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Retaining power

| | in Agenda

Last month, during a talk at the International Forum for Democratic Studies in Washington DC, Dr Lilia Shevtsova, a Russian political scientist, made a rather interesting observation. She said that many people in the US haven’t been able to understand the rise of authoritarianism in post-communist Russia because they failed to grasp the following ‘fact’: The collapse of Soviet communism had little or nothing to do with the liberation of Russian masses from the clutches of the Soviet Communist Party. Instead, the fall of communism in Soviet Union was the result of the country’s communist party liberating itself from rules and laws of the communist system. What’s more, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, the two prominent heads of Government and state in the post-communist ‘democratic era’, were both part of the Soviet communist apparatus.

According to Dr Lilia, what happened in Russia was that the communist party elite and bureaucracy threw off the communist baggage to free themselves to indulge in the most unchecked strands of monopolistic capitalism which, after it was fused with Russian nationalism, formed the basis of a non-communist authoritarian set-up in Russia. Similarly, the ruling Chinese Communist Party, after Mao Tse Tung’s demise in 1976, gradually discarded the economic aspects of Chinese communism. But it retained its political dimensions. In the wake of voices demanding democracy, this freed the party to launch widescale capitalist reforms but maintain China’s one-party rule. This is an intriguing way to understand why in recent years, when one authoritarian set-up was overthrown (by popular uprising), it was replaced by another such arrangement instead of a more democratic one. Similarly, one can thus deduce that it was the Egyptian establishment and the ruling elite — burdened by the corrosive Mubarak regime — that actually allowed the country’s frustrated urban middle-classes to corner Mubarak through widespread protests and then conveniently re-establish the authoritarian order with a new face and rhetoric.

The Egyptian establishment was uncannily helped in achieving this by an inexperienced Government led by the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood which was elected during the post-Mubarak election. Instead of exhibiting pragmatism, this government tried to bulldoze through a constitution that would have given immense powers to Mohamed Morsi, the newly-elected president. His critics accused him of pulling off an ‘Islamist coup’ while protests against this move became the pretext on which the Egyptian military ousted him. The military chief General el-Sisi re-established the old authoritarian order but reoriented it. He got rid of the rules of engagement between the secular Egyptian ruling elite and the Muslim Brotherhood that Anwar Sadat and Mubarak had set. This way, Sisi liberated the Egyptian establishment from this engagement and sidelined the Brotherhood for good. On one hand, the ruling elite in places such as Russia and China liberated itself from an authoritarian ideology, to stay afloat, by replacing it with one that was equally authoritarian but non-ideological. On the other, some elites have replaced old ideologies with new ones. Taner Edis, a professor at Missouri’s Truman State University, in his book Islam Evolving wrote that the ruling elites in Turkey and Pakistan began to discard their respective secular (and in the case of Pakistan, quasi-secular) complexions, and began to adopt a more conservative and ‘Islamic’ tenor. According to Edis, they did this to remain intact as an elite in a scenario in which Saudi Arabia had become an influential and wealthy player after the erosion of secular nationalist currents in the Muslim world.

This largely took place in the 1970s when Saudi money and, eventually, an Islamic uprising in Iran, both pushed Islam as a political alternative to communism, liberal democracy and even Muslim nationalism. Edis writes that during the 1970s, Pakistan and Turkey saw thousands of men and women from rural areas move to the already congested cities. Even though many benefitted from the economic opportunities offered by the urban centres and became part of these cities’ expanding petty-bourgeoisie, others ended up living in slums. As a reaction, they were the first to respond positively to the emerging narrative — formulated by Saudi Arabia and then by the revolutionary clerics of Iran — which promoted an “Islamic system” as being most suited to Muslim countries. The political, economic and military establishments in Turkey and Pakistan were quick to take note of this. So, to retain their hegemony they began to discard their “modernist” leanings and adopt a more “Islamic” complexion. For example, from 1980 onward, the secular Turkish military allowed the formation of a mildly Islamist democratic regime. This regime lasted across the 1980s. As a consequence, the Turkish trader class and petty-bourgeoisie —who were once alienated by Turkey’s official secularism — managed to enter Turkish politics, thus giving birth to the moderate Islamic party which has been ruling Turkey since the early 2000s.

In the long run, this did not quite help Turkey’s military elite to retain its influence. It was because the Justice and Development Party, eventually became the new face of the country’s political and economic elite. To retain this status, it is systematically dismantling the secular ethos of Turkey’s old establishment. In Pakistan, it was the military that first began to adopt an ‘Islamic’ posture, ahead of the civilian leadership. Steeped in Muslim Modernism till the 1960s, the military saw itself degraded as an institution after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle. Nevertheless, from the mid-1970s, the civilian elite too began to adopt similar postures. By the 1980s, the military remoulded itself as a dominant elite. It was supplemented by the political and economic elites who too had discarded their expensive suits and outwardly liberal lifestyles, replacing them with “Islamic attire”, public exhibitions of religiosity and by providing ‘Islamic’ facilities in their offices and factories. To ward off any threat posed to this new political and economic arrangement between the elites, it introduced laws and ordinances which can (and are) used to sideline opponents as “anti-Islam” and “heretics.” 

 
 
 
 
 

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