The Arab Spring and its Jasmine Revolution have naturally brought historical analogies to the fore as pundits try to visualize a model of democracy for Egypt to follow. It is unfortunate that Egypt, which is at the political, cultural and intellectual heart of the modern Arab world, should have to look outside itself to find a model.
In much of the current debate regarding Egypt’s future, the two contending Middle Eastern models for the country are Shiite Iran and Sunni Turkey. The first is a model of clerical conservatism and the second of secular radicalism. The problem with both is that neither is Arab.
Indonesia, for its part, is neither Arab nor of the Middle East. By the yardstick of ethnicity and geography, it is farther removed from Egypt than are Iran and Turkey. However, Indonesia is a Sunni Muslim-majority country that has been able to democratize without becoming an Islamic state. It is also an example of a formerly authoritarian state, underpinned by a politically powerful military that has sent the army back to the barracks without anarchy engulfing the vacated streets.
Indonesia thus proves that Muslims and constitutional democracy are compatible, and that the military’s proper function is to uphold the constitutional process, not hold it hostage.
By all accounts, most Egyptians want the same for their country. And now that their rulers on Wednesday have set the scene for parliamentary and presidential elections, they could do worse than to look at Indonesia for signs of how to get to where they want to go.
One sign to watch out for is the weather vane of the politics of religion.
In Indonesia, no less than 88 percent of citizens are nominally Muslim, and a large number of them are observant Muslims. However, Islam-oriented parties hold only 28 percent of seats in the legislature and even that figure is down from 39 percent in 2004. The nation’s largest Islamic political party controls only 8 percent of the legislative seats.
While non-religious parties occasionally court Islamic parties to shore up their electoral support, none of the major Indonesian parties is beholden to the Islamic bloc. Consequently, religious revisionists have failed to change the essentially secular character of the Pancasila state by amending the 1945 Constitution.
For all the headline-grabbing attacks on religious minorities — despicable though these attacks are — the real news is that Indonesia remains a tolerant state, most of the time, for most of its people, in most of its far-flung places. The cultural influence of Sufism, which inspires a peaceful and inclusive attitude to religion, is an important reason behind this tolerance.
Egypt — where Sufism also infuses the spirit of religiosity — can be the same.
Admittedly, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is far more influential than is Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which models itself on the Egyptian movement. Logically, the Brotherhood is likely to do well in free and fair elections, as Hamas has done in Gaza, or in a situation of chaotic democracy, such as the one in Lebanon that benefited Hezbollah.
Any scenario of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power is sufficient to turn certain people into an Anti-Muslim Brotherhood. There are dark mutterings about Egypt going the Iranian way should elections empower the Brotherhood. Some privately fantasize about an Algerian solution to that problem, in a throwback to the Algerian military’s success in crushing Islamic rebels in a long and bloody civil war.
These fears are short-sighted. Certainly, the Muslim Brotherhood is a challenge to the secular future of Egypt, but it is not an insurmountable threat.
The way to contain the challenge is to replicate what has worked in Indonesia: the organization of credible elections, held under a Constitution that guarantees the secular character of the state and the tangible improvement of governance.
It bears remembering that, like Hamas and Hezbollah, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has prospered because it has stepped in where the state has failed, whether in the provision of schools, medical clinics and other everyday services, or in the ability to offer people a vision of justice and dignity within which to place their lives.
Should Egypt’s elections lead to the kind of change witnessed in Indonesia, the Brotherhood would be contained in a competitive market of public goals and policies in which secular parties would participate.
Indeed, if the protesters of Tahrir Square are anything to go by, Egypt’s vanguard belongs to young, educated patriots who believe in democracy, secularism and human rights. There is no reason why the Muslim Brotherhood should enjoy a monopoly of these universal virtues.
Whatever the outcome, the military — Egypt’s most powerful institution, followed by the Muslim Brotherhood — will stay around to ensure that stability is not sacrificed to change. Perhaps the closest example in this context is that of Turkey, where the army remains the ultimate deterrent to the ability of Islamic parties to change the nature of the Turkish state.
However, an even better example is Indonesia, where democracy has itself become the basis of post-authoritarian stability. Indonesia’s military has given up its political function, relinquished its quota in the legislature, reduced its reach into business, and has become more professional.
It has done so because there was no alternative for it in the post-Suharto era, where any attempt to cling on to its previous privileges would have run afoul of the popular mood. People would not have settled for cosmetic change.
If Egyptians show that they, too, have fought for revolution and not reform, the military will read the writing on the wall.
The success of Egypt’s revolution will depend on how well it responds to the roles of Islam and the military in the democratic era. Indonesia’s success on both fronts should give Egyptians hope.
John Riady is a lecturer at the Pelita Harapan University Faculty of Law and editor at large for GlobeAsia. He can be reached at email@example.com.