts saw coming — therefore, do take anything anyone (including yours truly) says with a grain of salt.  To paraphrase Dylan, writers and critiques who prophesise with our pens should keep our eyes open for the chance won’t come again.

I have certainly been keeping my eyes open — glued on the Al Jazeera mostly, but also on the pages of the International Herald Tribune and the Financial Times.  And one common refrain I see from the punditry is this: will it be 1989 or 1979 in the banks of the Nile?

Of course, these parallels are simplistic.  No two countries are alike — circumstances differ, as do endowments.  And people who use these parallels know that.  Yet they use these simplistic stories to make sense of a complex world — it’s not easy to write a 800-word op ed, I should know.  So I don’t object to the simplistic parallels.  I do, however, feel that 1989 or 1979 are wrong parallels to.  Rather, over the fold, I argue that if we must indulge in simplistic historical parallels, the period to look to is 1969, the place — erstwhile West Pakistan.

Let’s begin with a discussion of 1989 and 1979 parallels.

The first 1989 parallel that had been animating the punditry went thus — will Tahrir Square play out like Tiananmen Square of 1989?  However, the notion that the Egyptian army would crackdown on the protesters seemed rather unlikely. Typically, severe military crackdown of a popular uprising requires one of two things: the army maintains a belief that it’s defending an ideology, and not just a regime; and/or there are significant ethnic or sectarian differences between the army and the protesters.  With the possible exception of Burma, I can’t think of any example in the modern world where an army cracked down on a large scale uprising of the people whence the army arises to save a regime.

A variation of the ‘crackdown’ scenario saw parallels with Tehran of 2009.  In this scenario, the uprising could have been crashed with the sporadic violence of the pro-regime thugs — equivalent of the Iranian Basij.  Alternatively, the uprising could simply have run out of steam.  With hindsight, it’s clear that the regime opted for the ‘tire the protesters out’ strategy.  And a repeat of Tehran seemed far more likely to me than a repeat of Tiananmen.

Now that the regime has fallen, the 1989 parallel that many find exciting is of course with East Europe.  Here, the story goes that peaceful uprising in Egypt will reverberate around the region, and regimes will fall from Algiers and Tripoli to Damascus and Sana, and a new dawn of essentially pro-western capitalist democratic order will arise — just as it did from Poland to Bulgaria in 1989.

What the optimistic proponents of this parallel miss is that the regimes toppled in 1989 were all anti-West, that East and Central Europe had never seen occupation or overt and covert imperialism by the major western powers (America, Britain, France).  Independent of the intrinsic merits of capitalism or democracy, history made the West a natural ally of the post-1989 leadership of East Europe.

This is not the case in the Arab world.  The Mubarak regime was not anti-West, it was propped up by the West.  As was the regime in Tunisia, as is the regime in Algeria.  Yes, in Syria and Libya the regime is steadfastly anti-West.  But they are the exceptions, not the norm.  When Arab dictatorships are toppled, the West will have to earn the trust of the revolutionary order, it won’t come naturally like 1989.

The related point is that any political and economic order arising in Egypt or elsewhere in the region will be rooted in Arab-Islamic culture and ethos.  In itself, this is not remarkable.  After all, Eastern Europe in 1989 also owed allegiance to the region’s Christian heritage — let’s not forget the tremendous influence of Karol Józef Wojtyła (aka Pope John Paul II) on the events of that year.

As unremarkable as this may be, the sight of protesters praying have caused many a western pundit to fear the repeat of 1979’s Tehran in Cairo (and elsewhere).  According to this script, Muslim Brotherhood is to play the role of Ayatollah Khomeini in the rise of the Islamic Republic of Egypt.  But if 1989 is a stretch, 1979 is even more far-fetched.  For one thing, there is no Khomeini among the Muslim Brothers.  In Iran, Khomeini was a leader in exile.  Audio tapes of his sermons were an inspiration to Tehran’s middle and working classes that supported the Islamic revolution.  The equivalent thing in Egypt would have been facebook-twitter-podcasts of fiery rhetoric from an Islamist icon.  But such an icon doesn’t exist!

This doesn’t mean Egypt won’t become an Islamic republic.  It may or it may not.  But if it does, it’s not likely to be the way things happened in Iran.  And therefore, the 1979 comparison is not just simplistic, but also likely wrong.

The 1989 or 1979 parallels are common because those are the periods a typical American or British pundit is familiar with.  But for a better parallel, we might do well to look to an earlier decade — the then West Pakistan of 1969.

As in Mubarak’s Egypt, so in Ayub’s West Pakistan of 1968 — there was no opposition to speak of, no visible threat to an established regime that was considered a bedrock of stability.  Sure there were rumblings of rebellion in the distant eastern wing, but in West Pakistan, Ayub faced no threat from any corner.

As in Egypt, the uprising begun suddenly.  There was an altercation between students and the military near Rawalpindi, over some trivial matter.  As in Egypt, the protests quickly spread to the main cities of Karachi and Lahore.  As in Egypt, the regime offered concessions like a new cabinet, dialogues, and promise of free election.  As in Egypt, the regime eventually handed over power to the military.

As in today’s Egypt, the then West Pakistan had no history of electoral democracy, and little institution to support an immediate transition to an elected government.  As in today’s Egypt, the army was widely accepted as an institution that could restore peace and stability, and oversee a democratic transition.

Like in Egypt today, in the then West Pakistan the most organised opposition groups were considered to be the Islamist parties — with Jamaat-e-Islami widely considered ideological fellow travelers of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Bhutto was popular, but no one knew how strong his newly founded People’s Party was — this is also the case with Baradei today.

To be sure, there are major differences between Pakistan of 1969 and today’s Egypt — Egypt doesn’t face nationalist uprising in a distant province.  And the soft-spoken figurehead of Egypt’s uprising, Mohammed El-Baradei, is a far cry from the fiery charismat Zulfi Bhutto.  These factors made a peaceful, democratic transition impossible in the then Pakistan.

But these factors notwithstanding, the army did allow a peaceful, democratic election after a period of gradual normalisation.  That may well be what we are likely to see in Egypt.

If the 1969 parallel holds, then the key question ought not be about the nature of the regime replacing Mubarak — this is likely to be an interregnum.  The key question is likely to be about the coming elections.

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4 Responses

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  1. Rumi said, on February 13, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    No revolution took place in Egypt. Those fools in Tahrir square were given the Army oligarchy in Lieu of Mubarak. There was no ideology involved, no vision involved and as such the Tahrir Square ‘ hang out’ crowd had no option available as alternative. Good luck to Egyptians under Army.

    • jrahman said, on February 14, 2011 at 6:00 am

      That’s a bit harsh. I don’t doubt the idealism of the folks in Tahrir Square — to belittle them as ‘hang out’ crowd is not necessary.

      But I don’t disagree with your overall observation. The protesters had no vision or ideology beyond ‘down with Mubarak’, and thus had to accept the army takeover. As I said in the post, this is pretty much what happened in West Pakistan too. The question is now what the army will do?

      In Pakistan, before holding the election the Yahya regime used backdoor channels with Bhutto and the mullahs to keep the Awami League and the real left at bay. I suspect the current junta in Egypt will also try to keep the nationalists/Nasserists and the real Islamists at bay. In Pakistan, the regime half succeeded — while Awami League and Bangladesh nationalists couldn’t be beaten, Bhutto won a handsome victory in the West. Time will tell what happens in Egypt.

  2. […] start with Egypt — the largest and most important Arab country.  Back in February, I argued that the Egyptian uprising bore a resemblance to the anti-Ayub uprising that swept […]

  3. From Dhaka to Cairo (and beyond) « Mukti said, on December 13, 2011 at 10:10 am

    […] in February, after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, I drew a parallel between the Egyptian scene and the post-Ayub Pakistan, noting: the key question ought not be about the nature of the regime […]

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