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3/2/2011 Indonesia (CouncilonForeignRelations) – Policymakers and pundits have looked around the world at previous revolutions–in Iran,
Russia, Turkey, and more–to gauge the possibilities and pitfalls ahead as Egyptians overturn
their political order. The White House, however, has paid particular attention to the
experience of one: Indonesia.
From the early days of the Egypt protests, the White House quietly reached out to a number of
Indonesia experts, including this author, to better understand the story of Indonesia’s
democratic transformation. President Barack Obama’s own experience–having lived in Indonesia
during some of his formative childhood years–undoubtedly helps explain this impulse. But
there are good reasons beyond nostalgia why Indonesia’s success might provide inspiration,
and lessons, for Egypt.
Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Suharto’s Indonesia had an inordinate amount in common. Indonesia
is home to the world’s largest Muslim population; Egypt is the most populous Arab nation.
Both are Muslim-majority countries with significant non-Muslim minorities. Mubarak and
Suharto both hailed from the military and assumed power–with U.S. backing–at a time of
national trauma. Both men used secular-nationalist political vehicles to monopolize the power
of the state; both retained military backing through extensive political and financial
patronage; both demonized Islamist political forces and drove them underground; both kept a
tight lid on the media, the opposition, and all forms of dissent; both accumulated massive
amounts of wealth while in power; both were grooming children to succeed them in office; and
both enjoyed the support of the United States, thanks to geo-strategic calculations.
The arc of revolution in both countries was also strikingly similar. In both:
Initially exogenous factors (the Asian Financial Crisis for Indonesia; events in Tunisia, for
Egypt) provided the trigger that brought people into the streets.
The protests were led by young people, embittered by the gap between political development
and economic growth–and the degree to which that growth had disproportionately benefitted
elites around the president.
Harassment and even killing of protesters failed to end the demonstrations; looting and
rioting only hardened public opinion against the regime.
Internet-based tools–in Indonesia, chat rooms; in Egypt, social media–provided new avenues
for people to share information.
Concessions by the respective presidents–including similar pledges to prepare new elections
in which they would not run–proved too little too late.
The military, faced with either using force to end the demonstrations or nudging one of their
own from power, ultimately chose the latter.
One could argue that the Brotherhood’s power and allure in Egypt is at least in part a
function of the fact that they have been the only organized political force opposing the
regime–and being banned and standing against dictatorship gave them a certain mystique.
And in what perhaps may be the most unusual parallel, Mubarak, like Suharto, resigned
precisely two and a half weeks after protesters took to the streets.
The uncertainty unleashed by the speed of these events in a large Muslim country with
underground Islamist networks, little by way of civil society, and few obvious liberal-
democratic opposition figures, has prompted some panic that what comes next in Egypt will be
antithetical to U.S. interests. A similar discourse surrounded events in Indonesia in 1998.
Indonesia’s example since, however, suggests that need not be the case.
The challenges in front of Egypt are distinctly analogous to those Indonesia has faced: How
to transition the military back to the barracks? How to reform the constitution and electoral
system to allow for free and fair elections in a timely fashion? How to facilitate the
development of political parties on a compressed timeline to ensure that all voices can be
represented in the coming elections? How to manage the incorporation of Islamist
organizations in a way that enhances freedom and democratic development? How to build not
only a free but a responsible press that is able to function as a check and balance in a new
The good news is that Indonesia has been spectacularly successful with most if not all of the
above. The Obama administration is smart to be studying their example. Moreover, the United
States was able to play a significant role in supporting Indonesia’s democratic
transformation, despite its longstanding support for the previous order.
As a member of the Clinton administration, I helped formulate U.S. Indonesia policy in that
critical first year and spent several months in country in the runup to the first elections.
A few lessons from that experience stand out: