Lynn Lee – Straits Times Indonesia
As the dust settles in Cairo, American officials and analysts are looking to Indonesia’s transition to democracy as a possible model for Egypt’s new beginning.
Drawing parallels between the two countries, they say Egypt could follow Indonesia’s path as it takes its first steps to political reform.
Back in 1998, when widespread protests here forced Suharto to step down, ending his 32-year military-backed rule – which had suppressed communists and Islamists – it left the path open for political reform and free and fair elections in the Muslim-majority nation.
Egypt, a key Arab ally of the West and its cornerstone of security and stability in the Middle East, faces a similar challenge.
And in the last few days, senior United States officials have said that Indonesia is “widely seen as the best example” of where Egypt could be headed.
During a wide-ranging press conference on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama said “the history of successful transitions to democracy have generally been ones in which peaceful protests led to dialogue, led to discussion, led to reform and ultimately led to democracy.”
And he cited Indonesia, where he spent a part of his youth, as “a majority Muslim country that went through some of these similar transitions,” which did not end up dividing the nation.
As analysts like Professor Ann Marie Murphy of Seton Hall University point out, Indonesia has a successful counter-terrorism offensive, has established itself as a linchpin of regional stability and has consistently elected secular parties.
And there is no doubt that Indonesia deserves praise. The sprawling archipelago of 237 million people still faces problems with religious intolerance and corruption, but boasts a relatively sound report card a decade after embarking on political reform.
Among other things, its $695 billion economy – South-east Asia’s largest – is expanding, and it is politically stable with a vibrant civil society. It is also drawing huge foreign investment – $12 billion last year – and is now an active member in regional and international forums like the Group of 20.
Aware of the parallels, Jakarta has told Egypt it is ready to help, by sharing its experience in the reform process.
Hours after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asked his ambassador to Egypt, former foreign minister Hasan Wirajuda, to deliver a letter to the head of Egypt’s ruling military council.
The letter, said Yudhoyono, contained “messages, views and recommendations” based on Indonesia’s own experience, which he hoped would be used as input for Egypt’s journey forward.
Still, despite the apparent similarities between the countries, observers said Indonesia seemed more prepared for an “alternative government” when Suharto fell.
“There were political parties in waiting, and there was an active civil society,” Hasan told The Straits Times. “There were alternative leaders and this was an important part of the transition.”
Despite his repressive regime, Suharto had also lifted millions out of poverty, with the country attaining growth rates averaging 7 per cent.
Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a state secretary for foreign affairs in the government of former president B.J. Habibie – who took over from Suharto – also said discussions of reform had taken place way before 1998.
“I think in Egypt, there were shared ideals when it came to getting rid of Mubarak. But I am not sure to what extent people have agreed on the reform agenda,” said Dewi, who is now Vice-President Boediono’s special adviser for international affairs.
Researcher Maria Monica Wihardja from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said Egypt might do better with a “gradual transition,” until it had a population which was able to make well-informed decisions, and strong institutions which could support a democratic regime.
“Countries like Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey could be sources of inspiration but there is no one-size- fits-all strategy for reform. Egypt will need to understand its own complexities and constraints,” she said.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 2553 5055.