What Happens When the Lights Go Out in Karachi?

Three scary questions that keep Pakistanis up at night.

Since 2001, U.S. dealings with Pakistan have been guided primarily by security concerns -- and with Hina Rabbani Khar traveling to Washington for the first time as Pakistan's foreign minister this week, the buzz about Afghanistan, terrorism, and security is unlikely to abate. Indeed, the last time a Pakistani foreign minister visited Washington, Richard Holbrooke, then the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, felt compelled to remind Americans that "We don't work with Pakistan because of Afghanistan. We work with Pakistan because of Pakistan itself." It was hardly true in 2010 and it's even less true now. The possibility of working with Pakistan for its own sake remains overshadowed by the war in Afghanistan -- and will likely remain so even after NATO withdraws in 2014 given the negative security outlook.

The preoccupation with security persists because the stakes are so high: the security of the U.S. homeland, stability on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations -- the latter, of course, being an important determinant of the first two. Because of this, the dialogue on security should continue, but it has distracted us from other circumstances that are potentially more devastating for long-term stability in Pakistan and which also have broader implications for U.S. national security. For those of you planning to attend one of the events featuring Foreign Minister Khar in Washington or New York, consider asking her about something other than the Haqqani network, al Qaeda, or the Taliban. Below are three non-Afghanistan questions to ask the foreign minister; they keep real Pakistanis up at night, and they all affect U.S. interests.

1. Why is Pakistan a hotbed of religious extremism?

Pakistan, like many other Muslim countries, is experiencing a growing trend towards more conservative religious practice. This alone is not cause for concern, but it does mean the political space for secular and progressive interpretation of law, culture, and social behavior is shrinking. Just in the past month, gunmen pulled several Shiites off a bus in Quetta and shot them; Hindus fled Pakistan for India claiming persecution; and a fourteen-year-old Christian girl was jailed on false blasphemy claims. In an incident earlier this month at a McDonald's in Karachi, an employee objected to a married couple sitting side-by-side because it broke the rules. (The manager confirmed that such behavior was against the restaurant's policy on Islamic family atmosphere.) Maybe the owner of McDonald's Pakistan is an über fundamentalist trying to convert wayward Pakistanis one Big Mac at a time or maybe the franchise simply wants to avoid being targeted by violent extremists who deem such behavior inappropriate. Either way, it's a distressing sign of the times.

We can't blame the Pakistani Taliban alone for the rise of extremism throughout the country. Others responsible for fanning the flames include the militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, the pan-Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and religious political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami. But the real question is not who, but why? Some say it's because moderate Muslims are unwilling to speak out against militancy. Others believe jihadist ideology justifies violence. A more controversial view holds Pakistan's legal system responsible for empowering extremists. The trend is a dangerous one where violence is regularly used as retribution for being on the wrong side of politics or religion. The United States could sit back and ignore much of this -- conservative social mores and attacks on religious minorities don't immediately impact its priorities in Pakistan. But the further the pendulum swings to the right, the more challenged U.S.-Pakistan relations will be since railing against the United States is a favorite pastime of violent extremists. Furthermore, the weak civilian government in Pakistan will be in no position to challenge ascendant extremists -- either out of fear of retribution or because of election-year political pressures.

2. Why has Karachi become a killing field? 

While Washington has been obsessing about the Haqqani network, Karachi has become a killing field. The problems of the megalopolis do not seem to worry U.S. policymakers -- but they should. Karachi is one of the world's largest and most dangerous cities. The problems of its population, estimated to be anywhere from 14-20 million strong, are representative of the country's broader struggle to address changing demographic patterns.

Just take Karachi's changing ethnic composition and city politics -- a root cause of rising violence -- as an example. Mohajirs -- migrants from northern India -- have traditionally dominated Karachi's politics and economy through the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a secular political party with liberal positions on many social and political issues. The 1998 census listed Karachi's Mohajir population at roughly 50 percent. In the mid-2000s, the balance of power shifted with the influx of Pashtuns, who now represent an estimated 20-25 percent of the city's total population. This influx enabled the rise of the Pashtun nationalist Awami Nationalist Party, which, along with the Pakistan People's Party, has sought to carve off a greater share of the revenues from Karachi's enormous informal sector, which some unofficial sources estimate at $1 billion.

All parties use violence to some extent in pursuit of their economic interests, which has not insignificant implications for the United States. Opportunist criminal networks often collude with anti-American actors such as the Karachi-based Taliban, outlawed sectarian groups like Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and other terrorist outfits that hail from the semiautonomous region in northwest Pakistan. More importantly, the Karachi port manages a large portion of imports for NATO troops in Afghanistan. To date, domestic violence in Pakistan has not impeded the port's operation, but the potential risks create a more hostile operating environment for already strained U.S.-Pakistan cooperation.

3. What happens when the lights go out?

In simple economic terms, Pakistan spends more than it makes. A lot of that spending is devoted to importing oil to meet energy demands at home. Despite the expenditure, the lights can go out for up to 20 hours at a time in some parts of the country. That's not a shortage of electricity -- it is an absence of electricity. Most efforts to improve energy provision are short-lived because the government can't get buy-in from Parliament, even from members of its own coalition. Long-term reforms will be costly to the government and to the average Pakistani, who will likely end up having to pay more for power that is not guaranteed. The initiatives that do make it through the political gridlock are often temporary measures intended to alleviate short-term economic burden for equally immediate political gain. But when the lights go out, people take to the streets -- and this year, several protests turned violent. In July, protesters threw stones at riot police in Rawalpindi and attacked power supply departments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A Pakistani government has never collapsed as a result of such protest, but government neglect and mismanagement of the economy has historically foreshadowed military coups -- of which Pakistan has had many over the years. While this is probably less likely to occur now than ever before -- the military simply faces too many challenges of its own to take on those of the civilian government's -- we should not underestimate the extent to which the Pakistani military views itself as a caretaker of the nation. When civilians fail, it stands ready to fill in the gaps. The United States has an interest in striking a balance in civil-military relations in Pakistan -- but it will never be able to get it right if the generals and politicians can't first figure it out.

Taken individually, the three questions above allow us to think outside of the "Af-Pak" mindset we've been wed to since the phrase was introduced in 2009. But taken as a whole, the questions are a harbinger of deeper instability. The problems of rising extremism, violence in Karachi, and power shortages will be shaped by one of the biggest challenges of all: a population of 180 million people that is expected to grow to 335 million by 2050. Each of these problems compounded by the others creates a snowball effect that could prove to be more than the state -- and its allies and partners -- can handle. It would be worth asking the foreign minister about that, too.


Democracy Lab

The Revolution in Tunisia Stalls

Even before last week's riots at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, the progress of Tunisia's revolution was beginning to look rocky. Here's why.

Tunisia has made international headlines again with the recent storming of the U.S. Embassy by ultraconservative Islamists. Observers and commentators have tried to explain the events and the rage behind them, the attackers' high level of organization, and the government's inadequate security response and late condemnation. At least one part of that explanation lies in the fact that the Tunisian people are, yet again, disappointed with their government, and a dysfunctional political process has failed to address the core concerns of citizens.

Tunisians took to the streets in late December 2010 and early January 2011 calling for the end of an authoritarian regime responsible for vast income inequality, widespread unemployment, crippling corruption, and a draconian police state apparatus. Despite the glory of a revolution paid for with the blood of many young people, culminating in the triumph of democratic elections, all of these problems persist. Meanwhile polls show that Tunisians believe their elected officials have accomplished nothing.

Promises to develop Tunisia's long-neglected interior have seen half-hearted implementation, and unemployment is higher now than it was prior to the revolution. Promises to clean up corruption have proven to be empty as the government's transitional justice minister claims he is not responsible for the problem. Opposition parties charge that efforts to create a Temporary Judicial Commission are merely an attempt by the governing Islamist Ennahdha party to exert undue political control over the judicial system. Though the worst forms of police abuse were stopped following the revolution, promises to reform the security forces have fallen short as old tactics and old figures re-emerge.

So what went wrong?

Tunisia's popular revolution aimed to create a government that would stand in stark contrast to the previous one in terms of professionalism and transparency. But so far Tunisians are still waiting. The constituent assembly, tasked with writing a new constitution, has not published minutes of any meetings in either committee or plenary sessions. In addition, voting records and attendance have not been revealed, although observers note that only five or ten of the 20-member drafting commissions attended regularly. Absenteeism has been particularly prevalent amongst opposition parties, partly because some do not take their jobs seriously and partly because some want to see Ennahdha fail, according to several observers who are closely watching the process.

Part of this reflects a cultural legacy, according to Mabrouka M'barek, an assembly member from governing coalition's Congress for the Republic Party (CPR). "I was the first to start live-tweeting the assembly sessions," says M'barek. "My colleagues didn't understand what I was doing. They told me I was exposing state secrets. I said, ‘No, this is the constitution, which concerns all citizens.'

This lack of transparency has led Al Bawsala, an NGO that has created a website dedicated to publishing leaked minutes and tracking voting records, to file a lawsuit against the assembly. After making its arguments in a meeting with the president of the assembly, the group sent two formal requests for publication of the assembly's sessions. Having received no response, Al Bawsala, the non-government organization Nawaat, and five individuals filed a legal case at the end of August to draw attention to this issue.

"People have a right to know, but the Constituent Assembly just doesn't publish [any information]," Amira Yahyaoui, founder and president of Al Bawsala says. "That shouldn't be our work. It is not up to us to take the information to give to the people. It's the Constituent Assembly's role to say what they are doing and it is the media's role. But we don't have the time to wait until they decide to be more professional, more transparent."

While some elected officials have been helpful in assisting Al Bawsala and providing information on the assembly's proceedings, Yahyaoui says that her organization has to be careful in making sure that assembly members understand that the lawsuit she is working on is not meant to attack them.

"It's a culture of accountability that our MP's lack," says Selim Kharrat, executive director of Al Bawsala. "Our role as a non-government organization is to push them to be more transparent and to respect Tunisians' right to access reliable information."

Thanks to the lack of information, many Tunisians have come to believe that their elected officials were not working at all. "Without proactive efforts by the National Constituent Assembly to communicate about the constitutional process or their work to the population, citizens were left in complete darkness about what was happening," says Marion Volkmann of the Carter Center observation mission in Tunisia.

According to Volkmann, instead of improving the visibility and openness of their internal processes, the assembly responded to citizen frustration by announcing arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines.

Coupled with the problem of transparency, the government suffers from a lack of focus and crippling partisanship that has fostered dysfunction. Polling both by local and international research groups show that while employment and economic reform remain their highest concern, Tunisians believe that their government does not share their priorities.

According to a recent report based on findings from Tunisian focus groups by the National Democratic Institute, "a greater proportion of participants than in past studies have negative views about the country's direction due to dissatisfaction with the state of economic development, the rising cost of living, and insecurity -- all factors that participants agree could be addressed by politicians if they focused their attention to them."

Instead, the Constituent Assembly has focused -- according to the mandate proscribed by the unelected previous transitional government -- on rewriting the constitution. This course was chosen despite the fact that many Tunisians agree that there is very little wrong with the substance of the previous constitution, which predated the era of former dictator Ben Ali.

While the constitutional process has sparked debate on important structural issues -- including the differences between a presidential system versus a parliamentary system, the formation of an independent judiciary commission, and the regulation of the Tunisian media -- the executive branch of the government, headed by Ennahda, has diverted attention by making a priority of social issues, such as the role of women and laws against blasphemy. Instead of writing a constitution that outlines freedoms, the delegates have written draft laws that address social values, which essentially define limitations rather than freedoms. This has acted as a lightning rod, derailing efforts to address pressing economic issues or hold substantive debate on the more tedious issues of constitutional reform.

The text on women's rights that passed the Commission on Rights and Liberties was made public when Selma Mabrouk, a dissenting member of the political party Ettakatol, published the text on her Facebook page. Her translation from the Arabic, which remains disputed, notes that women's rights are to be based on the "principle of complementarity with man as the heart of the family and as man's associate in the development of the nation."

However one chooses to translate it, the text of the only constitutional article that explicitly addresses women places their equality in the context of family relations. According to commission vice-president and opposition member Salma Baccar, this "could represent a danger to certain categories of women," as there is no reference to single women or women without families. Beyond that, the text provides no definition of "women's rights," nor does it address the issues of violence or discrimination against women.

The article on women's rights has also drawn criticism from human rights groups.

"The major problem is that there is no mention of ‘non-discrimination' against women," says Amna Guellali, the Human Rights Watch representative in Tunisia. Beyond that, she says, the current text is "a vehicle to another vision of society where you don't have equality; you have something different."

Said Ferjani, a member of Ennahdha's political bureau and an advisor to the Minister of Justice, dismisses the criticisms, insisting that the text merely states the fact that "biologically, [men and women] are complementary to one another."

"So now we have to ask men to be pregnant?" he scoffs.

Another proposed draft law, which criminalizes offenses against "sacred values," has prompted criticism of the government by NGOs for trying to limit freedom of expression.

"It adds a new layer to repressive laws," Guellali of HRW says.

Ennahdha members say that they were reluctant to introduce a bill but were forced to do so after a series of coordinated, violent protests erupted in response to an art exhibit that displayed artwork deemed offensive to Islam.

"We cannot allow people to use ‘the sacred' in a negative way," says Ferjani. "The country will be in flames. Our national security is at stake."

It is precisely these values issues and the subsequent drawing of partisan battle lines that have steered Tunisia away from the goals of the revolution.

"The blasphemy law is a great example of how Ennahda did not understand the priorities of this country," says M'barek. "Do you really think we did this revolution for that? They have to assume their responsibility and try to understand why we did this revolution. It's about jobs; it's about fighting corruption. Those are the priorities."

Tunisia's current political climate is marred by discord between politicians, dissatisfaction among civil society groups, and a disillusioned electorate. Given the divisions, some politicians and legal scholars say that passage of the proposed constitution will likely fail in assembly and then fail in a referendum. With political failure palpable, ultraconservative Islamist thuggery on the rise, and elections expected to be held this spring, Tunisia's first democratically elected officials would be wise to revisit the causes of the revolution before they put themselves at the mercy of the voters.

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