Taking Government Back

The perhaps incorrectly-named Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States appears to be gaining momentum, and even gaining traction overseas. I say “incorrectly-named” since conversations with the protesters indicate that they wish to take back power from the current representatives of government and not just take over Wall Street. The movement contains a congeries of different interest groups. But it is clear that it includes all age groups and not just the bearded young men and freedom-loving young women who evoke the hippie culture of the 1960s.

On my way to work every morning I pass McPherson Square in the heart of the K Street corridor from where fat-cat lawyers and lobbyists rule the roost in Washington, D.C. I have a conversation with a 50-year-old woman protester carrying a sign that reads: “Honk if you want to take back America.” Wearing a party mask, she talks about her anger. She lost her job and her home because of the mortgage crisis. The mask that covers her eyes signifies the “masquerade” that is the current system of government in her view. I asked if the movement would be able to galvanize youth to come to the polls and effect change. She said “No, we don’t need to go to the polls! We need to take back government. The polls are a sham.”

Clearly, the movement or parts of it want a revolution.

That seems to be the sentiment in other parts of the world. In Egypt, the youth are back in Tahrir Square and being beaten up by the military. On 60 Minutes, the most popular newsmagazine show on American television, the singer who led the Arab Spring protesters in song is shown back at Tahrir singing against the military. He spoke calmly but resolutely about the military men who tortured him with electric prods and tasers. Surprisingly, the venerable Economist in its leader lets the Egyptian military off lightly for the political engineering they are attempting and for their treatment of protesters. Experience throughout the developing world, including Pakistan, shows clearly that political engineering by the entrenched establishment does not work, even if the political systems in place are rotten to the core.

Unless the leaders, both civilian and military, recognize the need for a nationwide discussion of what the people want, the chances of disruptive change are magnified. In Pakistan, clearly, the model of politics as family business has not delivered. Simply having a game of political musical chairs may not be enough. The growing attraction of Imran Khan may be a symptom of the general unhappiness with the status quo. Making and breaking coalitions is not going to solve Pakistan’s problems. Meanwhile the large and growing cohort of Pakistani youth is increasingly going to be jobless and angry. They are also increasingly susceptible to the charms of religious extremism as a vehicle for revolutionary change.

Against the backdrop of a nationwide militancy and a messy situation on its Western border, especially after the coalition exits Afghanistan, Pakistan can ill afford to ignore these trends. What if a facsimile of the Occupy Wall Street movement takes root in Pakistan and peaceful protests start occupying parts of its mega cities and cantonments? Who will be able to take them on? Who knows what forces will end up owning and leading these protests and reaping the gains from the chaos that will ensue? Given the record of its leaders to date, a domestic and peaceful movement to take back Pakistan may have more force than currently imagined by the power brokers in Islamabad.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, and is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within. This essay first appeared in Newsweek Pakistan.