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Chile, Indonesia and Georgia offer revolutionary lessons to Egyptians

By comparing and contrasting the experiences of Georgia, Indonesia and Chile after their own revolutions, a seminar on Egypt's transitional phase offers both advice and reassurance for the challenges ahead

Salma El-Wardani , Wednesday 11 May 2011
Tahrir Square
Anti-government protesters celebrate after a senior army general addressed the crowd inside Tahrir Square in Cairo February 10, 2011.(Photo: REUTERS)
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Participants in a recent seminar at the American University in Cairo (AUC) titled “Where Are Egypt and the Arab World Headed?” whose own countries have witnessed revolutions, unanimously agreed on one fact: revolutions are always marked by violence and instability. It is possible that Egypt itself may be entering a period of sectarian and street violence.

“You'll always find people saying 'come on, enough changes for the moment, let's get back to normality and restore stability,'” said Vato Lejaya, advisor to the prime minister of Georgia, at the seminar in AUC’s new Falaki building downtown. “But, it's either you're very radical, or you have nothing at all,” he added.

Lejaya based his conclusions on Georgia’s Rose Revolution, which involved a change of power in November 2003 when widespread protests over disputed parliamentary elections forced President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign.

“In the first years of the revolution people used to say, ‘we can't have a radical reform, we can’t stop corruption. It's deeply rooted in our culture,’’’ adds Lejaya. “But guess what? Miracles happen! And within a few years it was proved wrong. That people by definition want to live in a clean state.”

Hosted by the World Bank, AUC and Cairo University, the seminar concluded a three-day workshop that brought together international figures, national reformers who contributed to democratic transition in their own countries, and World Bank officials offering expertise on governance and social conflict.

“Loss of confidence between people and state institutions which produces in its turn a cycle of insecurity is a natural phenomenon in a transitional phase,” said Sarah Cliffe, World Bank director of strategy and operations for East Asia and the Pacific region. “The thing is that for a country to overcome the cycle of insecurity and violence, national reformers need to build the legitimate institutions that can provide a sustained level of security and justice, and rather focus on changes that create confidence.”

“In Georgia, before the revolution we used to have a hopeless police apparatus,” Lejaya said. “The relationship between people and police was ill, paternalistic and characterized by distrust and a systematic torture of citizens. They actually used to throw them out of the police station windows! Now that seven years have passed,” Lejaya goes on, “the police agency is the highest trusted body in the state, more so than even NGOs and the media.” He claims the relationship has changed completely from a vertical, unbalanced relationship to a healthy one in which police officers exist only to serve citizens.

In 2004, Georgia implemented one of its best-known and most popular reforms -- the complete dismantling of the corruption-ridden traffic police.

Some 15,000 officers were fired and an additional 30,000 officers were dismissed from the ministry of interior, reducing the ratio of police officers per citizen from 1:89 to 1:21.

Salaries of police officers were increased to minimise bribery and a new police academy was established that imposed mandatory training and examinations for all officers.

The police were also provided with a range of new equipment, from cars to laboratories. Giorgi Baramidze, Georgia's first post-revolution minister of internal affairs warned local police chiefs that they would be fired if any ‘thieves-in-law’ remained in their regions. 

After these reforms, surveys indicated that trust in the police among the public had risen sharply.

Lejaya and other speakers, including Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, Political Science professor at AUC; Pablo de Grieff, Director of Research at the International Center for Transitional Justice and World Bank officials Sarah Cliffe and Scott Guggenheim discussed similarities between the Egyptian and Indonesian experiences.

They argued that the key to restoring trust in government is by building collaborative coalitions of political parties, NGOs, and citizens to build national support for change and signal an irreversible break with the past. They claimed that restoring confidence means delivering fast results, since government announcements of change will not be credible without tangible action.

"In Indonesia, after the fall of Suharto, we had the same political vacuum [as Egypt] and we said ‘let's form political parties.’" said Guggenheim. "As a result, we found ourselves in a situation where many political parties were formed that were fragile and weak."

As the recent attacks on churches, the increasing prominence of Islamic extremists and the Muslim Brotherhood build to a climax, some observers are comparing a potential transition in Egypt to Indonesia in the late 1990s.

Indonesia's long-time dictator Suharto resigned amid massive street protests in Jakarta and other cities. The shooting of four student demonstrators in Jakarta in May 1998 triggered rioting across the city that destroyed thousands of buildings and killed over 1,000 people.

Following public outrage at the events, a student occupation of the parliament building, street protests across the country, and the desertion of key political allies, on 21 May 1998 Suharto announced his resignation as president.

According to Guggenheim, the end of Suharto's political restrictions allowed Islamic parties to flourish, some of them extreme. For a few years, Muslim militias rampaged in parts of Indonesia.

Local al-Qaeda affiliates carried out spectacular bomb attacks, notably in Bali in 2002 in which more than 200 people died. "But 13 years on, extremism has died down and the more successful Islamic parties compete within the parliamentary system but do not dominate." Guggenheim says. "People, having experienced themselves extremism, fanaticism and terrorism, are no longer giving their votes to Islamists."

Raising hopes among the attendees, when asked how many years it took each of the countries participating in the seminar to end their transitional phases, the panel answered that the transitions had not yet ended. “The revolutions are still ongoing, and we are still adopting key changes until this moment," answered de Greiff, “21 years after the fall of the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile.”

The issue of reparation was also raised during the seminar, in which Chile has had substantial experience. Its reparation programs from 1990 to 2004 were established to compensate victims of human rights violations committed by the military regime from 1973 to 1990. 

These victims included relatives of disappeared and executed persons; people dismissed from their jobs for political motives; farmers who participated in land reform and were expelled for political reasons; returning exiles; political prisoners and torture victims.

"From an ethical standpoint, the former regime members should be prosecuted for committing crimes against humanity," says de Greiff, author of The Handbook of Reparations and Global Justice and Transnational Politics. "Yet from the standpoint of the victims, reparations programs occupy a special place in a transition to democracy. Indeed, they are the most tangible manifestation of the efforts of the state to remedy the harms that these victims have suffered."

Chile created a Commission for Political Imprisonment and Torture in 2003, followed by a law that provided pensions for political prisoners and torture victims. Created with different kinds of victims in mind, the programs included pensions, social services, educational benefits, public recognition of the violations of the victims' rights, monuments, sites of memory, and health assistance, mainly in the form of mental health services.

The Program for Reparation and Integral Health Assistance for Victims of Human Rights Violations, created in 1991 provided health services to a range of victims of human rights violations, including third generation relatives.

Realising other countries had been through even more violent and difficult transition phases than Egypt, the seminar’s attendees left with a renewed sense of hope for what lies ahead.

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