Many in Pakistan Fear Unrest at Home

Protest against power cuts in Multan, Pakistan.

“I think if things stay the same, people will come out and destroy everything.”

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Protests over crippling prices and corrupt leadership are sweeping much of the Islamic world, but here in Pakistan this week, the government blithely dismissed any threat to its longevity or to the country’s stability.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani insisted that Pakistan was not Egypt or Tunisia. “Our institutions are working and democracy is functional,” he said. The economy, while under pressure, is not in crisis.

But while Mr. Gilani appeared unruffled, diplomats, analysts and other Pakistani officials admitted to unease, and conceded that Pakistan contained many of the same ingredients for revolt found in the Middle East — and then some: an economy hollowed out by bad management and official corruption; rising Islamic religious fervor; and a poisonous resentment of the United States, Pakistan’s biggest financial supporter.

If no one expects Pakistan to be swept by revolution this week, the big question on many minds is how, and when, a critical mass of despair among this nation’s 180 million people and the unifying Islamist ideology might be converted into collective action.

Some diplomats and analysts compare the combustible mixture of religious ideology and economic frustration, overlaid with the distaste for America, to Iran in 1979. Only one thing is missing: a leader.

“What’s lacking is a person or institution to link the economic aspirations of the lower class with the psychological frustration of the committed Islamists,” a Western diplomat said this week. “Our assessment is: this is like Tehran, 1979.”

Mr. Gilani is right in that Pakistan held fairly free elections three years ago, when the democratically based Pakistan Peoples Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, won.

But the return to civilian government after a decade of military rule has meant little to the people because politicians have done nothing for voters, said Farrukh Saleem, a risk analyst and columnist in The News, a daily newspaper.

As it has been for all of Pakistan’s more than 60 years of history, Parliament today remains dominated by the families of a favored few, who use their perch to maintain a corrupt patronage system and to protect their own interests as Pakistan’s landed and industrial class. The government takes in little in taxes, and as a result provides little in the way of services to its people.

“Ninety-nine percent of Pakistanis are not affected by the state — it doesn’t deliver anything for them,” Mr. Saleem said. “People are looking for alternatives. So were the Iranians in 1979.”

There is little question that the images from Egypt and Tunisia are reverberating through Pakistani society, and encouraging workers to speak up and vent frustration in ways that were unusual even three months ago.

“There’s no electricity, no gas, no clean water,” said Ali Ahmad, a hotel worker in Lahore who is usually a model of discretion. “I think if things stay the same, people will come out and destroy everything.”

When a young banker in a prestigious job at a foreign bank was asked if Pakistan could go the way of Egypt, he replied, “I hope so.”

At the core of Pakistan’s problem are the wretched economic conditions of day-to-day life for most of the people whose lives are gouged by inflation, fuel shortages and scarcity of work.

They see the rich getting richer, including “the sons of rich, corrupt politicians and their compatriots openly buying Rolls-Royces with their black American Express cards,” said Jahangir Tareen, a reformist politician and successful agricultural businessman.

Food inflation totaled 64 percent in the last three years, according to Sakib Sherani, who resigned recently as the principal economic adviser at the Finance Ministry. The purchasing power of the average wage earner has declined by 20 percent since 2008, he said.

Families are taking children out of school because they cannot afford both fees and food. Others choose between medicine and dinner.

A middle-class customer in a pharmacy in Rawalpindi, the city where the powerful army has its headquarters, told the pharmacist last week to sell him only two pills of a course of 10 antibiotics because he did not have enough money for groceries.

The most popular fuel for home cooking, gas, has been severely rationed this winter. Gas supplies to power textile mills in Faisalabad were suspended this week, leaving about 400,000 workers without their daily wages, said Abdul Qayyum, a textile union official.
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At the same time, joblessness has soared. The true unemployment rate was 34 percent, meaning 18 million people, mostly young, were officially seeking jobs in Pakistan, Mr. Sherani said.

Many of these jobless young men are products of religious schools, known as madrasas, run by radical clerics who favor Islamist teachings and an anti-Western creed. For the last 15 years, according to a government estimate, two million young men have passed through them, many then scooped up by the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups.

The breadth of hard-line Islamist belief was exposed last month when an elite police guard shot a senior politician, Salman Taseer, for his opposition to the nation’s blasphemy laws.

The security guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, has catapulted to the front row of contemporary Pakistani heroes and was hailed by lawyers, mainstream politicians and religious leaders. Rallies are being held on a weekly basis in his honor.

Well-to-do secular families who serve liquor in their big city homes nervously talk of their servants “doing a Qadri,” voicing a fear that the flotilla of help that is common among the privileged will turn on their patrons.

In a sign of the anxiety among politicians about the mood on the street, the government decided Monday not to raise gas prices as scheduled. In January, to stave off the collapse of its parliamentary majority, the government similarly canceled a 9 percent fuel increase.

In combination with the failure of members of Parliament to raise taxes on themselves, the steps have done little to heal Pakistan’s budget woes. In a briefing to the members, the finance minister, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, said the fiscal deficit would reach 8.5 percent of the gross domestic product by midyear, nearly double the target set by the International Monetary Fund.

But Pakistan has become the nuclear-armed version of “too big to fail.” It has been made easier for Mr. Zardari, Mr. Gilani and other politicians to balk at hard economic choices knowing that the I.M.F. and the United States — which is now providing about $2 billion a year in assistance — will continue to bail them out, analysts and diplomats say.

“The West looks at Pakistan with increasing horror but continues to insist that this is called the pain of evolving democracy,” said Mr. Tareen, the politician and businessman.

But before democracy could take hold in Pakistan, the patronage system that passes for it will have totally plundered the country, he said.

Then, he said, the people, frustrated by the failure of representative democracy, will respond to the slogans calling for Islamic rule and the ouster of the United States. “Those forces will sweep into power,” Mr. Tareen said, “and it will be as much of a surprise to us, the ruling elite, as the elite guard’s murder of Salman Taseer last month.”

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