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Middle East Revolutions Only Aspire to Indonesia's Success

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
February 20, 2011
The National

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In recent weeks, as protesters have toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, many observers - from the White House on down - have searched for models to guide these fragile countries as they attempt to build democracies after years of autocratic rule. Often, democracy analysts have settled on one example: the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia.

On the surface, looking to Indonesia makes sense. No developing nation over the past decade has enjoyed such a dramatic turnaround, from a nearly failed state to a vibrant and stable democracy. In the late 1990s, after the fall of the longtime dictator Suharto, Indonesia appeared on the verge of collapse.

Newly empowered Islamist organisations seized on the post-Suharto chaos to build networks and launch major terrorist attacks in Jakarta and Bali. Like Yemen, Indonesia had many outlying regions that sought to secede, and in the early days of democracy some almost did. East Timor gained independence in 1999 after bloody fighting. Some Indonesian observers predicted the country was turning into an Asian version of ungovernable Nigeria. It appeared that Suharto's contention that only he could hold the nation together - a boast similar to Hosni Mubarak's - might prove true.

About a decade later, look again. The Indonesian government has resolved nearly every secessionist issue and stability has allowed for renewed growth. The country's economy grew by more than 6 per cent last year and likely will grow faster in 2011. Indonesia's Islamists have been blunted and secular parties dominate the legislature. The country has held multiple free and fair elections, and remained a close partner of western democracies even after the end of its strongman rule.

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