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Indonesia's Lessons for Egypt

Author: Karen Brooks, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia
February 17, 2011

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Policymakers and pundits have looked around the world at previous revolutions--in Iran, Russia, Turkey, and more--to gauge the possibilities and pitfalls ahead as Egyptians overturn their political order. The White House, however, has paid particular attention to the experience of one: Indonesia.

From the early days of the Egypt protests, the White House quietly reached out to a number of Indonesia experts, including this author, to better understand the story of Indonesia's democratic transformation. President Barack Obama's own experience--having lived in Indonesia during some of his formative childhood years--undoubtedly helps explain this impulse. But there are good reasons beyond nostalgia why Indonesia's success might provide inspiration, and lessons, for Egypt.

Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and Suharto's Indonesia had an inordinate amount in common. Indonesia is home to the world's largest Muslim population; Egypt is the most populous Arab nation. Both are Muslim-majority countries with significant non-Muslim minorities. Mubarak and Suharto both hailed from the military and assumed power--with U.S. backing--at a time of national trauma. Both men used secular-nationalist political vehicles to monopolize the power of the state; both retained military backing through extensive political and financial patronage; both demonized Islamist political forces and drove them underground; both kept a tight lid on the media, the opposition, and all forms of dissent; both accumulated massive amounts of wealth while in power; both were grooming children to succeed them in office; and both enjoyed the support of the United States, thanks to geo-strategic calculations.

The arc of revolution in both countries was also strikingly similar. In both:

  • Initially exogenous factors (the Asian Financial Crisis for Indonesia; events in Tunisia, for Egypt) provided the trigger that brought people into the streets.
  • The protests were led by young people, embittered by the gap between political development and economic growth--and the degree to which that growth had disproportionately benefitted elites around the president.
  • Harassment and even killing of protesters failed to end the demonstrations; looting and rioting only hardened public opinion against the regime.
  • Internet-based tools--in Indonesia, chat rooms; in Egypt, social media--provided new avenues for people to share information.
  • Concessions by the respective presidents--including similar pledges to prepare new elections in which they would not run--proved too little too late.
  • The military, faced with either using force to end the demonstrations or nudging one of their own from power, ultimately chose the latter.

One could argue that the Brotherhood's power and allure in Egypt is at least in part a function of the fact that they have been the only organized political force opposing the regime--and being banned and standing against dictatorship gave them a certain mystique.

And in what perhaps may be the most unusual parallel, Mubarak, like Suharto, resigned precisely two and a half weeks after protesters took to the streets.

The uncertainty unleashed by the speed of these events in a large Muslim country with underground Islamist networks, little by way of civil society, and few obvious liberal-democratic opposition figures, has prompted some panic that what comes next in Egypt will be antithetical to U.S. interests. A similar discourse surrounded events in Indonesia in 1998. Indonesia's example since, however, suggests that need not be the case.

The challenges in front of Egypt are distinctly analogous to those Indonesia has faced: How to transition the military back to the barracks? How to reform the constitution and electoral system to allow for free and fair elections in a timely fashion? How to facilitate the development of political parties on a compressed timeline to ensure that all voices can be represented in the coming elections? How to manage the incorporation of Islamist organizations in a way that enhances freedom and democratic development? How to build not only a free but a responsible press that is able to function as a check and balance in a new democracy?

The good news is that Indonesia has been spectacularly successful with most if not all of the above. The Obama administration is smart to be studying their example. Moreover, the United States was able to play a significant role in supporting Indonesia's democratic transformation, despite its longstanding support for the previous order.

As a member of the Clinton administration, I helped formulate U.S. Indonesia policy in that critical first year and spent several months in country in the runup to the first elections. A few lessons from that experience stand out:

Timelines are critical. Suharto's resignation left Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie in charge of the country. Within two days, Habibie announced a clear timeline for elections and political reform. The quick elaboration of a date certain for the polls defused a still explosive situation. The military in Egypt has been welcomed as a transitional force, but they must make clear quickly a date for elections--and thus for their exit.

Real reform takes time. Constitutional reform, electoral reform, the establishment of political parties, the development of party infrastructure and platforms, and the creation of an independent elections commission take time. Indonesia's first parliamentary elections were held June 7, 1999--one year and two weeks after Suharto stepped down. Even so, existing political parties did far better than new entrants. If the process in Egypt is rushed, the only forces able to compete will be Mubarak's NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood. The generals need to strike a balance between a timely transition and a sustainable one that provides all voices in society the time needed to prepare for competition.

Bring in the Islamists. The entry into politics of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood--with its conservative Islamist agenda and its antipathy toward Israel and the United States--understandably makes many people nervous. In Indonesia, a political party inspired by the example and teachings of Egypt's Brothers quickly emerged as one of the most disciplined and organized political parties following Suharto's fall.

Egypt's partners therefore must take great pains to strike the right balance between public and private diplomacy as they offer support in the weeks and months ahead.

After three electoral cycles, however, that party, the PKS, appears to have maxed out its popular support at under 8 percent of the electorate. Why? As PKS entered the formal political arena, the party found itself participating in the same unseemly activities that characterize conventional politics in Indonesia (as elsewhere)--including fundraising, corruption, deal-making and mud-slinging. The purity of the party's demand for morality in politics thus eroded over time, and today the PKS is largely seen as just another political actor (albeit the most conservative one pushing the most Islamist themes).


The analogy with Egypt is imperfect, of course--the Brotherhood is bigger and more organized in Egypt, and secular-nationalist parties there are now limited only to the NDP (whereas in Indonesia, two other political parties with national machinery existed for decades, even though the system was fundamentally closed). Still, one could argue that the Brotherhood's power and allure in Egypt is at least in part a function of the fact that they have been the only organized political force opposing the regime--and being banned and standing against dictatorship gave them a certain mystique. Indonesia shows that incorporating such groups into the formal political arena can go a long way in demystifying them and bringing them down to the realm of mere mortals. Indonesia also shows that time can work against such forces, assuming that time allows for the development of a range of credible alternatives.

Egyptians must lead. The international community can play an important role in supporting Egypt's transition to democracy. The United States, Australia, Japan, and other partners provided significant financial and technical assistance to help Indonesia prepare for elections in 1999, and advisors from a range of U.S. based democracy-building organizations provided training to new political parties, opposition figures, media outlets and civil society groups. While other countries can bring invaluable expertise to the table, it's imperative that Egyptians feel they remain in the driver's seat. Egypt's partners therefore must take great pains to strike the right balance between public and private diplomacy as they offer support in the weeks and months ahead--and when and where possible to coordinate their messaging and assistance. The Indonesians understand these sensitivities all too well, and thus may be well suited to help advise the Egyptians on the possibilities and pitfalls ahead.

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