The Obama plan for Egypt

“Barry” grew up in Indonesia. Could the overthrow of its dictator be the template that the US presid

After weeks of riots, demonstrations and bloody counterattacks, the dictator finally stood down. He had already promised reforms, but it was not enough. Eventually the armed forces, from whose ranks he had originally sprung and whose loyalty had shored up his regime for nigh on 30 years, would no longer support him. So, grudgingly, he went.

In the transition period, a multitude of religious parties was formed. Some feared that when elections were held, Islamists would take over. In the event, the first fair presidential vote did bring to power the leader of a Muslim organisation; but moderation prevailed. The country's citizens were too attached to their newly won freedom to allow anyone to restrict their rights again.

A decade on, corruption and vote-buying remain serious problems, many of the dictator's former associates are major political players, and the former ruler himself was never brought to account for the human rights violations that took place under his rule. The latter was, perhaps, understandable. At home, national reconciliation trumped the demands of retributive justice, while the western powers could hardly call too loudly for the dictator to be hauled off to The Hague – after all, he had been one of their most reliable and publicly embraced allies in an unstable region.

But time had passed and change had come. The American president, no less, hailed the country as a model for how Muslim-majority autocracies could become pluralist democracies. Not only was the revolution televised; it was a success.

Could this be how events will turn out in Egypt? Maybe. But the above is not merely a fanciful scenario. It is precisely what happened in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in 1998. He never faced justice. His associates remain dominant – the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was one of his generals. A Muslim leader, the late Abdurrahman Wahid, did become president. (Fortunately "Gus Dur", as he was known, was no Khomeini. A hugely respected religious scholar and courageous defender of tolerance, he was also a cultured man with a ready wit. When he was removed from office in 2001, he said: "You don't realise that losing the presidency for me is nothing. I regret more the fact that I lost 27 recordings of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.") And last November, 12 years after the end of Suharto's tyranny, President Barack Obama praised Indonesia as "an example to the world" during his visit to Jakarta.

Is it unreasonable to hope that the one-time leader of the Arab nations could follow, in at least some respects, the course set out by the world's most populous Muslim country?

And, if he could: how?

I am grateful to Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for a useful analysis of lessons Egypt could take from Indonesia's recent history. You can find the full article here, but his key pointers are as follows:

First, the post-Suharto political renovation was inclusive despite the powerful mass rejection of the prior dictatorial order. The interim president moved quickly to allow freedom of expression and open the political space. Apparatchiks around the dictator managed to find a new political role for themselves through a transformed former ruling party that emphasised its technocratic capabilities. The army, which had played a key role in facilitating Suharto's stepping down by refusing to violently repress the protesters, saw its political role greatly reduced but only bit by bit, through constant negotiations and compromises. Political parties of all sorts were allowed to flourish, despite the messiness of the initial elections and governments.

Second, once Suharto's abrupt ouster was achieved, the transition became intensely legalistic and iterative. Indonesia put itself through seemingly endless phases of constitutional, electoral and other legal reforms, carried out in a spirit of compromise. The vague but emotive reformasi ideal was gradually translated into concrete institutions, rules and procedures. The serious pursuit of this detailed reform agenda helped Indonesians tolerate a transition period marked early on by a dubious post-dictator leader, disturbing outbursts of violence, economic woes and the breaking off of East Timor.

Third, the United States and Europe overcame their suspicions of a political transition they had long dreaded and offered valuable assistance in support of elections, political party development, civil society strengthening and legal reform. Indonesians' positive experience with this external assistance helped contribute to their own noteworthy determination to become active supporters of democracy in their own region.

Of course the circumstances are not the same, but there are many parallels, too. As I write, reports say that the Obama administration wants the military to back a plan that sees Mubarak give way to his vice-president – which, again, is what happened when Suharto resigned.

Given Obama's links to Indonesia (his childhood home) and knowledge of its recent history, maybe he hopes its example can be a template for Egypt. An optimistic view, for sure. But if anyone knows that optimists can be proved right, it is the current occupant of the White House.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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