Saturday, February 5, 2011


Egypt is in turmoil. A dictator is on his way out and there is great uncertainty and fear about what will happen after him. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that after decades of oppressive rule democracy will triumph. At the other extreme we have those who see Islamists claiming the country after the dust settles.

A stable, secular, non-confrontationist democracy is what the whole world would want to see not just in Egypt but in the rest of the Arab world. But is Egypt headed that way, or is it more likely to land on the slippery slope that Pakistan finds itself on today?

In July 2010, the Pew Global Attitudes Project Report about Pakistan came up with disturbing figures about the extent to which Pakistan had become radicalised, thanks in no small measure to the ideological and political thrust imparted by its leaders, military and civil. I had then written a piece on its findings which were largely ignored since they did not fit in with the picture that some analysts had been painting. It was evident from the report that Pakistan slide into religious extremism was real and dangerous. A few months later, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s assassination by his body guard for opposing the blasphemy law -- and the reactions that followed -- rudely awoke everyone save a few die hard romantics, and raised real worries about Pakistan imploding and plunging into a dangerous and violent Islamist abyss.

What does Pew tell us about Egypt? Surprisingly, there are some striking similarities with Pakistan that are almost ominous. That being so, are we right in assuming that the demonstrators who have taken over Tahrir Square in Cairo are actually looking for a Western-style democracy? Or is the Muslim Brotherhood, believed by some to be the force behind the unrest, likely to succeed in turning the country into an ‘Only Islam’ state?

The first and extremely significant Pew finding is that an overwhelming 83% -- the highest in the world -- Pakistanis and Egyptians hold a ‘very unfavourable’ opinion of the United States. Understandable in the case of Pakistanis because of America’s invasion of Afghanistan; but what has rankled the Egyptians so much? Does such a strong dislike for the US also translate – in conjunction with other factors – into some sort of a rejection of secular and friendly democracy too?

Some answers may lie in the figures that follow. Figures for Pakistan are in brackets.
  • Role of Islam 95% (88) of those who feel Islam is playing large role in politics think it is good, while 80% (79) of those who think it is playing a small role think it is bad. Islam must play a much bigger role.
  • Traditional Muslim practices 82% (82) favor stoning adulterers to death; 77% (82) favour chopping off hands of robbers; 86% (76) want death for those who leave Islam.
  • Struggle between modernisers and fundamentalists Only 31% (44)see a struggle between modernisers and fundamentalists and 59% (28) of those side with fundamentalists. Pakistanis surprise positively here.
  • Democracy 59% (44) prefer democracy to other types of government; 22% (15) believe under certain conditions a non-democratic government can be preferable.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and knows the dynamics first hand, thinks it is inevitable that the the organisation will win the September election and that the leaderless, secular democratic forces that have swept one tyranny aside could easily succumb to another. Fareed Zakaria, on the other hand, is convinced that fears of an Egyptian theocracy are vastly overblown and that democracy could work: ”The nation has seen both Mubarak and Iran’s Mullahs and wants neither.” Had Zakaria looked further eastwards, he may have been less sanguine: Pakistan has seen both Iran’s Mullahs and Afghanistan’s Taliban but is still heading straight down that Islamist path.

Are theocracy and democracy completely mutually exclusive as many seem to suggest? Are they really two opposite poles in geo-political and geo-strategic terms? If they were, the US would have not been backing dictators in areas and countries where democracy was, and remains, in danger of seamlessly slipping into unacceptable hands, to say the least. Sure it has made many blunders in the process. But what's the guarantee that the alternatives would have been better for the world?

Pakistan, lest we forget, is a democracy. But it is not secular, has never been. On the contrary, it has been sliding down the Islamist slope for decades and today finds itself firmly in its grasp, future bleak, its very survival in question. When a closet Talibani like Imran Khan, who openly supported handing over Swat Valley to the Taliban and their medieval system of justice, admits to Barkha Dutt that the “situation in Pakistan in not just bad; it is much worse,” little room is left for doubt about what we are facing.

India, bereft of a strategic vision and thereby plans to impact other nations in its supreme national interest, often fails look beyond the idea of democracy, as if it is an end in itself. Its reactions to the developments in Eqypt are, not surprisingly, marked by benign disinterest befitting a non-player who wants to occupy an imaginary and meaningless high moral ground that no other nation has any time for.

But the Arab world, the West and the US have their ears to the ground. They know that the Tahrir Square quake has the potential to shake, disturb and disrupt their world and the global order like nothing has in the past few decades. Caught almost totally by surprise and rattled by nightmare scenarios, they are frenetically trying to figure out ways to minimise its ill effects.

Egypt may well go Pakistan's way over time, with a domino-effect. If that happens, India too will be impacted directly and will not be able to afford the luxury of practicing inertia-driven non-involvement that it has so got used to. Democracy is only a form of government; when analysing and dealing with potential threats, it does not lend itself to being used either as a shield or a missile.