The path from dictatorship to democracy

Indonesia has asked in recent years to be more involved in Middle Eastern affairs by playing the role of mediator and peacemaker.

A new factor has been inserted into the equation of political reform in Egypt: a dialogue between Egypt and Indonesia on promoting democracy. This move was triggered by Egypt’s request for Indonesian assistance in organizing the coming elections, and establishing regulations related to political parties.
This request by Egypt, the Arab and Muslim world’s center of gravity, is not obvious. There have been hopes inside Indonesia and outside (in the US in particular) that the Asian country’s democracy would serve as a model for reforms in the Muslim world, mainly in the Middle East.
Indonesia has also asked in recent years to be more involved in Middle Eastern affairs by playing the role of mediator and peacemaker. It has sustained such aspirations by having a model that combines Islam, democracy, pluralism, tolerance and modernity.
But some observers were skeptical about the prospects of such hopes, as many Arabs hold a patronizing view of Indonesian Muslims and display a critical attitude toward the nature of Islam there.
There are grounds to wonder why Egypt addressed Indonesia and not its regional neighbor, Turkey. After all, the Turkish model of compatibility between Islam and democracy has been going on for longer, and Egypt has much more in common with Turkey than with Indonesia.
However it makes sense that Egypt prefers to address a Muslim country located far beyond the horizon of Middle Easterners, rather than Turkey, its competitor for regional hegemony.
Possible Egyptian sensitivities may also partly explain why it officially, in contrast to Indonesia, doesn’t give explicit publicity to the two countries’ democracy-advancing cooperation.
Indonesia seems to fully understand such sensitivities, as well as the fact that in the centuries-old Islamic interaction between Egypt and the archipelago, knowledge and ideas have been transferred in one direction only, from the former to the latter.
Referring to the Egyptian request, Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa stressed that his country should assist the Egyptians wisely lest it seem as though the Indonesians were preaching to them.
But the main reason for Egypt’s addressing Indonesia seems to be an understanding that the latter has succeeded in solving its 1998 political crisis in the wake of the Suharto regime’s downfall. The Egyptians also seem to be aware of the high relevancy of the Indonesian case. Amazing similarities exist between Egypt’s current circumstances and those of Indonesia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To mention just a few of them: Two countries with a dominant Sunni majority experienced a massive democratic protest, mainly by the middle class, against an authoritarian regime headed by an ex-general who had ruled for about three decades. In both cases, the ruler eventually lost the crucial support of the army.
The preliminary years of the post-Suharto era were marked by deep political turmoil that included manifestations of religious extremism and violence, sectarian conflicts, awakening separatist aspirations, the growing voice of radical Islam, increasing religious militancy and threats of terror.
Many observers watched gloomily, fearing that the just-born democracy was liable to crash soon. It was only in 2004, after the second parliamentary elections and first direct presidential elections, and after Indonesia had surmounted many obstacles, that observers started to believe the Indonesians were displaying the attributes of a consolidated democracy.
Hence it is no wonder that the Egyptians dig into the Indonesian case. Last May, a workshop initiated by the Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD) took place in Jakarta under the title “Egypt-Indonesia Dialogue on Democratic Transition.”
Indonesia established the IPD in 2008 to support the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF), which it had established in the same year for promoting democracy in Asia. This initiative has been carried out in cooperation with Australia and was praised by the US. Officials from some Arab countries were invited to the meetings of this forum even before the Arab Spring.
Both men and women participated in the May workshop, among them political leaders, democracy activists, academics and representatives from NGOs and the media.
The workshop addressed the following main issues: the role of the military in the transition, and its place in a democratic society; constitutional and political reform; election laws and management; the role of political parties and civil society in building a representative democracy; Islam, politics and the state; the role of the media in consolidating democracy; and ensuring the full participation of women in the political process.
The IPD intends to hold a second workshop in Cairo that will involve a wider range of Egyptian participants and bring Indonesians into closer contact with the current debates in Egypt. It should be noted that certain Egyptian academics and activists have already been exposed to Indonesia’s democracy in recent years, through conferences and seminars. During the Mubarak era, Egyptian journalists and op-ed writers in opposition newspapers even made pointed references to Indonesia’s transition to democracy.
This process, in the home of the largest Muslim community in the world, provided hope for political change and evidence of the compatibility of Islam and democracy (see Giora Eliraz, “Democracy in Indonesia and Middle East countries,” The Jakarta Post, November 30, 2007, and “Will Indonesia’s breeze of democracy reach here?” The Jerusalem Post, April 5, 2008).
It’s likely that when Egypt first asked Indonesia for help, it was already well aware of the latter’s lessons for building democracy. The Indonesian model has so far frustrated Islamic political parties hoping to achieve a leading position in the post-Suharto era. The voters have actually proved, through fair democratic elections, their loyalty to a basic Indonesian state principle of separation between state and religion.
The democratic reforms also considerably decreased the involvement of the army. Even gender equality has manifested by having, with a woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, becoming president. Indonesia’s democracy has been effective in fighting terror as well.
It's likely that the Egyptians are now also more familiar with some shortcomings that Indonesia’s democracy still has, and are thus more conscious of the fact that some significant elements that have contributed to that democracy’s success are missing in their own political context – in particular a strong, organized, moderate Muslim civil society committed to democratic values. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that the ongoing dialogue strengthens the understanding of the Egyptians that the successful Indonesian case is indeed relevant for a country trying to take its first steps into democracy.

The writer is the author of Islam in Indonesia: Modernism, Radicalism and the Middle East Dimension. (Brighton & Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2004) and of the monograph Islam and Polity in Indonesia: An Intriguing Case Study (Washington: Hudson Institute, February 2007). He is Associate Researcher at the Harry S Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University.