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Will Pakistan Follow Egypt's Example?

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
February 8, 2011

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Pakistan may be even more vulnerable than Egypt (The News) to popular discontent, with higher inflation, unemployment, and external debt, much of it exacerbated by the devastating flood of 2010 that crippled an already teetering economy. Many Pakistanis are sympathetic (PressTV) to the anger over corruption, surging food prices, and lack of jobs driving Egypt's protests.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani rules out the likelihood of an uprising such as those in Egypt and Tunisia. "Our institutions are working and democracy is functional," Gilani says (Daily Times).

Huma Yusuf, a Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, says it is unlikely Pakistanis will unite against a common cause. "Decades of manipulative politicking under military regimes have fractured civil society (Dawn) and factionalized politics," she writes. "We will always see ourselves through an ethnic, sectarian, or socio-economic lens before we see ourselves as Pakistani." The murder of Pakistan's Governor Salman Taseer by his own security guard in January, and support for Taseer's assassin among many Pakistanis, exposed some of these growing divisions.

Like Egypt, Pakistan is an important strategic partner whose stability matters even more for U.S. national security interests, in neighboring Afghanistan as well as in U.S. efforts to confront al-Qaeda. But U.S.-Pakistan relations have been strained following the detention of a U.S. diplomat on possible murder charges. The Washington Post reports the Obama administration has suspended all high-level dialogue with Pakistan.

Pakistanis did offer an example of people power in 2007, when the country's lawyers spearheaded a popular movement against former military ruler and president Pervez Musharraf. Democracy was finally restored in 2008 following general elections. In this, though, Pakistan may offer a cautionary tale to Egyptians hoping for democracy to improve their lives. The government led by Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari, like past elected governments, is accused of corruption, political infighting, and failure to strengthen civil institutions or provide basic services.

As in Egypt, where the army remains a dominant institution (FT), Pakistan's army is also the country's most powerful institution, as this Crisis Guide explains. This limits civilian capacity to bring change in Pakistan, say some analysts. In fact, the specter of a military takeover looms large in Pakistan where the army has ruled for half of its history. Ian Bremmer and David Gordon of the Eurasia Group argue in Foreign Policy that "further social and ethnic turmoil in the heart of the country might push the military to argue that urban unrest and terrorism are undermining national unity -- and that political change has become an urgent necessity." However, CFR's Senior Fellow for Pakistan, Daniel Markey, cautions that the "Egypt example reaffirms the fallacy that repressive governments are more capable of bringing stability to countries over the long term, including in Pakistan."

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

Whether or not Pakistan experiences Egypt-style protests, it will certainly be affected by a rise of Islamism in the Middle East. Pakistan, the world's second-largest Muslim country, has many religious organizations working within the political system and outside it, and both civilian and military governments have allowed religious extremist organizations to flourish in the past,  and used them as instruments of state policy. CFR's Isobel Coleman told CNN: "If more democratic political systems do emerge from this unrest, however, expect Islam to play a larger role in government." These kinds of movements have the potential to give confidence to other Islamists, says Markey.

Egypt and Pakistan also have raised questions over U.S. aid policy. Some experts say U.S. development aid policies to Pakistan and Egypt have historically tolerated corruption and human rights violations. David Rieff of the New Republic writes development aid only succeeds when the ruling elite of a country like Egypt or Pakistan creates widespread economic opportunity. In Pakistan's case, the Obama administration has pledged to expand U.S. support to the country from just military cooperation to strengthening Pakistan's democracy and has offered a total of $7.5 billion in economic and civilian aid over five years. But as an official U.S. government assessment notes (WSJ), the civilian aid program has "not been able to demonstrate measurable progress."

Additional Analysis:

Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal writes that Egypt's future governments may be less pro-American and follow Pakistan's example to exercise leverage over Washington to extract more foreign assistance (ForeignPolicy.com).

Gareth Price, senior research fellow at London-based Chatham House, says Pakistan is not immune from events elsewhere in the Islamic world.

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