The Egypt Uprising Lesson for Afghans

My op-ed column on Outlook Feb 10.

Nowadays there are talks of Egypt-like public anger against the government in Afghanistan in the blogosphere and Afghan news websites. Popular Afghan Dari and Pashto news and commentary websites have run editorials with titles such as “Karzai should learn from the uprising in Egypt”. An editorial of a famous Dari website comments, “Karzai and his infamous team with failures know that their political survival has not many days. Today, tomorrow or day after tomorrow they will be replaced by a just rule of law.” Another commentary on a much-read website says that a country like Afghanistan where unemployment rate is over 50%, and the residents of palaces take it as granted right of inheritance to rule, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia should alert them.”

It’s not only on famous Afghan news commentary websites and blogs, but also there have been such comments by foreign analysts. A commentary on the GlobalPost titled “Afghans can only watch and envy as Egypt revolts” talks about the constitutional manipulation by President Karzai to bring his allies in Parliament and links the Egypt uprising with Afghanistan as a “hypocrisy of American foreign policy”. The author has quoted an Afghan democracy activist saying that Karzai is becoming an autocrat adding that “when an autocrat sweeps the problems under rug for too long, the situation becomes volatile. We can see the evidence of that now in Egypt.” Some other Afghans quoted in the report also say the same stuff that the corrupt rulers of Kabul should learn from Egypt and avoid becoming a dictator.

However, the editorials on Afghan websites calling the people to stand up for their rights are dead wrong on the Egypt uprising and a similar public anger against the failure of governance in Afghanistan. It is impossible to happen in this country. The uprisings in Egypt and some other neighboring countries following the ouster of a dictator in Tunisia are firstly against authoritarian rulers who have been in power for decades. Secondly, the populations in those countries have been repressed of all their basic rights of speech and expression, with huge unemployment, poverty and other issues. These problems exist in Afghanistan, but people know that the solution to poverty and unemployment is not all due to Government failure. If such an uprising or public reaction would have been possible in Afghanistan, people should have stood against the rigging in Presidential elections or the huge corruption, bribery and favoritism. In a previous op-ed about the Kabul Bank corruption story, I had written “If this was a country like Tunisia, the latest report about corruption details should have caused a revolt against the great looters and robbers of Kabul and kick them out of the country to their villas in Dubai, like Tunisians did with Ben Ali.” The mass illiterate population in Afghanistan has not the political awareness, even to the level the people of Tunisia or Egypt living under repression for decades have. We have free media where dozens of news channels and hundreds of newspapers criticize the Government for corruption and governance failure every other day. Documents of corruption are published online. Every single Afghan goes through the deep rooted culture of bribery in the machinery of state. People even commit suicide because of unemployment and poverty. Insecurity should have been the biggest reason to bring people with a strong mass reaction against the Government or insurgents. But have you ever heard of any public reaction? NO. Why is it like that? The answer is that the Afghan society is much divided on social, political, religious, ethnic and tribal lines that such a unified civil movement against corrupt rulers is almost unimaginable. During the last nine years, there has not been a single huge public demonstration against the very common problems like poverty, unemployment, insecurity, favoritism and corruption. All the public demonstrations or show of anger against the Government have been based on political conflicts and those protests have been led by political tribal or religious figures. Remember any big mass protest rally in any corner of the country including capital Kabul in the last nine years? Yeah there has been, but not one about social problems, poverty, corruption, unemployment, favoritism or bribery in every institution of the Government. It doesn’t mean that the people are not tired of the present corrupt ruling elite who have allied for looting. Watch TV programs or news hours in the evenings, every citizen interviewed complains about the smallest problems to the bigger and most common ones like bribery and corruption. But there is not a sense of civic activism to raise voice against these problems in a more effective way of public demonstrations threatening the rule of the looters forcing them compelled to take steps in resolving those problems. If there is such a sense, it is limited to some editorials online, which is read by a small number of middle class urban citizens who are educated and have access to the internet while majority of the population in Kabul have no electricity.

The uprisings in Egypt and its neighboring countries are by the urban middle class who have burst out of reaction after enough of suppression. In Afghanistan, the middle class is not a big part of the urban population in cities like Kabul, Mazar, Kandahar, Herat and the rest. There are the small ruling elite who live in a lifestyle like that of Hosni Mubarak and his family or Ben Ali and his tribe. Like those dictators, our “democratic” corrupt ruling elite apply the same tactics to control masses. You wonder why public demonstrations have never been on social issues; rather it has always been either in support of Palestinians and against Israel or countrywide violent rallies against a crazy Christian pastor living in a far away corner of the US who had warned to burn Qur’an. Because public sentiments are controlled by the religious fanatics and the state won’t bother with them, as long as they don’t threaten or challenge the corruption of rulers.

The huge majority of people in Afghanistan are living below the poverty line. Their political awareness has been controlled by the right-wing extremist fanatic Mullahs with political agendas, provoking the most reactionary public sentiments through religious slogans and taking out rallies either to say “Marg Bar Amrika” (Death to America) or “Down with Zionism”. These right-wing led public demonstrations have never been about social issues, unemployment, poverty, insecurity, corruption or bribery. When they have to score a political agenda, public sentiments are provoked with religious slogans. Such a trend has always controlled and habituated the public reaction and protest in a particular way with only specific issues of religious sentiments, while the greater problems like corruption have never been a matter of mass demonstrations.

In Egypt and Tunisia the uprisings were without a leader. In Afghanistan, public movements have always been led by individuals, mostly ethnic and tribal figures with their self-interested political agendas.  Afghan TV channels nowadays have extensive news coverage of the uprising in Cairo. I wish the people here learn the lessons that their greater issues are insecurity, unemployment, corruption, bribery and favoritism of the rulers. They should also learn the facts about the uprisings on Tahrir Sqaure of Cairo, where Christian and Muslim Egyptians are hand-in-hand standing in front of the rubber bullets and police torture against a dictator who has the political and financial support of a superpower. In Afghanistan, religious unity among followers of different beliefs is beyond imagination; here people from same religion have never been unified on ethnic and tribal lines for their collective issues and rights. And that’s the reason I believe an Egypt or Tunisia-like uprising will never happen in Afghanistan. It will be great if only people learned that demonstrations can also be against corruption and rulers, not only about Palestine and Israel. That’s the lesson from Egypt uprising for Afghans.

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