Indonesian Road Signs for an Egyptian Roadmap

By John Riady

The Arab Spring and its Jasmine Revolution have naturally brought historical analogies to the fore as pundits try to visualize a model of democracy for Egypt to follow. It is unfortunate that Egypt, which is at the political, cultural and intellectual heart of the modern Arab world, should need a model when it should itself be the model.

This is sad but it is true. There is no Egyptian model. Instead, the two contending Middle Eastern models for the country are Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Turkey. Problematically, the first is a “model” of clerical conservatism, and the second of secular radicalism. The problem with both is that neither is Arab.

Of course, Indonesia is neither Arab nor is it in the Middle East. By the yardstick of ethnicity and geography, it is farther removed from Egypt than are Iran and Turkey. However, Indonesia is a Muslim-majority (and mostly Sunni) country that has been able to democratise without becoming an Islamic state. It is also an example of a formerly authoritarian state, underpinned by a politically powerful military, which has sent the army back to the barracks without anarchy engulfing the vacated streets.

In a nutshell, Indonesia proves that Muslims and constitutional democracy are compatible, and that the military’s proper function is to uphold the constitutional process, not hold it hostage.

By all accounts, most Egyptians want the same for their country. They could do worse than to look at Indonesia for signs of how to get to wherever they want to go.

One sign to watch out for is the weather vane of the politics of religion.

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, no less than 88 percent of citizens are Muslim, and a large number of them are observant Muslims. However, Islam-oriented parties hold only 28 percent of seats in the legislature, and even that figure is down from 39 percent in 2004. The nation’s largest Islamic political party controls only eight percent of legislative seats.

Indonesia remains a religiously tolerant state, most of the time

While non-religious parties occasionally court Islamic parties to shore up their electoral support, none of the major Indonesian parties is beholden to the Islamic bloc. Consequently, religious revisionists have failed to change the essentially secular character of the Pancasila state by amending the 1945 Constitution.

For all the headline-grabbing attacks on religious minorities – despicable though these attacks are, of course – the real news is the elephant in the room. The news is that Indonesia remains a religiously tolerant state, most of the time, for most of its people, in most of its far-flung places. The cultural influence of Sufism, which inspires a peaceful and inclusive attitude to religion, is an important reason for this wonderful tolerance.

Egypt – where, too, Sufism infuses the spirit of religiosity – can be the same.

Admittedly, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is far more influential than is Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party, which models itself on the Egyptian movement. Logically, the Brotherhood is likely to do well in free and fair elections, as Hamas has done in Gaza, or in a situation of chaotic democracy, such as the one in Lebanon that benefited Hizbollah.

Any scenario of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power is sufficient to turn certain people into an Anti-Muslim Brotherhood. There are dark mutterings about Egypt going the Iranian way should elections empower the Brotherhood. Some privately fantasise about an Algerian solution to that problem, in a throwback to the Algerian military’s success in crushing Islamic rebels in a long and bloody civil war.

These fears are short-sighted. Certainly, the Muslim Brotherhood is a challenge to the secular future of Egypt, but it is not an insurmountable threat. The way to contain the challenge is to replicate what has worked in Indonesia: the organisation of credible elections, held under a Constitution that guarantees the secular character of the state, which lead to the tangible improvement of governance on the ground.

It bears remembering that, like Hamas and Hizbollah, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has prospered because it has stepped in where the state has failed, whether in the provision of schools, medical clinics and other everyday services, or in the ability to offer people a vision of justice and dignity within which to place their lives.

Should Egypt’s elections lead to the kind of change witnessed in Indonesia, the Brotherhood would be contained if not marginalised in a competitive market of public goals and policies in which secular parties would participate.

Indeed, if the protesters of Tahrir Square are anything to go by, Egypt’s vanguard belongs to young, educated patriots who believe in democracy, secularism and human rights. There is no reason the Muslim Brotherhood should enjoy a monopoly of these universal virtues. If it does, then good luck to it!

Whatever the outcome, the military – Egypt’s most powerful institution, followed by the Muslim Brotherhood – will stay around to ensure that stability is not sacrificed to change. Perhaps the closest example in this context is that of Turkey, where the army remains the ultimate deterrent to the ability of Islamic parties to change the nature of the Turkish state.

However, an even better example is Indonesia, where democracy has itself become the basis of post-authoritarian stability. Indonesia’s military has given up its political function, relinquished its quota in the legislature, reduced its reach into business, and has become more professional.

It has done so because there was no alternative for it in the post-Suharto dispensation, where any attempt to cling on to its previous privileges would have run afoul of the popular mood. People would not have settled for cosmetic change.

If Egyptians show that they, too, have fought for revolution and not reform, the military will read the writing on the wall.

The success of Egypt’s revolution will depend on how well it responds to the roles of Islam and the military in the democratic era. Indonesia’s success on both fronts should give Egyptians hope.

The writer is editor-at-Large of the Jakarta Globe.

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