4 February 2011

Dr Gareth Price

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Situated on the edge of the Middle East, Pakistan faces similar problems to Tunisia and Egypt: inflation, lack of employment opportunities and widespread corruption.

The corrupt kleptocracy in Egypt is a major cause of discontent, particularly among those excluded from patronage networks. Poverty has endured during the past three decades of President Mubarak's rule, while the ruling elite have grown rich. 40% of Egyptians live on less than US $ 2 a day, while some estimates suggest that the President's family may have amassed between $ 40bn and $ 70bn.

Rising food prices

Inflation, and in particular rising food prices, is another commonality. Pakistan faces particular problems because of crop losses due to last year's floods. A 40% increase in the cost of maize has resulted in a similar increase in the price of eggs. A longer-term failure to increase production in line with demand has led to significant rises in other food costs, such as edible oils. Egypt too has faced significant, and in some cases overnight, increases in the costs of some foodstuffs.

Egypt and Pakistan face similar unemployment concerns. In Egypt 700,000 graduates are chasing 200,000 positions. In the years following 9/11, when Pakistan's economy boomed, its failure to increase employment was stark. In some ways, Pakistan is worse off than Egypt. Levels of infrastructure are poorer and Pakistani businesses are faced with frequent gas and electricity cuts. The textile industry has suffered with hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs. Pakistan's demography lags that of Egypt; 36% of Pakistanis are under 15, and in the coming decade millions will be seeking employment, a large percentage, on current trends, in vain.

Political dynamics in Pakistan

But while there are real similarities between Pakistan and Egypt, there are major differences that mitigate against a replication of events in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrations against the Pakistani government are entirely plausible. But if they occurred, the dynamics would be different. The protestors in Egypt are expressing revulsion with a de facto one-party state. Pakistan does have political parties and in 2008 held a free and fair election. Despite the controversy that already surrounded President Zardari, he received a comfortable majority of votes and left his two main competitors lagging behind.

Secondly, Pakistan is significantly poorer and less educated than Egypt. As many as 60% of Pakistanis live on less than $ 2 per day. While unemployed graduates may well be protesting in Egypt, this group is a much smaller proportion of the Pakistani population. And it is hard to envisage that such events in Pakistan would be driven by social media, rather than by the mosque.

The role of radical Islam

Third, and most importantly, it is difficult to envisage an alliance ranging from liberals to Islamists coming together in Pakistan. This was most vividly illustrated by the recent murder of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Taseer was killed by his bodyguard after speaking out against Pakistan's blasphemy law, following the sentence of a Christian woman to death. Under the law, members of minority groups are susceptible to blasphemy accusations when in dispute with members of the Muslim majority. The actions of Taseer's killer were defended by politicians, religious figures and lawyers, who even honoured him with garlands during his first appearance in court.

Pakistan is not immune from events elsewhere in the Islamic world. But were Pakistanis to take to the streets in protest at the government, the opposition would undoubtedly be expressed through radical Islam. If the West has struggled to create a policy response to events in Egypt, decision-makers must be crossing their fingers that 'contagion' does not spread to Pakistan.