Was it the establishment who used Tahirul Qadri but failed, or was it Qadri who used the establishment and succeeded?
During a talk that I was invited to deliver early last year at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and then at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science & Technology (SZABIST) in Karachi in November 2012, the question that kept coming my way the most from Pakistani students was that whether Pakistan can or will ever experience something akin to the Arab Spring?
The truth is Pakistan is perhaps one of few Muslim countries that has experienced these kinds of Springs on numerous occasions.
Most of the times these have led to the ouster of military dictators and, ironically, on one occasion a protest movement actually ended up preparing the ground and an opening for a military coup and subsequent dictatorship.
It is important to keep all this in mind before one attempts to launch into understanding phenomenons where men like cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, and more recently, Dr. Tahirul Qadri, were both seen (and imagined) as being the forces who would lead a Pakistan Spring of sorts.
I am always surprised to notice the negligible amounts of knowledge most young Pakistanis have about the previous generations’ notable role in making Pakistan perhaps the only Muslim country (apart from maybe Turkey), where a number of democratic movements constantly challenged military dictatorships, making sure that unlike a majority of Arab countries, Pakistan never had a one-party dictatorship that ruled for decades.
In the late 1960s, a movement led by leftist students forced Pakistan’s first military dictator to resign, paving the way for multiparty democracy.A student is grabbed by security personnel for trying to assassinate the first Pakistani military dictator, Ayub Khan in Peshawar in 1968.
In 1977 a right-wing movement rose against an elected but authoritarian ‘socialist’ regime that, however, ended up ushering in a reactionary military dictatorship.
This dictatorship then faced at least three major democratic movements in the 1980s, making way for democracy’s return in 1988.
Then between 2006 and 2007, a widespread movement forced another military dictator to hold multiparty election and eventually resign in 2008.
All those Springs that took place in the Arab world were against one-party rules and dictatorships that had been dominating the politics of the impacted countries for decades.
In Pakistan, young followers of men like Imran Khan and Dr. Tahirul Qadri have often talked about emulating the uprisings in Arab countries. But ever since 2008 Pakistan has been under an elected ruling coalition of centre-left parties and an active parliament.
Imran Khan, the charismatic former captain of the Pakistan cricket team and (ever since 1996), the head of his centre-right party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (Pakistan Justice Party), has been threatening to wipe out Pakistan’s ‘corrupt politics and system’ with the help of a ‘revolutionary tsunami.’
Though ever since 2010 he has been able to get a pretty decent number of urban middle-class youth on his side, he has struggled to blunt accusations that claim him to be an ‘artificial construct of the military-establishment’ and being soft on Islamist extremists that have been haunting Pakistan for years now.
Khan has categorically refuted these allegations, but he has certainly reoriented his revolutionary rhetoric and now overtly states himself to be a democrat who believes that real change in Pakistan can only come through the ballot.Imran Khan is still an enigma for many Pakistanis. Accused by his detractors of being soft on Islamic extremists, Khan has always vehemently denied the allegations.
But just when everyone was waiting for the current coalition government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to complete its 5-year-term in March this year and announce fresh election, Dr. Tahirul Qadri appeared on the scene, waving his fist to lead a ‘long march’ to occupy Pakistan’s manicured capital, Islamabad, and turn that city into a Tahrir Square (the place where the Arab Spring was launched in Egypt).
His sudden appearance and move took everyone by surprise. Most of his critics in the government, the opposition and the media were quick to denounce him as being yet another ploy and puppet of those sections of the country’s military-establishment and intelligence agencies who have been blamed time and time again for derailing democracy in Pakistan.