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.

Aceh Conflict Indonesia Publications

Community Perceptions of the Peace Process: Eleven Case Studies for the Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR)

Logo for the MSR
Logo for the MSR

At last! The Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming: Identifying the Foundations for Sustainable Peace and Development in Aceh was finally published in hard copy a few weeks ago in Indonesia. This was an enormous undertaking, involving, well, “multi-stakeholders” ranging from various international donors, Indonesian national and Acehnese provincial government agencies, and civil society groups. The review has many components, including quantitative, qualitative, and historical analyses. The logo to the right has a ring of linked little circles surrounding the blue circle (with a map of Aceh inside it and the MSR letters superimposed) to represent these many complementary components of the overall project.  I urge everyone to click the logo to visit the main MSR page on the World Bank Indonesia’s Conflict and Development team website.  There you will find a description of the project, the list of stakeholders involved, and links to download the main report and the executive summary. Another page lists all the supplementary contributing components to the MSR (the little circles, if you will) as annexes. Although it took at least a year longer than expected to complete and then launch the final product(s), the MSR is exemplary not just for its exhaustive empirical findings, but also as a model for multi-stakeholder collaborations in settings of conflict recovery.

One of those little circles is mine. Paid for jointly by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and the World Bank, this component of the MSR is formally titled “Community Perceptions of the Peace Process: Eleven Case Studies for the Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR).” You can download these case studies in English or in Bahasa Indonesia on the MSR annex website (Annex 5), or you can download it directly from this blog here (English) and here (Bahasa Indonesia). There are some excellent and sophisticated quantitative analyses in the MSR, but these qualitative case studies used in-depth interviews and focus group discussions in conflict-affected communities all over Aceh to investigate a range of issues related to processes of reintegration and post-conflict development, the needs of particularly vulnerable groups, and emerging issues in the field that formal questionnaires either could not capture or could not anticipate. I also emphasize that the case studies reflect perceptions from conflict-affected communities, which are not necessarily based in fact, but are important for gauging the successes and failures of the peace process from the perspective of ordinary rural communities.  The fieldwork was conducted in July and August of 2008, three years after the peace agreement, so it’s dated now, in particular by the legislative elections of April 2009 which brought Partai Aceh into political power at the provincial level and in many district assemblies throughout Aceh. It has now been five years since the peace agreement, and the politics are heating up again for the next executive elections, to be held sometime in 2011.

There are eleven case study reports.  In order of their appearance in the compiled annex, the eleven topics are as follows:

  1. ALA and ABAS: Provincial Secession Movements in Aceh
  2. Sawang [a sub-district (kecamatan) of Aceh Utara known for a series of violent events perpetrated by disgruntled GAM ex-combatants]
  3. Local Political Parties in Post-Conflict Aceh [note: the data precedes Partai Aceh’s victory, when there were six local parties competing against dozens of national parties for the first time]
  4. Post-Conflict Mental Health Services in Bireuen
  5. Conflict IDPs from Peunaron, Aceh Timur
  6. FORKAB – [Forum Komunikasi Anak Bangsa] – an organized group of ex-combatants who left GAM and became anti-separatists after participating in re-education programs sponsored by Indonesian security forces
  7. Community Perceptions Toward KPA
  8. Community Perceptions of the Peace Process in Aceh
  9. Community Experiences with Post-Conflict Assistance in Aceh
  10. Anti-Separatist Groups in Aceh [some call them “militias”]
  11. Ex-Political Prisoners in Aceh Three Years After the Peace Agreement

Although I wrote up all these case studies, they are based on the observations, interviews, fieldnotes, photographs, and preliminary analyses that were conducted by an extraordinary team of Acehnese field researchers. They come from all different backgrounds, including civil society activism, journalism, and academia. In no particular order, they are Fuad Ramly, Retno Wandasari, Isra Safil, Muhammad Nizar, Murniyati, Maimun Faudi, Siti Rahmah, Nyak Anwar and Sri Wahyuni.  I finished writing the reports, in February 2009, and even after I went home to the USA and the researchers had long ago picked up their last paycheck for this work, they were all gracious enough to continue communicating with me by email when I needed their help to make sense of the data. They have my thanks. Lanny Susanti did the translations into Bahasa Indonesia. She has my thanks too! I also got terrific support and feedback from my colleagues at the World Bank and other agencies involved in post-conflict recovery in Aceh. Nevertheless the opinions expressed in these case study reports and any mistakes you may find in them are mine and mine alone and should not be attributed to AusAID, the World Bank, nor any of the bodies who have supported the MSR, nor the authors of the main MSR report.