Post-Mubarak Egypt: Is Indonesia the right model?

Author: Yang Razali Kassim, RSIS

Now that the Mubarak regime has been overthrown, many views have been offered on the likely polity of the new Egypt.

Several models have been cited, but two stand out: Iran and Turkey. Increasingly, the Indonesian model is also being considered. Some watchers, like former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, believe Indonesia is the most appropriate model for Egypt to follow. President Obama has also made comparisons between Egypt and Indonesia in the aftermath of the uprising.

Former Indonesian foreign minister and ambassador to Cairo, Hasan Wirayuda, recently delivered a message from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, sharing the president’s thoughts on the Indonesian experience. There are obvious similarities between the two countries. But how apt a model is Indonesia for Egypt?

Egypt 2011 and Indonesia 1998

The most striking resemblance between Egypt 2011 and Indonesia 1998 is, of course, regime change and the pivotal role of ‘people power.’ Mubarak and Suharto were both generals — from the air force and army respectively — who became political leaders. Like Suharto, Mubarak was thrown out after three decades of authoritarian rule. Both amassed power partly on the back of fears of external and internal threats. And both were brought down eventually by a confluence of latent incendiary factors triggered off by economic hardships — rising food prices in the case of Egypt, and rising fuel prices amid the Asian financial crisis in the case of Indonesia in 1998.  Significantly, both fell when the military refused to lend support.  In the case of Egypt, it led to the military taking over interim power — at least until an elected government comes in — making the change something like a silent coup. In the case of Indonesia, the military reformed itself and withdrew from politics.

For regime preservation, both Mubarak and Suharto played up the threat of Islamist extremism — partly to buttress their own position and partly to win foreign support. Mubarak was deposed without reaching reconciliation with his political nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood. Suharto, towards the end of his rule, reconciled with his Islamic constituency. The irony for Mubarak was that he was thrown out not by the Muslim Brotherhood but by the wider population through people power. The irony for Suharto: the Islamic constituency could not and would not save him when his fall became inevitable.

The Indonesian model

To be sure, talk about the appropriate model for Egypt is presumptuous. The last thing the world should do is to impose an outside model on Egypt. The Egyptians have the right to decide their own future. Whatever it is, the final shape of the new Egyptian polity should be the product of a national consensus of all the political forces in the country, with no groups left out. This process of forging a national consensus is what the Indonesians do very well; they call it musyawarah dan mufakat (deliberation and consensus). There are signs that the caretaker regime in Egypt is doing this as the political system is being redesigned.

But assuming Egypt post-Mubarak decides to follow the Indonesian model, what does this mean exactly?

To begin with, it will not be like Iran. The new Egypt will not be a theocracy because Indonesia is not a theocracy. It will also not be like Turkey where a secular government is run by an Islamist party, the AKP. The Islamist bloc in Indonesia is currently not enjoying wide national support. But this can change over time should the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) become more adept as a political player in the democratic system and grow in stature. The highly popular Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will be even more adept than the PKS and the Islamic bloc in Jakarta combined. The Indonesian model, if adopted by Egypt, could see the disparate political forces, including the Brotherhood, forging compromises through coalitions.

Egypt will also not be a military-dominated state, which Indonesia no longer is, in the post-Suharto Reformasi era. The Egyptian army will disengage from politics like its Indonesian counterpart. But the Indonesian model also means the military will prevail behind the scenes — just like in Turkey. While the military defers to civilian rule, it does not prevent generals from rising to the presidency through democratic channels. The current president, Yudhoyono, is a former general who shed his uniform to successfully contest the elections.

If the Indonesian model is emulated, then the Egyptian polity would be a multi-party parliamentary system with a civilian presidential leadership. Indonesia is a non-theocratic state that accommodates in a fine balance the three major forces of secularism, Islam and the military. These are also the key forces that will determine the future of the new Egypt.

Too much, too soon?

The Indonesian polity post-Suharto is stabilising and its economy is growing — but only after a decade. A key lesson from Indonesia is that restructuring the political system cannot be rushed. The post-revolutionary euphoria in Indonesia led to what I call ‘democratic diarrhoea’ — too much loosening of the system, too fast. It did not take Indonesians long to realise that an uncontrolled proliferation of political parties in the name of democracy is not necessarily a good thing. Now they are trying to downsize the party system to a more manageable size. Devolving power to the regions through decentralisation can also lead to complications.

After 12 years, post-Suharto Indonesia is still a work in progress. Reordering Indonesia is an unfinished business. But Indonesia’s experience shows that a Muslim-majority state can also be democratic, inclusive and economically viable. Post-Mubarak Egypt can learn from Indonesia, but it will have to be an Egyptian solution — determined by Egyptians themselves, through democratic choice.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was originally published here, as RSIS Commentary No. 24/2011.