An independent think-tank

Dynamics of unrest in Middle East and its implications for Pakistan

The recent spate of popular unrest and uprisings in the Arab world has generated a number of binary views among the masses who consider it a revolution, since for the first time in the history of Middle East people have raised their voices against the repressive and authoritarian ruling regimes. However, notwithstanding popular sentiments which regard this turbulence a struggle of public against autocratic state governments, still no genuine revolution seems to be in sight. These uprisings are still rudderless and it is better to term this trend as evolution instead of revolution. These were views of Kamran Bokhari, Regional Director Middle East and South Asia at STRAFOR, at a seminar titled “Middle East Unrest” organized by Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) on 22nd March 2011 at its premises.

Dilating upon implications of Middle Eastern unrest for Pakistan, in particular, Mr. Bokhari was of the view that due to different set of circumstances in Pakistan and Arab world it was least likely that a revolution may take place in Pakistan. He held that due to social fragmentation, political divisions and religious polarization chances of a revolution or regime change look dim. Moreover unlike countries of Middle East, Pakistani people have different avenues and outlets like free and vibrant media where people give vent to their aggression and frustration on various issue of discontent.

However, unrest in Arab Peninsula still has some implications for Pakistan. Most pertinent one seems that the American focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan may subside with increasing unrest in Middle East where the balance of power is shifting in favour of Iran leaving Saudi Arabia in panic.

By taking into account the historical trends and patterns of democracy and geography of the Middle Eastern countries he argued that the current unrests in different Arab countries was not comparable with that of Iranian Revolution. He maintained that the people are demanding a liberal democratic system while the states do not want a true rather a ‘guided democracy.’

Mr. Bokhari maintained that new term ‘regime change’ was coined with the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt. The driving factors of these revolutions were people’s grievances and disenfranchisement against their respective regimes.
He said Egypt where traditionally army has enjoyed a dominating role, gradually evolved a quasi-democratic system effectively governed by civilians. He said Egyptian ruler Anwer Saddat, who assumed power in Egypt in 1970, came in with a constitution and his successor President Hosni Mubarak made the state more civilianized. Till then Army had full control over the ruling body therefore it never interfered. A breach occurred in army’s hegemony when in 1998 Kamal Mubarik came and through certain economic reforms, similar to that of ‘chronic capitalism’, threatened the economic monopoly of army. Secondly the issue of succession of Kamal Mubarik as a ruler was unacceptable for the army. The recent agitations in the Egypt were fully exploited by the army and by taking advantage to expel Hosni Mubarak and his family therefore, they showed no reaction against the agitating public. Therefore in Egypt too no regime change appeared as such.

Analyzing Libyan unrest he maintained that the state is very significant due to its geographical location. He asserted that Libya was the only state where actual regime change is possible due to less prominent role of army and much stronger stature of Gadaffi family. However, there was no effective alternative to Gaddafi regime which could replace it in case of regime collapse. Similarly Yemen and Bahrain are also significant due to their geopolitical standing in the Arab Peninsula. Despite prevalence of widespread indigenous problems so far there has not been a spillover effect of this unrest in these countries per se.

While examining situation in Bahrain, he said from a geopolitical perspective it has a structural problem. The ruling government is Sunni whereas majority of the population is Shiite having linkages with Iran. This state of affairs has triggered a proxy-war of Iran Saudi Arabia in Bahrain. The collapse of Bahrain’s downfall will allow Iran to have a footing in the Persian Gulf which is not acceptable to Saudi Arabia by any means and this is why Saudi Arabia has militarily intervened in Bahrain.

In his concluding remarks he asserted that dynamics and undercurrents of unrest in Arab countries vary from one country to another. It is country-specific and context-bound. So seeing such unrests as a coherent wave of democratic aspiration in Arab masses seems a false and too simplistic view.

His lecture was followed by an interactive question and answer session. In response to a question Mr. Bokhari stated that democracy cannot be established overnight due to overarching role of military in these countries and for the military it would be a big challenge to manage a multi party political system.