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Indonesia as beacon for Egypt

Asia Times - February 2, 2011

Gary LaMoshi, Denpasar, Bali After three decades of unchallenged rule, the president clings to power amid massive street protests calling for his resignation and reform. His intransigence merely forestalls his seemingly inevitable downfall. Security forces have killed demonstrators and reportedly engaged in looting to spread chaos and fear. For the West, especially the United States, the anti-government movement poses a huge dilemma with enormous risks.

Indeed, the US has paid lip service to greater freedom and democracy during the former general's lengthy tenure, while his rule has become increasingly autocratic. There have been no free elections, just sham votes rigged to ensure the outcome.

Corruption has grown, along with the role of the president's family. The media has been controlled through a combination of persuasion, censorship and targeted violence against journalists who crossed the wrong lines or people.

But choosing freedom isn't easy for the US. The president's nation holds huge strategic significance. It balances fragile regional peace and relative stability (by this neighborhood's standards) while another power, ethnically and ideologically distinct, looms at the fringe with uncertain designs. Moreover, it controls a waterway vital to the world's trade and oil flows. The nation's size and geography, as well its endemic poverty, has led the US to lavish billions of dollars in aid, much of it military assistance, over the decades. Bullets shot at protesters and aircraft buzzing overhead are predominantly made in the USA.

Heir pollution

United States caution stems in part from uncertainty about the succession. To protect his power, the president groomed no heir apparent, keeping himself at the center of all political activity. It's difficult to gauge the strength of the ruling party, which basically has served as a vehicle for the president alone. There's no opposition leader with either a record of popular support or political skill. The most powerful national institution is the military, and there's little known about its inner workings. Though presumably loyal to the president as one of is own, the armed forces have shown signs of division and divergence as protests spread.

With the growth of civil society stunted by political control, the only non-government institutions of significance are Muslim groups. The majority of the nation's Muslims are believed to be moderate and tolerant, but there are certainly radical elements which have engaged in violence, both against politicians and the nation's sizeable minorities.

While outsiders may hope for "an orderly transition" to democracy, in a country with no real tradition of democracy the more likely reality seems to be a military takeover or an Islamist regime, neither promising freedom or regional stability.

That is a description of Indonesia in 1998, in the last gasps of the 32-year rule of US-backed strongman president Suharto (who resigned days after returning from a visit to Cairo). Much of what was true about Indonesia then is true of Egypt now. However, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the term "an orderly transition" to speak about hopes for a resolution of the current situation in Egypt under president Hosni Mubarak, carefully parsed comments from Western policymakers indicate they've failed to grasp the parallels.

Rosy scenario

These parallels are not simply of academic interest. Just 13 years after Suharto's fall, Indonesia has emerged as the world's third largest democracy, by far the most functional and free one in Southeast Asia. The world's largest Muslim population now lives under an elected secular government with the military, formerly a political fixture, completely driven from that sector.

Indonesia remains a staunch ally of the US, despite American support for Suharto and domestic opposition to US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Indonesia's economy has ranked among the fastest growing in the world for the past two years, shown by burgeoning traffic on the roads and the Internet, while Jakarta's stock market was the best performer in Asia last year.

To give Egypt the best chance of a similarly rosy outcome, the US and its allies, as well as Egyptians who favor a democratic future, should review Indonesia's transition and its aftermath. However, as with investments, past performance provides no guarantee of future returns.

Whether part of a well-conceived plan or a consequence of the Bill Clinton administration being consumed with presidential impeachment and other domestic matters, the US and its allies largely let events in Indonesia play out without intervention. The non-interference doctrine of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) kept neighbors from meddling. Perhaps there was a back channel warning passed to China in the early 1960s, before Suharto took power, Beijing backed and armed Indonesia's Communist Party, Asia's largest outside China to keep its hands off.

No clean sweep

Rather than sweeping away the institutions of the Suharto regime, Indonesia's transition played out constitutionally. Suharto's handpicked vice president B J Habibie, considered Indonesia's nutty professor, succeeded him as president. Over the course of a year, new elections were organized under the existing constitution.

Electoral laws were amended to open up the process, allowing more parties participate and replacing appointed seats in the legislative branches with elected ones. The first direct presidential election didn't take place until 2004.

Preserving the system and reforming it from a sham democracy to a functioning one allowed government institutions to remain in place, for better or worse. It also preserved and strengthened the notion of the rule of law, compared with the repeated extra-legal transitions in the Philippines, where they call it People Power, and Thailand with its military coups. In Indonesia, there's a sense that the voting and laws matter.

Most important, keeping the system intact kept any debate over replacing secular government with an Islamic state off the table, while reforms took the military out of politics. Neither of those feats came easy, and both remain works in progress to varying degrees; reforming elections is far simpler than reforming government. No one should expect the path in Egypt to run straight and steadily only in the right direction.

Indonesia's first president of the reform era, Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur), was chosen in a backroom deal after his party finished third in the 1999 legislative voting. His choice set off a brief outbreak of rioting among supporters of the top party's leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's first president. A liberal Muslim scholar who led Nahdlatul Ulama, the nation's largest Muslim group, Wahid was revered cleric and dedicated reformer. He had enemies among Islamists and drew the enmity of the armed forces for his assertion of civilian control and efforts to punish human rights abusers.

Loose lips

Offhand remarks and a chaotic administrative approach cost Wahid political as well as popular support. He was removed from office less than halfway through his term by the legislature, as provided by the constitution. Wahid tried to use the military to defy lawmakers, but the armed forces declined to disobey the law. The presidential transition from Megawati to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004 was frosty but peaceful.

Ironically, Wahid also provided a catalyst for the growth of violent Islamic extremism. The military armed religious radicals in an effort to undermine his rule. Those efforts provided valuable training to Muslim extremists and raised their popular standing. Terrorism sprouted from that unholy alliance, taking hundreds of lives and requiring millions of dollar to combat. Islamists have also made progress imposing their political agenda. However, elections show that only a quarter to a third of Indonesians vote for Islamic parties, roughly the same figure cited as the level of support for the Muslim Brotherhood among Egyptians.

Indonesia's today under Yudhoyono still suffers hangovers from the Suharto era. Corruption remains a major problem. The government's legislature and judicial branches still sell votes and verdicts, treating public service as an opportunity for enrichment. The military remains largely its own fiefdom, and a culture of impunity based on wealth and connections pervades society.

Indonesia's experience demonstrates that whatever the scenario for Mubarak's departure, there are possibilities beyond Muslim extremism and military rule. Most of all, it's a reminder that ousting the president is just the first step in a long journey that, despite obvious obstacles, can take Egypt forward to the benefit of its people, neighbors and friends.

[Longtime editor of award-winning investor rights advocate eRaider.com, Gary LaMoshihas written for Slate and Salon.com, and works an adviser to Writing Camp (www.writingcamp.net). He first visited Indonesia in 1994 and has tracking its progress ever since.]

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