x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Middle East revolutions only aspire to Indonesia's success

Recent revolutions are often compared to Indonesia's successful transition, but economics, the military and geopolitics all pose greater challenges for the Middle East.

In recent weeks, as protesters have toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, many observers - from the White House on down - have searched for models to guide these fragile countries as they attempt to build democracies after years of autocratic rule. Often, democracy analysts have settled on one example: the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia.

On the surface, looking to Indonesia makes sense. No developing nation over the past decade has enjoyed such a dramatic turnaround, from a nearly failed state to a vibrant and stable democracy. In the late 1990s, after the fall of the longtime dictator Suharto, Indonesia appeared on the verge of collapse.

Newly empowered Islamist organisations seized on the post-Suharto chaos to build networks and launch major terrorist attacks in Jakarta and Bali. Like Yemen, Indonesia had many outlying regions that sought to secede, and in the early days of democracy some almost did. East Timor gained independence in 1999 after bloody fighting. Some Indonesian observers predicted the country was turning into an Asian version of ungovernable Nigeria. It appeared that Suharto's contention that only he could hold the nation together - a boast similar to Hosni Mubarak's - might prove true.

About a decade later, look again. The Indonesian government has resolved nearly every secessionist issue and stability has allowed for renewed growth. The country's economy grew by more than 6 per cent last year and likely will grow faster in 2011. Indonesia's Islamists have been blunted and secular parties dominate the legislature. The country has held multiple free and fair elections, and remained a close partner of western democracies even after the end of its strongman rule.

Success though it may be, Indonesia's example does not necessarily fit the Middle East as closely as some in the West might like. For one, Indonesia does not have the sort of global strategic influence that Egypt does. The United States' relations with Indonesia in the late 1990s and early 2000s were weak and frayed, which actually allowed Indonesian politicians to chart their own course in the young democracy. This hands-off approach allowed important experimentation, including Indonesia's devolution of political power to provinces and cities.

Calculations are different in the Middle East, where the US, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other powers all have major stakes in the game. No matter what they say, none of these powers really wants a totally open and inclusive political system in Egypt, one in which the Muslim Brotherhood could wield outsized influence.

Secondly, in Indonesia there were potential political leaders waiting in the wings after Suharto's exit. Even before Suharto's demise, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the independence leader Sukarno, had established herself as a leader of a powerful secular opposition movement; she eventually became Indonesia's president from 2001 to 2004. In addition, Abdurrahman Wahid, the head of the massive Muslim social organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, and other liberal clerics guided national religious organisations, which could be converted into votes.

There is no obvious post-Mubarak leader with such a large and liberal national following in Egypt, or in most other Middle East nations that face change. Mohammed ElBaradei could become this person in Egypt, but at present he does not enjoy a deep national following. The lack of such a figure will make Egypt's transition much harder, and could make it more chaotic. It will also make it more difficult for democratic leaders to build bridges between secular voters and moderate Muslim parties.

Third, unlike many Middle East nations, Indonesia in the late 1990s also enjoyed a stronger foundation for future economic growth. The Asian financial crisis of the 1990s battered Indonesia's economy, driving tens of millions of Indonesians into poverty, but before the crisis the country had created successful clusters of light manufacturing, textiles and other exportable goods, and as its politics stabilised, it returned to high growth.

Yemen, Jordan and other Middle East states facing unrest have not been so forward looking: they have little domestic industry, and face a future of years of economic stagnation, which could easily lead to further unrest and paralyse democracy efforts.

Finally, the Indonesian army had hurt its own image far more than Egypt's or other Middle East nations', so the armed forces had essentially dealt themselves out of the country's political future. After participating in massacres in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and alleged involvement in the Suharto family's business holdings, the army had little standing. Suharto had begun his career as an army officer and took power in the mid-1960s in what essentially was a coup. The fact that the army had lost much of the public's faith made it easier over time for politicians to reduce its role in public life and in business.

In countries like Egypt, reducing the military's presence in society will be far harder - ironically, the Egyptian armed forces, which silenced violent pro-Mubarak thugs during the protests, enjoy a high degree of respect among average Egyptians. As the military presides over a presumed transition to democracy, largely with the public's blessing, it could be tempted to carve out a continuing role in business and politics, or even to take over government completely.

Many are celebrating Indonesia's transition over the past 10 years, but it is possible that a decade from now, Egypt will be a very different story.


Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for South-East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations