The Dynamics Of Societal And Institutional Drifts In The Middle East And South Asia



As the societies in the Islamic world undergo rapid transition, its institutions of governance are being pushed to adjust. Some of the major causes of this high flux are, for example, the campaign against extremists and the Arab Spring. These, obviously, have gotten intertwined with demographic patterns and the consequences of environmental change.

At the same time, it’s not appropriate to use the word ‘Islamic world’ as each Muslim state has its own system of governance and cultural peculiarities. For instance, monarchs mostly rule the Arab world. Pakistan has had both military and political leaders. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the country has evolved its own system. Some circumstances of Egypt look very similar to Pakistan, especially when it comes to the involvement of its military in politics and security policies of the country and the region. In addition to the internal dynamics of these nations, the interests and influences of global powers have also historically exerted tremendous sway on various institutions of governance.

Any given society is represented by different schools of thoughts, often taking the form of ideologies. These various expressions, often known as liberalism, socialism, nationalism, and conservatism, represent pathways through which individuals, ethnicities and nations, attempt to adapt and present their response to the constantly changing environment around them. However, the important thing to consider is what is perceived as causing change, because that has an influence on the type of response that is formulated.

In this context, PoliTact has noted in previous analyses that the prevailing ground situation in Pakistan has caused the political space for liberals to shrink considerably, as the nationalists and different brands of conservatives are gaining ground. It was also noted that this trend is not unique to Pakistan, and the same is occurring in Bangladesh and other part of the Middle East. This obviously has implications for the future politics of these nations and for the region they reside in.


The Interplay of Nationalists with Socialist, Liberal, and Conservative Forces

Since the end of World War II, the liberals, socialists, nationalists, and conservatives in the Arab world have had their ups and downs. For the most part, their political maneuvering was the outcome of tensions between the socialist and capitalist models that were playing out globally. For example, it resulted in the creation of the Arab Socialist Baath Party in 1947, a coming together of nationalist and socialist forces against western imperialism that called for Arab unification. It later split in to Iraqi and Syrian factions. These same influences were also acting out in Egypt, causing Gamal Abdul Nasser to play a leading role in the formation of the Non-Aligned movement and nationalization of the Suez Canal Company.

Generally, the nationalists in the Arab world were more accepting of socialist influences. The conservatives, on the other hand, have had an uncomfortable political existence. They were looked upon with distrust, as waiting in hiding for their chance to revive the Khilafat. This in turn impacted the strategies of nationalists, who exploited the fear of global powers from the conservatives. This pattern continued in the post 9/11 environment. In case of Pakistan, since its creation, nationalists have remained closely linked with the liberal forces.1979 represents a watershed year; religion got introduced by the way of a revolution in Iran and jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Since the 80s, the nationalists have shifted towards the conservatives and 9/11 further escalated this societal drift. The new ground realities dictate that the nationalists in the Arab world, and Pakistan, that have previously swirled around socialist and liberal forces, now formulate their approach around conservative political agenda.

The Role of Army

The institution of the military has usually played a pivotal role in balancing these different influences, and continues to in places like Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan. The armed forces of these countries have stood as the bastion of secular influence. In Turkey, the army was the protector of the secularism adopted under Ataturk. In Egypt and Pakistan, it usually choreographs the liberal, socialist and conservative responses, preventing them from getting significantly out of line from what would be acceptable globally. However, as referenced above: due to the war on terror, corruption, lack of governance, the political landscape is changing considerably.

Then there is the ideology of Ikhwan-ul-Muslemeen that over the years has spread throughout the Islamic world, including Pakistan. Muslim Brotherhood (MB) influenced parties in Pakistan have been part of numerous political coalitions but have never formed a national government. Their agenda has been exploited more, and their leaders have allowed this to happen on more than one occasion, with a parallel loss of legitimacy.

However, in Egypt a different story has played out. After decades of struggle and years of persecution at the hands of the state, MB finally gained enough backing to form the government. Though just after a year in power, Mohamed Mursi’s government was overthrown by actions backed by the military. The scary thing is it’s not just Egypt but the whole region that is demonstrating the societal imbalance and inability to peacefully resolve the in equilibrium between the secular, nationalist, conservative, and religious influences.

In essence, the hard line taken by the Egyptian military is now pushing moderate Islamists to join hands with the extremists. If they do, the Egyptian military will be able to not only justify the extension of its harsh tactics but its role in governance. Nonetheless, this could potentially turn in to a bigger backlash against the military.

The evolution of civil-military relations in Turkey provides an interesting parallel. In Turkey, the civilian government has taken on the conservative and Islamic outlook as the military has retreated over the years and came to accept the supremacy of the political leadership, which it had to earn. Pakistan seems to be taking on a similar transformation, and this is now amply visible in the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. The government is trying its best to avoid a military operation in North Waziristan and use moderate Islamists to bring in the extremist elements in to the mainstream. It’s the complete opposite of the approach the Egyptians have done.

Western Outlook

Keeping intact the moderate outlook of the Egyptian military is of utmost importance when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the expanding Syrian quagmire. Israel and US rely on Egyptian intelligence to manage the complex MB, Hamas, and Fatah dynamics. In the aftermath of military action in Egypt, Gaza based Salafi groups have reportedly declared jihad against the Egyptian military, which is increasingly facing attacks in Sinai Peninsula. This volatile situation could escalate leading to the closure of Suez Canal. Just like Egypt, moderate posture for Pakistan’s military is of critical significance, especially because of its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, as US withdraws from Afghanistan, it is essential that it keeps a check on the extremists forces that could threaten increasing western economic interests in India.

In essence, to tackle the extremists, emerging NATO strategies are depending on these militaries to prevent the balance shift from the moderate Islamists to the extremists, keep a check on non-state actors, and at the same time maintain its own moderate outlook. However, whether it’s the military or the civilian government of these Muslim nations, they have to incorporate the ground reality. If the military overreaches, like it has in Egypt, it could itself become the target. On the other hand, if the civilian government goes overboard in representing the conservative and Islamist influences, it could face a reaction from the West and its own military. Even in Turkey, a NATO member, the secular outlook is in retreat. It is this dynamics that will likely continue to complicate the civil-military relations.

Aggravating the situation further is the fragile economic situation of particularly Egypt and Pakistan. While in the past, the West could offer big financial and military incentives; it no longer is in a position to do so. The institution of military itself is under threat as it adjusts to the societal changes discussed above. Furthermore, the emergence of new global power centers, such as China and Russia, means that these militaries can no longer be relied upon to continue providing the liberal outlook the West has desired, and this presents unique challenges for the future.


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