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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.