Separated at Birth

Indonesia's transition to democracy can tell us a lot about the likely course of Egypt's revolution. There's good news and there's bad news.


Egypt faces grave concerns about its future. A deepening economic crisis, growing crime, and episodes of violence all offer grounds for anxiety. The ruling military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), continues to rule in heavy-handed fashion, reasserting its extensive prerogatives in Egyptian politics and resisting demands for greater democracy. Recent elections produced a strong showing not only for the well-established Muslim Brotherhood but also for the more stridently puritanical, salafi Al-Nour Party, raising alarms about possible moves to expand the role of Islam in Egyptian society at the expense of liberal values and religious freedoms.

The fall of the Mubarak regime in early 2011 has inspired many observers to draw parallels with other "People Power" uprisings in places as diverse as Chile, Thailand, and the former Czechoslovakia.

But there’s another case that just might offer a more instructive guide to where Egypt may now be headed. Indonesia in the years 1998-1999 offers a number of striking parallels. Both countries are regional giants. Indonesia’s population of 240 million makes it the largest country in Southeast Asia, while Egypt, with its 80 million, is the biggest in the Arab world. Both countries are predominantly Muslim and boast long traditions of Islamic scholarship and social activism. But both are also home to important non-Muslim minorities (ethnic Chinese and Christians in Indonesia, Coptic Christians in Egypt) whose disproportionate influence in business and the professions has sometimes led to tensions.

In the 1950s and 1960s, both countries ended up with populist nationalist leaders (Sukarno in Indonesia, Nasser in Egypt) who championed "Third World" independence, economic nationalism, and socialism, engaging in conflicts with pro-Western neighbors, resisting U.S. "imperialism" and flirting with the Soviet Union and China. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, popular nationalism in both countries met with defeat and disillusionment. The same years saw the rise of more conservative military rulers (Suharto in Indonesia, Sadat in Egypt) who moved to seek accommodation with their neighbors, embraced the United States, and opened their economies to flows of international finance, investment, and trade.

Both countries experienced three decades of authoritarian rule under a single military strongman: Indonesia under Suharto (1966-98) and Egypt under Mubarak (1981-2011). Both followed the economic guidelines of the "Washington Consensus," reducing dependence on external rents (e.g. oil revenues, Suez Canal transit fees) and moving from import-substitution industrialization to export-oriented manufacturing based on economic liberalization, privatization, and deregulation. In both cases these policies led to higher growth but also exacerbated social inequality, labor unrest, and struggles over land. The result was greater vulnerability to regional and global economic crises, as seen in Indonesia in 1997-98 and Egypt from 2008 onwards.

In both places, years of authoritarian rule under a single military strongman spawned centralized corruption, cronyism, and nepotism. Both presidents encouraged their children to establish themselves as major figures in the business world, thus spawning the diversified conglomerates of Suharto’s sons and daughters and the vast empire of Mubarak’s son Gamal. Over their final years in office, moreover, both leaders began to set the stage for dynastic succession in politics. Suharto’s daughter Tutut and Mubarak’s son Gamal rose to positions of increasing prominence within both regimes.

The final decade of military strongman rule fueled social and political change in both countries. Religious mores, demonstrated by growing conservatism in dress and behavior, increasingly asserted themselves. Islamic organizations began to assume more prominent positions in social and political life. In Indonesia this process began with the formation of the Indonesian Association of Islamic Intellectuals (ICMI) in 1991. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood increasingly asserted its presence in various professional associations and made a dramatic showing in 2005 parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, new secular opposition groups emerged to challenge the entrenched dictatorship. Megawati Sukarnoputri and her PDI shook things up in Indonesia up through 1996, as did the rise of the Kefaya ("Enough") movement and Ayman Nour’s failed presidential bid in 2005 in Egypt. In both countries, however, the entrenched authoritarian regimes stubbornly resisted pressures for political change, inspiring frustrated middle classes to take to the streets against authoritarian rule. In Indonesia in 1998 as in Egypt in 2011, the entrenched military establishments equivocated in the face of popular protests, putting their own institutional and economic interests above the personal concerns of the presidents and their families.

What we have seen in Egypt over the past year, meanwhile, is oddly reminiscent of what happened in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto. There, too, military strongmen played a crucial role in overseeing — and sometimes obstructing — a transition to elections and civilian rule over the course of a turbulent year. Street protests continued, crime and disorder spread, and inter-religious tensions erupted into episodes of collective violence. (In Indonesia this took the form of Christian-Muslim pogroms in the Moluccas in early 1999, an episode that offers many parallels to the attacks on Coptic Christians in Maspero in 2011.)

In both countries, this uneasy interregnum began to draw to a close with the holding of competitive elections and the convening of a new parliament. But what one might call the "parliamentarization" of politics also spurred uncertainty. Parliamentary elections elevated Islamic parties and politicians to positions of unprecedented prominence and power, as the infrastructure of Islamic social institutions provided unique bases for the formation of new nation-wide political networks.

In Indonesia’s first free election in 1999, Islamic parties won nearly 40 percent of seats in parliament, and politicians affiliated with prominent Islamic associations assumed positions as speaker of Parliament and chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly, the country’s legislative branch and highest state institution. In October 1999, the head of another Islamic association, Abdurrahman Wahid, rose to the presidency.

Egyptian parliamentary elections over the past few months have followed similar lines. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 47 percent of the vote, with the salafi Al-Nour party claiming an additional 23 percent. A former member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood has been elected as Speaker of the National Assembly. In today’s Egypt, as in Indonesia in mid-1999, there is considerable anxiety about the dangers of an Islamist capture of state power, in addition to worries about the presidential elections yet to come and the future design of the constitution.

If Egypt is so similar to Indonesia, and if the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy in Egypt has, so far, been so "Indonesian," then what kind of future for Egypt do the years from 1999 through 2012 portend? How seriously should we take all the alarmism today about the various dangers said to be threatening democracy in Egypt?

First of all, the trajectory of Indonesian politics since 1999 suggests that the dangers associated with the rise of Islamic parties in Egypt today are probably exaggerated. In Indonesia, after all, Suharto’s resignation was followed by the ascension to the presidency of B. J. Habibie, the founder and chairman of the Indonesian Association of Islamic Intellectuals. As noted above, the 1999 parliamentary elections gave Islamic parties nearly 40 percent of the vote, and since then Islamic parties have continued to claim at least as large a share of the electorate and a commensurate position in parliamentary politics.

Yet over the past thirteen years these Islamic parties have also notably failed to coalesce, to grow, or to achieve success for Islamist presidential candidates. At the same time, even the most stridently Islamic of these parties have abandoned efforts to demand constitutional change in favor of sharia law and concentrated their energies instead on coalition politics with non-Islamic politicians and parties. The Islamic parties have cultivated alliances with successive presidents to win seats in Cabinet, while actively fund-raising and recruiting from among major businessmen and machine politicians in order to strengthen their campaigns. Thus thirteen years of parliamentary politics has meant thirteen years of compromise, coalition-building, co-optation, and corruption for Islamic parties and politicians, rather than the effective promotion of political Islam.

Second, the broader trends in Indonesian society since 1999 likewise suggest that the more generalized fears about sectarian conflict in Egypt today are overblown. The localized anti-Chinese riots that took place in Indonesia in the mid-1990s disappeared after 1998, and the Muslim-Christian violence that erupted in the Moluccas and Central Sulawesi in 1999 ran its course by the end of 2001. Today, ethnic-Chinese Indonesians enjoy far greater freedom from discrimination, harassment, and persecution than ever before, and Christians across the Indonesian archipelago likewise practice their faith with few real fears or restrictions. To be sure, the years 2002-2005 did see some Islamist terrorist activity (a single bombing attack on a foreign target in each of those years), and since 2005 some Islamist groups have waged a campaign of persecution against "deviant" Muslim sects such as the Ahmadis. The Islamic parties did succeed in pushing an anti-pornography bill through parliament in 2008, and some local assemblies have passed new regulations supposedly inspired by Islamic law. But all in all, Indonesian society under democracy today is more pluralistic and liberal than it ever was under authoritarian rule. Even activists fighting for the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender Indonesians have claimed considerable progress over the past decade and see bright prospects for the years ahead.

Third, Indonesia’s experience has shown that there are serious threats to democratic institutions from other quarters. Since the overthrow of Suharto the Indonesian military establishment has largely remained insulated from outside scrutiny. Today the President of Indonesia is a retired army general, and many other retired military officers occupy positions of real prominence and power in politics and society. At the same, money and political machines have come to dominate the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Businessmen have captured many of the political parties, and members of parliament use their positions to pursue their own business interests or serve as proxies for powerful magnates. The past thirteen years in Indonesia have seen the consolidation of an oligarchic form of democracy, highly corrupt and compromised, and hardly responsive to growing problems of social inequality and injustice across the country.

Against this backdrop, an Indonesian future for Egyptian democracy is all too easy to envisage, both for better and for worse. If Egypt follows Indonesia’s trajectory, the months ahead will see the drafting of a new constitution, followed by presidential elections. The military establishment will cede formal power to a civilian government but continue to enjoy informal power and prerogatives for years to come. The politics of the street (including the dimension of inter-religious conflict) will gradually give way to the "parliamentarization" of political life. Islamic parties and politicians in Egypt will remain strong but suffer from increasing fragmentation and fractiousness, and coalition-building and corruption will erode the transformative potential of religion. Overall, the years ahead will see the entrenchment of an oligarchic democracy, one in which the politics of money and machinery predominate while the military continues to exercise considerable influence.

Needless to say, Indonesia and Egypt also differ in some important respects. Unlike Indonesia, the uneasy interregnum in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak has unfolded under direct military rule. In Indonesia, secular political parties — like the old regime’s Golkar and even Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI — played a major role in the transition to democracy. In Egypt, by contrast, weak secular political parties failed to play a significant role in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, thus leaving the field open to Islamic party dominance. And there is another notable divergence. In Indonesia, the more traditionalist Islamic institutions remained autonomous from the government, while ambitious modernist Islamic groups were increasingly co-opted by the state over the long Suharto years. In Egypt, by contrast, established centers of Islamic learning like Al-Azhar University were subordinated to state control, while the Muslim Brotherhood retained its independence, thus making modernist Islam a powerful autonomous force in society before and after the fall of Mubarak.

But given the important parallels and instructive precedents, how should Egyptians and others concerned about Egypt’s future learn from the Indonesian experience? On the one hand, Egyptians and other interested observers of Egyptian politics should not allow current fears of the "Islamist threat" to dilute support for a continued transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, to accept any attempts by the military to constrain the powers of elected civilian officials, or to embrace military intervention in the upcoming presidential elections. On the other hand, Egyptians and others who claim to care about Egyptian democracy should push hard now to make the most of available democratic space to insist on a new constitution, a presidential election, and wide-ranging institutional reforms. Otherwise, in years ahead, Egyptians may look back on 2011-2012 with the same disillusionment — and the same sense of missed opportunity — that is widespread in Indonesia today.

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