• posted by Anindya Mar 8th, 2011

    Egypt Protest

    foto:AP Photo

    As the rest of the world watches with amazement, and some trepidation, at the unsuspected revolution unfolding in the Middle East, Indonesians can be forgiven for treating events there with a measure of déjà vu. Relax, they say: We have been there, done that. Indeed, it is the Middle East in turmoil which perhaps should look at Indonesia as a model for how to democratise with Muslim characteristics.

    What unites the Iranian revolution of 1979, the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, the overthrow of the Suharto regime roughly a decade later, and the jasmine revolution today is their objective: the ditching of autocracies that have passed their sell-by date. These revolutions represent a massive clearing of historical shelves.

    It does not matter what kind of product has gone stale: pompous monarchies; vanished socialisms; murderous juntas; civilian despotisms; or the creeping dotage of corrupt, inefficient and unaccountable regimes. It does not matter whether the revolution is sparked by the silent presence of a Berlin Wall, the resounding collapse of a national economy, or the screaming self-immolation of a street-hawker who becomes the contorted face of a whole country, a whole region and a whole indicted era.

    The particular cause is important, but it ultimately does not matter. All that matters is the objective: the demolition of a state edifice built around a hated leader to protect him and his cabal from his people. The people rise to prove that there is no protection from them.

    Indonesians understand these sentiments instinctively. They have been through it all. However, the key question is what occurs in the aftermath of a successful display of people’s power. Will a new system emerge, one that is both legitimate and stable? Or will people’s power pass into the hands of a new oligarchy? Will a religious takeover kill off secular liberalism? Or will civil war among implacably opposed forces split the nation into twenty roads to nowhere? Will the revolution eat its young?

    Here, without intending to sound boastful or preachy, I dare say that Indonesia has answered these questions convincingly since the advent of democracy. The world’s largest archipelagic state has not splintered following the departure of East Timor. Indonesians have abrogated draconian laws formulated on the self-serving fiction that they were not fit for freedom. There were fears that its laws would collapse under the weight of democracy. They have not collapsed. Instead, democracy has become a law. Indeed, democracy has stabilised to the point where there is no return to the status quo ante.

    Moreover, there were fears that a country which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population would turn into an Islamic state. It has not done so. Instead, the Pancasila state has co-opted Islamic parties and interests and drawn them into the democratic mainstream. It has done this so well that Parliament has become the central arena of political contestation for all Muslims (and others) except the extremist fringe.

    Indeed, cross-ethnic coalitions are becoming a noticeable feature of politics. Constitutional requirements oblige political parties to have a national footprint, while local elections do not encourage parties to appeal to large ethnic groups. These two factors have come together to create a culture of pluralism that makes the need for ethnic compromise more powerful than ethnic competition.

    Thus, more than a decade since the departure of President Suharto, Indonesian political risk is at its lowest in a generation. Fears over democracy and Islam have proved to be exaggerated and hopes resilient. Indonesia has emerged as the world’s largest Muslim democracy. True, each Middle Eastern country has its own past and will have its own future. The trajectory of democracy in Egypt will differ from that in Libya; in the circumstances, it is preposterous to think that the Indonesian model can be transplanted to the region as a whole. However, Indonesia is proof that it is possible to have a largely non-violent transfer of power from an authoritarian system to a democratic one if certain safeguards are in place. This proof is relevant to the Middle East.

    The first safeguard is that the departure of the old regime will lead to lasting change only if, paradoxically, there is some institutional continuity. What this means essentially in places like Egypt is that the military is the best bet to ensure the survival of the new order. As in Indonesia, where the military recast its role to become the defender of the post-Suharto democratic status quo, the Middle East will need its armies to preserve stability amidst change. The military has undertaken this task already in Egypt. While democratic purists will baulk at that role, in an imperfect world, the military cannot be left out of any viable planning for the future. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the region follows suit.

    The second safeguard is civil society activism. Any people’s power movement rests on the ability of activists, drawn from a broad range of social groups, to come together. The test lies in whether they remain together after the transition to democracy has begun. A vibrant civil society scene, including a free press and non-governmental organisations, is an open secret of Indonesia’s success as a democracy. It is easy to see this process being replicated in Egypt and Tunisia, but a Libya wracked by civil war is another matter.

    The last safeguard has to do with the handling of Islamic resistance movements. It is necessary to proceed with an open mind and give Islamic groups the benefit of the doubt so that they both support the transition to democracy and are willing to work within its parameters. Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has reportedly approached India for help in conducting elections when Egyptians are ready to go to the polls. Democracy is at its strongest when it is most inclusive. So long as religious parties or movements are prepared to work within the democratic process, democrats should work with them.

    These are some ways in which an Indonesian model could appeal to citizens in the Middle East looking for both Islam and democracy. Whether they find the model appealing is up to them, but Indonesia should not be shy to declare that it has been there and done that.

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