What lessons might Egypt draw from the Indonesian revolution?

Ahmad Mahmoud, Saturday 25 Jun 2011

The Jakarta-based Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD) organised a two-day workshop recently under the title "Egypt-Indonesia Dialogue on Democratic Transition"

Egyptian political activist Gamila Ismail among other participants during the workshop.
Egyptian political activist Gamila Ismail among other participants during the workshop.

Many observers have claimed that Indonesia's 1998 Revolution and Egypt's 2011 Revolution have a lot in common. Both were unexpected explosions of urban outrage against entrenched dictators whose rule was marked by generalised corruption. And both embarked on a quest for a much-needed transition to democracy, which, in Indonesia's case, has proved to be long and painful.

In order to discuss the similarities between the two situations and shed light on what Egypt may have to address over the next few months, the Jakarta-based Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD) organised a two-day workshop recently under the title "Egypt-Indonesia Dialogue on Democratic Transition".

The event was attended by Indonesian analysts and politicians, as well as by a group of Egyptian political activists including Gamila Ismail, lawyer Amir Salem, and former parliamentarian Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat. Several youth figures from the 25 January Revolution were also present.

During the workshop, the Indonesian organisers reviewed the history of the Indonesian Revolution, comparing it with the Egyptian one and drawing parallels that may shed light on the possible course of future democratic, economic and political transition in Egypt.

At the opening session, Indonesia's former foreign minister Nour Hassan Wirajuda recalled the early days of the Indonesian Revolution. Wirajuda was ambassador to Egypt when the revolution broke out on 13 May 1998. It was a sudden protest, much like that on 25 January in Cairo, in which students surrounded the parliament building to demand an end to the 32-year rule of president Suharto, who had been elected to office six consecutive times.

The revolution succeeded in reaching its objective, ousting the president and giving the country free elections by June 1999. However, the path to these elections was a turbulent one, and nearly 16,000 people were killed in acts of violence following the president's downfall.

Since the revolution, Indonesia has introduced sweeping changes, establishing watchdog agencies to end corruption, ensuring freedom of the press, making sure that the judiciary is fully independent, and guaranteeing human rights. Wirajuda advised his Egyptian interlocutors to seek reconciliation with the remnants of the old regime and to avoid prolonged -- and potentially bloody -- political strife.

Several of the Egyptian participants present said that corruption could not be condoned if real change was to start. Commenting on the protests that had led up to the revolution in Indonesia, major-general Sudrajat said that the protests had been the outcome of the corruption that had taken hold of Indonesia under Suharto. He spoke of the widespread violence that followed the dismantling of the old regime, attributing it to the determination of entrenched interests to defend the status quo.

The post-revolutionary turmoil in Indonesia had lasted for nearly four years, he said, during which the country had suffered massive economic losses. But in the end democracy had prevailed, and Suharto, his family, and many of his associates were banned from political life.

The custom of appointing retired army officers to civilian posts was discontinued. One of Suharto's sons was tried for alleged involvement in the murder of a judge investigating a case of corruption, but the president himself was spared trial, Sudrajat said.

The Indonesia Revolution had been triggered by a painful financial crisis that had wrecked the economy and destroyed jobs. The country had also been torn apart by the long-running rebellions in East Timor and Aceh, as well as in various other parts of the 17,000-island archipelago.

One of the things that had helped Indonesia to emerge from political crisis had been the country's 1945 constitution, said IPD director Ketut Putra. It was true that Suharto had often ignored the constitution, but once vice president Habibie took over, real reforms were introduced, giving voice to the country's major political and religious groups.

Another thing that had helped was the election of president Abdurrahman Wahid in 1999, as a result of an alliance of political parties opposed to the election of Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose Democratic Party was in control of the parliament. Two years later, criticism of Wahid triggered a political crisis that brought Megawati into office.

As part of the democratisation process, Indonesia passed laws guaranteeing freedom of information and of the press, and the latter, participants said, had played a key role in staving off corruption in the country. The media had become crucial to political reform in Indonesia, said Bambang Harymurti, editor of the publication Tempo.

Harymurti added that the cancellation of the penalty of imprisonment for publishing offenses had been necessary, since this had previously been used to discourage journalists from exposing corruption.

According to Jimly Asshiddiqie, a professor at the University of Indonesia, the period between 1998 and 2004 had seen the beginnings of reform in the country, but Indonesia had needed 10 years or so to reinforce its political and economic stability.

Egypt, however, may need less time, Asshiddiqie assured his Egyptian interlocutors, because of its relative institutional stability when compared to Indonesia.

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