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Comparing Egypt and Timor-Leste’s democratic transitions

Comparing Egypt and Timor-Leste’s democratic transitions

This post is the first in a series on Timor-Leste’s July 7th parliamentary elections.

One country in transition is best described as political chaos. The other has its share of economic and political growing pains but is steadily evolving as a young democracy.

One country is a poor example to its regional neighbors and the world while the other in some ways should be emulated.

One country is not much further along than when it first started, and the other, despite long odds, is on the verge of conducting its third round of elections.

Not long ago, few people would have guessed Egypt as the first country and Timor-Leste as the second.

After the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egypt enjoyed an economic infrastructure and functioning civic and government institutions that could help pave the way for its democratic transition. But despite its relative advantages, Egypt sadly remains hostage to its military rulers. Even the recent announcement of a presidential contest winner, while a small step in the right direction, is no cause for celebration after the position was gutted of real authority. Political and economic liberals are either unable or unwilling to unite, develop viable political parties or present credible alternatives to the Egyptian public.

Timor-Leste, sometimes called East Timor, is off the proverbial radar screen for many, even in foreign policy circles.

Compared to Egypt, it had no economic or political structure on which to capitalize after gaining independence. An impoverished country, it had virtually no self-governance experience for about 300 years, first as a Portuguese colony, then under brutal Indonesian occupation.

To be sure, Timor-Leste’s democratic transition is far from perfect, even marred by civil conflict and violence. The country lacks economic diversity, unemployment is high and public corruption hinders efficient allocation of resources and undermines public confidence in representative government.

Still, it has conducted credible elections, seen an orderly transfer of political power, and now enjoys, for the most part, a stable peace. Its political parties are in the final stages of preparing for July 7th parliamentary elections with campaign appeals revolving around differing prescriptions for the country, particularly how to utilize the country’s multi-billion dollar energy fund, not merely the cult of personality.

No struggle for independence and freedom is easy. From the new American colonies to the former Soviet states to the Middle East, more often than not, it’s messy and chaotic. Timor-Leste will be no different but offers valuable insight for others in transition and for mature democracies that hope to support them.

Brian C. Keeter is a Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and will provide a series of posts about the July 7th parliamentary elections. He served at the Department of Transportation in the Bush administration, and is director of public affairs at Auburn University.