Could Pakistan Have an Egypt-Style Revolution?

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Rafiq Maqbool / AP Photo

Pakistan's former World Cup–winning cricket captain Imran Khan in Mumbai on Feb. 2, 2011

A sense of thrill rushes through Imran Khan's voice at the mere mention of Egypt. The Pakistani cricket legend turned politician is pleased for Hosni Mubarak's former subjects, but he's even keener for similar scenes to play out in his own country. "I think Pakistan is completely ready for it," Khan, an opposition politician with a growing following among Pakistan's youth, tells TIME. "In fact, it's even more ready than Egypt was." Ever since Cairo's crowds seized the world's attention, many have wondered whether the insurgent spirit would spread from the Arab world to the wider Muslim one, and in particular, to nuclear-armed and militancy-racked Pakistan. Some, like Khan, are counting on it.

Egypt and Pakistan are different in a few crucial ways, the primary one being that Pakistan's dictator has already departed. In his final year in power, General Pervez Musharraf was harried by a lawyer-led protest movement that demanded his exit, a return to democracy and an independent judiciary. The streets were filled with photogenic displays of people power, there was a crackdown on pro-democracy activists, Musharraf supporters were blamed for violence in the capital, the media were muzzled, and Washington fretted over the fate of a long-favored strongman who had cast himself as a bulwark against an Islamist takeover.

For nearly three years now, Pakistan has had a civilian democracy. Long-established political parties, lively media and political freedoms allow its citizens to dissent in ways that were not possible in Egypt when its protests started. Upcoming elections, scheduled to be held by 2013, will give Pakistanis another opportunity to oust the government. Egypt seems to be moving toward today's Pakistan. Though civilian leaders are expected to emerge at the front of a fledgling democracy, major decisionmaking will most likely remain backstage — as in Pakistan — in the hands of a powerful, U.S.-funded army.

But as Khan points out, the two countries share many afflictions that make Pakistan prime for a new wave of unrest. He says Pakistan's youth, who comprise 70% of the country, are in exactly the same situation as those in the Arab world: completely discontented. According to a 2009 report by the British Council, only 1 in 10 of Pakistan's youth (defined as those between ages 18 and 29) has confidence in the government. Half fear they will not find jobs. Nearly four-fifths believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. And if anything, Pakistan is even younger than Egypt and other countries engaged in protest this week: the median age in Pakistan is 21, whereas across the Arab world, it is 22.

For these youth, Pakistan's current system of government is perceived as denying more than it offers. Prospects for social mobility are slim: Pakistan, at 125th, is ranked below Egypt in the Human Development Index, with 60% of the nation living on less than $2 a day. Power is seen to be the preserve of a predatory few. Justice and security are elusive. The country's rulers are popularly thought of as venal, inept and distant, and they're widely accused of having carved private fortunes out of a treasury to which they contribute scandalously little in tax. Plans to bequeath their political parties to their sons are as grave an affront to many as was Mubarak's suspected intention to anoint his son Gamal as his successor. Some 119 suicides, like the one committed by Tunisian vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi, took place in Pakistan in 2010.

President Asif Ali Zardari is no Mubarak. It has been barely two years since he assumed power, and his weakness is as emblematic of his leadership as the Egyptian dictator's strength was of his. Whereas Mubarak brutally silenced his opponents, Zardari's could not be heard more loudly. In Pakistan, real political power lies not in Islamabad but at the army's headquarters in neighboring Rawalpindi. As in Egypt, the military is careful to shun an overtly political role, but away from the glare of public scrutiny, it quietly manages national security, foreign policy and elements of the economy. And, also as in Egypt, it evades direct blame for circumstances it helped create.

Nevertheless, any popular upheaval in Pakistan would most likely target Zardari, not the military. "Never in our history have we had such levels of corruption and such bad governance," alleges Khan. It's a sweeping claim that has been denied repeatedly by the government and called into question by analysts who, while not doubting the existence of corruption and poor governance under Zardari, question whether Khan is right about the scale of the problems. But the replacement of a few corrupt Ministers as part of a recent Cabinet reshuffle has done little to halt the spread of unconfirmed tales of legendary greed within government halls — all of which accumulate in the public imagination.

On the economic front, things don't look likely to improve anytime soon. Pakistan is already struggling to meet requirements for an IMF rescue package, and the government, despite U.S. pressure, has failed to broaden its tax base. To generate revenue, it has resorted to printing bank notes. In the coming weeks, economists foresee hyperinflation, the local currency crashing and capital being spirited abroad. Khan believes that such conditions will inflame an already hostile public mood, one that is being amplified by the local media. "You can see the whole thing already bubbling under surface," says Khan, referring to a recent strike by airline workers that won the dismissal of their managing director.

Still, it is difficult to see disgruntled Pakistanis matching the Egyptians' unity. Some groups abortively attempted their own day of rage, to little effect. Unlike the victorious residents of Cairo in Tahrir Square, Pakistanis are riven by deep ethnic, cultural, political and sectarian divides. The middle class in Pakistan is a mere sliver of the population: just 20 million people out of a population of 180 million. Social-media tools like Facebook and Twitter are going to animate only tiny crowds. Pakistani revolutions also suffer a notorious history of false alarms, and Khan, for one, has a record of raising the level of revolutionary rhetoric only to see no groundswell of popular anger to back it up.

Khan is correct, however, in pointing out that a vast stock of tinder has gathered. The question is whether a flame will be set to it. Khan suggests that it could be the case of Raymond Davis, a U.S. diplomat awaiting trial who killed two Pakistanis in Lahore last month. President Obama has asked that Davis be released under diplomatic immunity, but Pakistanis have become increasingly united in their rage at his alleged crime. Zardari's government, which is siding with the U.S. and putting pressure on the courts to release Davis, is caught in the cross fire. "This is not an ordinary situation," says Khan. "If he is returned to the U.S. under diplomatic immunity, it might trigger the revolution off." If it does, it is unlikely to be anywhere near as peaceful or as stable as the one the world has just witnessed.