01/31/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

Don't Expect a Revolution in Pakistan

Not long ago, an unemployed young father decided he could no longer bear to live in poverty. With people watching in horror, he set himself on fire, and succumbed to his burns just hours later.

The man's name was not Mohamed Bouazizi, the jobless Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation would ignite mass protest movements across the Middle East.

It was Raja Khan. He was a 23-year-old Pakistani.

Khan was from a country where, according to his government's figures, only about 15 percent of his 15-to-29 year-old peers complete secondary school; 30 percent of them are illiterate; and more than half are not in the labor force. Compounding this marginalization are a state and society beset by corruption and beholden to vested interests. Predictably, surveys find young Pakistanis deeply unhappy about their lives, with the government largely to blame.

Understandably, observers have suggested Pakistan could experience its own Arab Spring. Others, singling out the country's volatile mix of popular discontent, economic distress, and Islamic ideology, intimate that Pakistan could go the way of Iran in 1979.

These are provocative predictions. Yet, as I argue in an analysis recently published by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center (NOREF), they are dead wrong.

Make no mistake: Pakistan features the conditions driving revolt in the Middle East. These include high unemployment and a young population, but also corruption and injustice. Pakistanis stew as they are passed over for desirable jobs in favor of the children of elites, and they seethe over the state's withering brutality -- last year, an armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary soldier shot to death a 25-year-old unarmed man strolling in a Karachi park. Meanwhile, in Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-political-upstart, Pakistanis have a charismatic figure whose anti-government message can mobilize hundreds of thousands.

Still, don't be fooled. Pakistan is too fractured to experience an Arab Spring-style mass movement. Pakistan's four provinces are often at odds, and ethnic and sectarian tensions are rife. In polls, Pakistani youth accord more importance to their ethnicity or sect than to their shared nationality. You can't expect a united, broad-based front to emerge from these cleavages.

Another reason we won't see an Arab Spring is patronage. The Pakistani masses are simply too invested in the status quo. In such a corrupt society, meritocracy isn't an option. To get by, Pakistanis look to their clans, tribes, and friends. They have no interest in opting for drastic changes that could imperil the future influence of those they look to for favors and support.

Yet the main reason Pakistan won't have an Arab Spring is that it has already experienced a democracy movement -- in 2007, when demonstrators protested against the repressive measures of President Pervez Musharraf, culminating in his 2008 resignation and ushering in a period of imperfect democracy. In essence, Pakistan already has what the Arab Spring nations are still fighting for.

So if not an Arab Spring, how about a religious movement -- one that brings mullahs to power and transforms Pakistan into a rigid Islamic state? Again, the supporting factors are present: intense religiosity (nearly two-thirds of young Pakistanis polled in recent years favor an Islamic state, while a third support Sharia-style punishment) and violent manifestations of religious ideology (last October, 60 men stormed a girls' school and thrashed students with iron rods for not wearing hijabs). Ominously, a global Islamist political party called the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) -- which aims to establish caliphates throughout the Muslim world -- has made inroads in Pakistan. Last June, an army brigadier and other senior officers were arrested for their alleged ties to HuT. It's no secret that Pakistan's establishment has ties to a range of religious extremists.

Yet this is all immaterial. Pakistan's prospects for a religious revolution are dimmed by the same divisiveness that makes an Arab Spring unlikely. Sectarian violence regularly flares between majority Sunnis and the Shia minority; some of Pakistan's most ferocious militant groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, are anti-Shia outfits. Additionally, relations between Pakistan's Sunni Barelvis and Sunni Deobandis have been tense since independence. Intra-sect tensions do not a religious revolution make.

Finally, Pakistan's Islamists lack broad-based appeal and charismatic leadership. Political parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami fare poorly in elections. And leaders who want to wage religious revolutions -- such as the Pakistani Taliban's Maulvi Fazlullah, who recently vowed to overthrow the government and impose Sharia law -- disgust most Pakistanis because of their violence.

This is not to say Pakistan won't experience a revolution decades down the road. Rampant urbanization is intensifying poverty and enhancing access to information -- conditions that could one day fuel mass unrest. And rapidly spiraling economic problems and increasingly dominant religious ideologies could, in time, transcend the religious fissures and help produce new generations of popular, charismatic Islamist leaders.

As for today? Not a chance.

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