From Dhaka to Cairo (and beyond)
So the Islamists are winning elections in the Arab world and the liberals / progressives / secular folks are apprehensive. Whither the Arab spring? I haven’t the foggiest idea. And this post is not about predicting, or even analysing, what awaits Egypt and other Arab countries.
There is a tendency in Bangladesh to compare local politics with the latest development overseas. Thus the comparisons in 2008 between the Awami League and Obama election victories, or the calls for ‘OWS by the Buriganga’, or both AL-ers and BNP-wallahs claiming to be ‘Bangla’r Thaksin’. Such comparisons are likely to miss important nuances. I find it more useful to think about Bangladeshi conditions — something I am likely to know more about than, say, Thailand — and suggest factors that may matter elsewhere.
As such, over the fold, I am going to draw from two episodes in Bangladesh’s past and make some observations that may have relevance for what might unfold in the Arab world.
Back 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 replacing Mubarak — this is likely to be an interregnum. The key question is likely to be about the coming elections.
Now that the elections are happening, what can we say?
In 1968-69, the spontaneous uprising that begun in West Pakistan quickly spread to the East. While Awami League had been agitating against the Ayub regime and pushing its 6-points programme for years, the actual uprising was spearheaded by the left. Iconic martyrs of the time — Assad and Matiur — belonged to various left factions. With Mujib in jail, it wasn’t any of his lieutenants like Tajuddin Ahmed or Khondoker Mushtaq, but the radical Maolana Bhashani who led the biggest rallies and meetings in January 1969.
But when the elections took place, the left came nowhere. Some of them boycotted the election process entirely, rejecting the ‘sham democracy’. Some called for armed struggle to liberate East Pakistan. Bhashani himself demanded both bhaat before the vote, and then Shadhin Purbo Pakistan after the cyclone of November 1970. The result was that Sheikh Mujib and the Awami League had effectively a monopoly claim to power in the liberated Bangladesh.
And yet, all was not over for the left. Pro-Moscow left swept the student council elections in 1972. Their demonstrations against the Vietnam War was fired upon by the police near the American embassy, resulting in the first hartal of independent Bangladesh. Some pro-Peking factions were uniting behind newspapers and magazines like Haq Katha and the Holiday. And then, of course, there was the AL-break ways in JSD.
As the Mujib government lost the plot, a united left front (kind of like what was happening in West Bengal) could have emerged. That it didn’t, that Bangladeshi left couldn’t rise above the pathetic factionalism or immature adventurism, is a subject of a post (or a series even) of its own. The relevant point here is that with Mujib wobbling in the post-1972 Bangladesh, the left had a shot at power, a shot that it missed.
What’s the relevance to the Arab world?
Consider this: accroding to the IMF, the Egyptin economy is likely to grow by 1.2% this year and 1.8% next year, compared to about 5% in recent years. That is, the incoming government is likely to preside over falling per capita income. It will have to deal with serious economic reforms. Some of these reforms will be ‘neoliberal’ and decidedly unpopular. Others will involve taking on the vested interests of the army.
On top of that, there will be the broader question of demilitarisation. Plus, the new government will have tricky foreign policy challenges with respect to uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, and the relationship with Israel. Not to mention the risk of another global recession coming from a possible break up of the euro area.
Of course, Mujib’s problems in the war-torn Bangladesh were much, much worse than anything the Muslim Brotherhood will have to face in Egypt (or An-Nahda is facing in Tunisia). But the incoming Islamist governments will definitely face serious problems with no easy solutions.
And much like the left in the early 1970s Bangladesh, the Arab liberals / progressives / secular forces will have an opportunity to provide an alternative to the Islamists. The question really is whether the liberals and allies are capable of uniting behind a common programme.
Recall, I said I was going to draw on two episodes from Bangladeshi history.
In August, I noted that Arab democracy could do much worse than ours. Even as I hope the Arab liberals / progressives unite in opposition to the coming Islamist government, let me note that they can do better to avoid one huge mistake by the Bangladeshi liberals and progressives post-1990.
The Islamist victory in Egypt and Tunisia shouldn’t have come as a surprise to observers of those countries. But evidently to some people, it did. In Bangladesh, the centre-right BNP’s victory in 1991 did come as a surprise to many (if not most) observers. And over the rest of the decade, the country’s liberal / progressive forces systematically and deliberately shunned BNP.
In 1992, Bangladeshi liberals and progressives demanded trial of pro-Pakistan forces in 1971. But the sincerity of the movement’s intentions — was it about 1971, or harrassing BNP — came into question when the whole thing quietened down after 1995, when the alleged war criminals were allies of the opposition Awami League in the street agitation against the BNP government.
Also in 1992, the BNP government moved decisively to quell communal riots that were breaking out in aftermath of the destruction of the Babri mosque. While the steps taken by the government were lauded in the western media, the progressives in Bangladesh chose silence.
In 1995, much of the progressive media (including people like Shafiq Rehman who would later become BNP supporters) lent support to AL’s irredentism regarding the caretaker system. And finally in 1996, Matiur Rahman — the leading Bangla editor — fanned a military coup attempt rather than support the BNP-elected president.
None of this is to excuse the manifold excesses and crimes committed during the subsequent BNP regime. Rather, the point is that the liberal opinionmaking class bears partial responsibility for what happened to Bangladesh’s democracy post-1990. Its refusal to acknowledge BNP’s legitimacy drove the party to rightwing extremism, while its opportunistic support to the AL allowed that party easy rides to power.
In the global scheme of things, Bangladesh matters little. Not so Egypt. Relevant lesson here is for the Arab intellectuals, and the progressive / liberal forces everywhere, is to acknowledge the Islamists as the rightful representatives of the Arab peoples. Refusal to acknowledge their legitimacy will only drive them to the extremes.
Nothing good can come from that.