Does Egypt 2011 = Indonesia 1998 ?

Two days ago I was dutifully watching the Rachel Maddow podcast while eating breakfast, and during her coverage of the revolutionary events in Egypt, Dezant said to me: “It’s just like Indonesia in 1998.” I checked online to what extent others were making a similar comparison, and for the most part the comparison is restricted to the Indonesian media. On Twitter there are hundreds of Indonesian tweets making the comparison, “Egypt 2011 = Indonesia 1998,” variously infused with nostalgia, fear, excitement, humor, and prayers.

The surface comparisons are compelling. Two iron-fisted dictators known for choking human rights, both in power for about 30 years, ruling a majority-Muslim country, overthrown by massive and electrifying people-power protests considered unimaginable a mere weeks before they erupted. Both dictators respond with brutality, the reform movements claim their martyrs, and then, one hopes in the Egypt scenario, both resign in shame, ushering a new era of democracy. A few days ago, imagining that kind of hopeful outcome for Egypt seemed unlikely, casting Indonesia’s oft-criticized transition to democracy in a far more fortunate light.

But as soon as you dig into the details, the comparison becomes difficult to sustain once you start to account for so many moving parts behind the scenes that propelled these movements forward. As my advisor reminded me by email: Vice-President “Habibie did a damned good job of holding things together” when he succeeded Suharto and became Indonesia’s third president in a constitutional and orderly fashion. The military never formally stepped in to assume power, and Habibie graciously abdicated after the newly elected parliament made it clear in 1999 that they would choose a new president. Indonesia’s reform movement was messy, disappointing, and spasmodically violent in far-flung parts of the archipelago, but it’s hard to imagine a better outcome during those crucial years of transition. It’s also hard to imagine Egypt following the same path.

I’m not a close observer of Arab politics, much less Egypt in particular, but there is plenty of material online this week to provide a quick introduction. I found this article, “Why Mubarak is Out” by Paul Amar, helpful enough to realize that Egypt has its own complicated path to democracy, with a long list of internal and international factors that will determine the outcome:

“This is a very twenty-first century regime change – utterly local and international simultaneously.” — Paul Amar

For me this is all a counterpoint to the histrionic broadcasts, in the USA in particular, arguing that Egypt will follow a path like Iran’s revolution, resulting in some kind of Islamo-fascist regime that will destabilize the Middle East. There is much to suggest this is not the case. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s favorite bogeyman to justify his autocratic rule even though they long ago renounced hardline violent insurgency, didn’t appear in Tahrir Square until at least a week into the protests. As I just heard Ulil Abshar Abdalla say on Indonesia’s TV One station, what’s happening in Tahrir Square is primarily (but not exclusively) driven by a frustrated urban middle class. And Egypt’s military leadership, allies with the USA, most certainly wouldn’t allow an Islamist regime.

So just when I had consigned myself to the relative unimportance of this comparative case study, along comes this article by Thomas Carothers in The New Republic, which makes the case that if you’re going to “grasp onto political analogies to help get our bearings” at times of “unexpected but momentous political change in distant countries,” then you would be doing yourself a favor to look at Indonesia’s reform movement instead of Iran’s. And then during an interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on last night’s Rachel Maddow show, Albright herself (at 5:50) recommended Indonesia as a more worthwhile comparative case study with Egypt instead of Iran. Maddow then referred to it as the “Iran–Indonesia Continuum” of outcomes for Egypt’s revolution.

“I think something that has not been mentioned is the example for instance of Indonesia. Suharto who had been a dictator was ousted in the late 90s and he was replaced by a moderate Muslim secular government. You know people talk about the Iran model but there is the Indonesian model.” — Madeleine Albright on the Rachel Maddow Show, 3 February 2011

Madeleine Albright on The Rachel Maddow Show, 3 February 2011

Madeleine Albright on The Rachel Maddow Show, 3 February 2011

Watching Madame Albright speaking clearly and forcefully about this I realized that as long as we’re talking at the level of “models,” as long as we’re grasping for “political analogies,” it is extremely important that the Indonesian analogy gets put out there into the marketplace of ideas (beyond Indonesia, of course, where everyone is well aware). Indonesia’s regime change will not predict Egypt’s, but it’s an aspirational outcome that helpfully opens up the continuum of possibilities in ways that are decidedly less scary.

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