The myth of an Arab Spring in Pakistan
January 30th, 2013
10:32 AM ET

The myth of an Arab Spring in Pakistan

By Michael Kugelman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can follow him @MichaelKugelman. The views expressed are his own.

Will Pakistan experience an Arab Spring? The question has been on many minds since revolution swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 – and especially since a major anti-government rally took place in Islamabad this month.

It's easy to understand why. Pakistan, like the Arab Spring nations, boasts a young and mobile communications savvy population. Its masses are victims of the same indignities that incited revolt in the Middle East: corruption, oppression, and injustice.

However, the similarities end there. Let’s stop talking about a revolution in Pakistan, because it’s not going to happen.

It’s tempting to think Pakistan harbors revolutionary impulses. In recent weeks, a cleric named Tahir ul Qadri led a march to Pakistan’s capital that he vowed would culminate in the fall of the government. Tens of thousands – including women and children – camped out in Islamabad to cheer Qadri’s fiery anti-government speeches.

Yet this story yielded a decidedly counter-revolutionary denouement. Qadri stepped off the stage and entered into negotiations with government officials. The outcome? An “Islamabad Long March Declaration” calling for the government to be dissolved by mid-March, and for a caretaker government to take over until elections are held within 90 days of the government’s dissolution. This is actually the direction the government was moving in before the march – part of a constitutionally mandated transition process for election years, and 2013 is one such year.

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In effect, the chief revolutionary signed a backroom deal with the state that left everything in place – and his supporters literally out in the cold. Not exactly a scene from Tahrir Square.

In Pakistan, power is about personalities, not people. Pakistanis frequently gravitate toward charismatic politicians who, messiah-like, vow to single-handedly rid the nation of its afflictions. Yet these leaders often come across as mere pawns of Pakistan’s established power brokers.

Take Qadri. He is known for his galvanizing anti-government rhetoric, but he also supported Pakistan’s military coup in 1999, and expresses pro-army views. Tellingly, the Long March Declaration stipulates that his political party help select a caretaker prime minister. This has all fueled speculation that his march was engineered by Pakistan’s powerful armed forces to deepen their behind-the-scenes influence over politics.

Meanwhile, Imran Khan, a former cricket star contesting this year’s elections, often resorts to crowd-pleasing populist rhetoric, such as vowing to end corruption in 90 days. Yet he has struggled to shake the perception that his campaign has been sponsored, if not bankrolled, by Pakistan’s security establishment.

Be this as it may, there’s no denying the extraordinary ability of these charismatic figures to mobilize the masses. Khan has drawn huge crowds – some estimate as many as 500,000 people – to his campaign rallies. Qadri attracted tens of thousands to his march even though he’s lived in Canada for the last seven years.

So imagine for a moment that a truly independent charismatic leader materializes, one with no strings to be pulled, and who genuinely desires to precipitate a people's revolution. Could such a figure’s prodigious mobilizing abilities launch a mass movement for change?

Don’t count on it.

Why? Because mobilization is only a first step toward launching a revolution. The other steps – identifying core objectives and strategies, and them implementing them through mass action – are non-starters in Pakistan because the nation is too riven by division. Ethnic, provincial, and sectarian tensions are rife, effectively negating any hopes for unifying around a common cause, much less a leader (Khan is a deeply polarizing figure). Sunni-Shia cleavages run deep, and fractures between Sunni Barelvis and Sunni Deobandis are sharp. These religion-based fissures should put to rest any talk of an eventual Iran-style Islamic revolution.

It’s not just Pakistan’s fractures that inhibit mass movements for change. Thanks to the power of patronage, many everyday Pakistanis are allergic to actions that threaten the status quo because this could imperil the influence of friends and other patrons who help them get by in Pakistan’s unmeritocratic society.

Some may argue that Pakistan doesn’t need an Arab Spring because it has already experienced something approximating one – a pro-democracy movement in 2007. Lawyers, journalists, and students launched a campaign against the draconian policies of President Pervez Musharraf, which led to his resignation the next year and to an era of democracy that has shakily endured to the present day.

Still, while that movement may have produced democracy, it has failed to overhaul the oppressive culture of corruption and impunity that continues to enrage the Pakistani masses today. Sadly, this culture is unlikely to be eliminated anytime soon.

As the Qadri march wrapped up, local media reported that poor hygiene conditions had sent more than 90 sickened participants to the hospital. Social media reports (albeit unconfirmed ones) claimed that several people had died.

What a tragic yet appropriate coda in a nation where people’s privations, not people power, carry the day.

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Topics: Pakistan

soundoff (156 Responses)
  1. lewtwo

    Islam: The religion of peace ?

    More like the religion of hate. They even hate each other. "Sunni clerics killed in Karachi attack" - that headline from Pakistan regarding the attack of one muslim cult against another muslim cult. A very common occurrence wherever Islam exists.

    January 31, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  2. jonat

    Islamic based rule via the Muslim Brotherhood is being rejected in Egypt and soon the rest of Islam. The world will be watching to see which group the USA and UN protect. If it's the brotherhood we will know that freedom for the people isn't a part of the plan

    January 31, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  3. Mahboob

    Pakistan is a failed state with nuclear weapons and missiles that kills polio workers.

    January 31, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Reply
    • Stu

      Exactly !! You better pucker up in India and get ready for being zapped !

      January 31, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Reply
      • Hawkeye

        Anytime, if you are your mother son, come now! you have tried that all your life .....i dare you .....aajjjaaaaaaaa haraamjaade

        February 2, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • Ashiq

      Pakistan should start importing cow's cr@p and ur!ne from India. India is the largest producer of cow's cr@p and ur!ne.

      February 1, 2013 at 5:48 am | Reply
      • Hawkeye

        When India crapped Pakistan was born

        February 2, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
  4. Tayeb Mogri

    Revolution or change will only occur in Pakistan if Punjab and its zamindaars want it. You can kick a baluchi, pathan, muhajir, sindhi around but dare not kick Punjab around for you will be branded a traitor. By hook or by crook Punjab rules in Pakistan.

    January 31, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  5. stu

    Pakistan is a failed state. The army is most corrupt and judiciary and politicians are no better. It is best if West helps carve out that place into smaller states and with UN help run these until locals can run their own affairs. It will take another 30 years but atleast that place won't be a bother for the world.

    January 31, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • Stu

      During that period of time how many gurls will be gang r-aped in India you figure?

      January 31, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • haris jihadi

      and btw the west getting involved in middle estern and southern asias problems is only making things worse. Western countries only get involved if theres something and is better for there own nation. Something that appeals to them, is the only time they get involved.

      February 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  6. Serengeti

    Hindu Clay Goddess Kaali Maa and her implications on democracy in South Asia.


    A recent report by United Press trust of India (UPI) stated that during the past three years more than 2,500 young boys and girls were sacrificed to goddess Kali in India. Another of AFP's recent reports say: hundreds of young boys and virgin girls are sacrificed every month for the deity Kali. In one case Rama Sewak hacked his eight year old son to death in broad daylight in Delhi because goddess Kali had told him he would come back to life and bring him good fortune. Bloodthirsty Kali is worshipped openly the length and breadth of India. Kali's statue stands naked astride the inanimate body of the Hindu deity Shiva, tongue stuck out with blood dripping from fang-like teeth. She holds a noose, a skull-topped staff, a blood-encrusted sword and a severed head. She is also known as Durga, Devi, Shaktima, Uma and Parvathi in other manifestations. The priest of Delhi, Kali Bari, says that a child sacrificed to Kali ensures a man the birth of a son. Human sacrifices are also made to these gods or goddesses, either to appease them or to ask favours of them.

    January 31, 2013 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  7. Stu

    INDIA: Between two Deities: KALI & PANCHALI

    The problem with India is that is built on a system of cultural and societal values based on Hinduism which is a cult. Nations built on a cult seldom survive in the long run. Now just take a look at these two Hindu goddesses and the destruction and lack of morality they represent.

    Goddess Kali's statue stands naked astride the inanimate body of the Hindu deity Shiva, tongue stuck out with blood dripping from fang-like teeth. She holds a noose, a skull-topped staff, a blood-encrusted sword and a severed head. Disgusting, to say the least. Would you want your kids growing up with such inspiration?

    Meanwhile, goddess Panchali was married to five brothers. Which one would become the legitimate father of his child should she have one? Dr Charles (renowned author and an authority on India) says that instances of incest are common in Hindu scriptures. Decadent ! Immoral !

    Talk about being between a b-itch and a tramp!!

    January 31, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  8. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    “I see the colors of a pretty the sky
    Are also on the faces.....of people ..going by
    I see friends shaking hands.....sayin.. how do you do
    They're really sayin......i love you.

    But when you ask hindu goddess Kali, is her love really true
    She grins, opening her blood dripping jaws wide open ..sayin… I will sacrifice you
    And Lord Hanuman with his elongated snout
    Sayin barbarism is what hindu cult is all about
    And I say to myself what a miserable place India is without a doubt.

    January 31, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Reply
  9. ShahNawaz Ansari

    Spare us your rubbish. India is a bully and a trouble maker in that region. It has kept the neighbors behind due constant bickerings. India has always lived in the shadow of Pakistan and has been forever defined by Pakistan. Blaming Pakistan for all the ills in Indian society. Let's face it, India is a decadent culture and economy on the verge of collapse. India has become a dinosaur. A Smithsonian specimen. Like humpty dumpty even USA, NATO and the entire free world are having a tough time holding it together. Living in the shadows of Pakistan, defined by China, haunted by Kashmir and punctuated by Terror Organizations such as Shiv Sena, India is struggling to find a meaning for its existence (besides a call center) and a place in the new world order.


    January 31, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Reply
    • Hawkeye

      Ansari there you go again Paki, all you do is copy. You copied a whole country from India, failed at that too by getting divided in to two so easy! All you do is copy India, in culture, in sports, in nuclear capability. What is your country good at or for?

      February 2, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  10. Belseth

    Arab Spring was a myth period. What really has changed? It was a creation of the media.

    February 1, 2013 at 1:57 am | Reply
  11. Leif

    Since Pakistan isn't an Arab nation, it sort of follows, doesn't it?

    February 1, 2013 at 4:31 am | Reply
  12. Pervaiz Prosciuttolover

    Will our Muslims brothers in Pakistan and those in the government ever stop causing Pakistanis living abroad any less cause for embarrassment and draining our self esteem ?
    I am tired of hearing about bomb blasts and violence everyday in Pakistan in every newspaper all over the world wherever I go.
    Blowing up innocent human beings
    Harboring Al Quaida
    Blowing up girls schools
    Shooting kids in the head in the name of religion
    Persecuting minorities
    Framing Christians for blasphemy
    Shia Pogroms
    Killing 166 Americans and Indians in Mumbai and getting caught red handed
    Jailing doctors
    And the hits keep coming....

    I am truly ashamed being a Pakistani

    February 1, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • haris jihadi

      please jsut delete you thread your an embarrassment to muslims everwhere. Islam teaches us better then to judge a whole because of the actions of a few. Im ashamed that you call yourself a muslim or pakistani.

      February 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  13. haris jihadi

    First of all this matter of the "arab spring" isnt the correct way of defining the changes in the middle east. THIS matter applies to all people who call them muslims because this directly affects them and they need to understand that. I dont believe that pakistan will under go a armed conflict but most definately riots and protests will occur more and more as the time gets closer to elections. I have to agree with one part of tahir ul-qadri that the military taking over in 1999 was correct because of nawaz sharief telling the millitary in kashmir to back off becuase clintion told him to was WRONG. kashmir is suffering undert the indian oppression agaist the muslims but tahir should not be part of the politics involved with getting rid of the government because hes a teacher and does not know as much as others. Hopefully Imran Khan will get into power and fix alot of the corruption quickly or pakistan will not last very long and could possibly becuase another syria.

    February 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  14. sparky

    Pakistan is a feudal nation: An army that owns a nation of peasants. The educated and elite are part of that establishment. They're not in favor of democracy for everyone, because that means less power for them.

    The people are poor, and the economy is entirely driven by the army. The only way that there will be change is if an economy develops apart from the army, so that there are middle-class and wealthy people who aren't tied up with the army.

    That will never happen. Pakistan is a one-industry show, and nothing else will ever take root there.

    February 1, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  15. Anony many indians claiming to be Pakistani's are posting here. I wonder why I'm not surprised.

    February 1, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Reply
  16. concerned

    Long live Pakistan. All the indians posting here should find something better to do.

    February 1, 2013 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  17. NorCalMojo

    This article is funny on so many levels.

    Dude should write for the onion.

    February 1, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  18. gino

    What Pakistan needs ia a major enema.

    February 2, 2013 at 12:04 am | Reply
  19. OregonTom

    How much does a live hen cost in Pakistan?

    February 2, 2013 at 10:51 am | Reply
    • Hawkeye

      One Pakistani

      February 2, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  20. Skorpio

    If Muslim women were to have absolute power in Islamic countries and societies, violence, terrorism, hatred and discrimination would drastically be reduced. Eventually Islam could disappear but in order to happen, Islamic clerics, devout Muslims, caliphs, emirs, sultans and Muslim leaders must go.

    February 2, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  21. tkm

    Pakistan has given refuge to muslim refugees from around the world. I f only rule of law could prevail instead rule of the gun. Pakistan has potential if we can live with true spirit of Islam instead of banging everybodys head in the name of Islam.

    February 2, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • tkm

      True spirit of Islam is love and justice of Allah and its creatures that includes all human beings of any creed religion caste nationality. No ifs and buts. Live and let live.

      February 2, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  22. Polopoint

    "Arab Spring"? in Pakistan? Wouldn't they need to be 'arab' for that?

    February 2, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Semper Cogitatus

      Shh, don't tell CNN that. It's better to just laugh quietly at them.

      February 2, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Reply
  23. Syd Chaden

    I can sum up the many comments concerning Pakistan and its problems. Pakistan is a Muslim country.

    February 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  24. Terrible_Ted

    Kill all the Paki's, and let God sort them out. The world will be a much quieter and safer place.

    February 2, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  25. ArchieDeBunker

    "Arab Spring" is myth. There has been no "Arab Spring." There has been only additional enslavement to Sharia Law by the Muslim Brotherhood, which cares about human liberty about as much as a mousetrap cares about the mouse.

    February 2, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  26. Semper Cogitatus

    The Arab Spring itself, or at least what most westerners think about it it is a myth. They are replacing brutal, repressive secular dictatorships with brutal, repressive theocratic dictatorships. Winter is the proper analogy here, not spring.

    February 2, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  27. Skeptic

    It would be an interesting "Arab Spring"with no arabs!!! Journalists should stop bandying that term for the whole word... The rest of the world would be as offended as if we said that "Arab Spring for Guns" has started in the US.

    February 3, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  28. Truth Hurts

    Pakistan is the result of a broken condom that broke 60 years ago when Afghanistan and India were making love, yet its the biggest enemy of its parent countries. They created Taliban and still supporting them in Afghanistan, and terrorizing the people of India. What can you expect from a Harami (B@stard) that was born accidentally.

    Proud Afghan

    February 3, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  29. Oriza

    I'm amused~
    "Kill all the Pakistanis"?
    I think someone's forgetting that they're still part of the human race. Just because someone was born in Pakistan doesn't mean that they're any different. Good and bad people are everywhere. You're just seeing the bad.
    I'm not taking sides, really. Just wanted to get my point across.

    February 3, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Reply
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