By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
13 December 2017
A modern democracy is characterized by its political process. Without process and rules, there can be no public democratic discourse, and therefore no democracy. Even countries which fail on the democracy metric largely understand the value of process and rules, and only typically break away from them only when the political needs of the governing regime requires it. But Pakistan is now in a much worse position than even that.
Pakistan was bought to a standstill by a mass rally last week by a relatively unknown cleric, Khadim Rizwi. Rizwi has been an ardent and charismatic advocate for the political revival of Barelvi power – Barelvism is a Sunni sect which reveres the Prophet and the Saints to a much greater degree than other strands of Sunni Islam, which has as many as 200 million followers in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, and which has been politically on the wane in the past decade or two in Pakistan.
The initial rally occupied a critical road junction between Islamabad and its sister city, Rawalpindi, rendering traffic between the two cities virtually impossible for 21 days in November. And these tactics were adopted in other parts of the country, as the initial rally garnered public attention and as tussles between the protesters and a bumbling police saw more and more Barelvi sympathisers come out in support of the protesters.
The aim of the protesters was to force the government to reverse a change in the blasphemy law as it pertains to elections: it had been proposed in the Election Bill 2017 that newly elected parliamentarians would not be required to proclaim the Finality of the Prophethood. A seemingly arcane point of contention and a bizarre thing to get hung up on from the point of view of foreign observers, but this requirement does ensure that the country’s parliament excludes many individuals that zealous Islamists might object to: Ahmadis, Christians and secularists, to name but a few.
The sectarian implications of this conflict can be largely left aside. The government capitulated on the original point fairly quickly. And that the political process in Pakistan is heavily skewed toward hard-line interpretations of Islam is known and was hardly going to be fixed by just this change to the law.
The critical issue, however, is that the militants also demanded the sacking of Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid, the man who originally proposed the legal change in the Election Bill. And in doing so, the situation was set up as a show-down between the protesters and the government.
The militants openly challenged the authority and power of the government, and the government was put in the position of having to fight back or see its authority permanently damaged. So it did the only thing it could have done: it fought back.
And it failed. The police who were sent in failed miserably in dispersing the crowds and arresting the leaders. And when the government finally appealed to the Army to step in and restore order, the Army largely sided with the militants. The government thus had to capitulate to the militants’ demands.
Dangerous A Precedent
It cannot be overstated just how dangerous a precedent this sets for the nuclear country. Now any yahoo with a few thousand followers knows that if they want something from the government, all they have to do is occupy a few critical road intersections.
It doesn’t matter if there is broad popular support for what they are asking, or whether it is a politically sustainable thing to do. The only thing they need to ensure their success is to make sure not to aggravate the Army in the process and they can gun for whatever they want.
This is no way to run a country. This is not even mob rule: it is the rule of whichever small mob thought to occupy some road intersections this month. Not to mention that random mobs can now demand the sacking and hiring of ministers, on the fly changes to electoral law, amnesty for political insurgents and so on.
In the best-case scenario, this will leave only one authority with the capacity to impose some semblance of order over the country: the Army. They will be deciding what gets done and how simply by deciding how to respond to each individual flash mob as they arise. We will be back to the old days of military government in all but name: and with a lot more economic and security disruption.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.