Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Asian History Lessons

With Egypt both hopeful and uncertain in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s departure, it is worth reflecting on lessons that may be learned from the fall of two of Asia’s U.S.-allied strongmen, the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Indonesia’s Suharto in 1998.

All three had in common that they followed rigged elections, suggesting that phony democracy can be more dangerous for dictators than none at all (a thought that may give hope in Myanmar). In all three, the military was an important factor but not the driving force, which in each case was the populace in the streets.

The relatively orderly transitions in Indonesia and the Philippines give clues to how a similar result may be possible in Egypt.

Indonesia’s was perhaps the most remarkable and surprising transition, given that Suharto’s downfall coincided with — and was partly caused by — the collapse of the economy at the time of the Asian financial crisis. Much of the banking system had failed and unemployment had soared.

This diverse country also faced rebellions in Timor and Aceh and separatist tendencies elsewhere. Relatively homogeneous ethnically and suffering economic malaise rather than crisis, Egypt faces no such high hurdles.

So how did Indonesia come through? One reason was that it had a constitution, dating to 1945, to which Suharto had always nominally adhered. So when he resigned, the vice president, whose time in the regime had been short-lived, was seen as an acceptable transitional figure.

It helped, too, that political parties that reflected the major political and religious groups of society had operated legally for several years. The media had long been pushing the envelope of freedom.

In the Philippines, the opposition had a figure — the future president Corazon Aquino, widow of an assassinated Marcos opponent — as its standard-bearer. It operated in a country that had never been as tightly controlled as either Indonesia or Egypt. And the Philippines had a small elite used to swapping places in power; they were mostly more interested in money than killing each other.

Egypt now starts with a revoked constitution, temporary military rule and political parties that, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, appear relatively undeveloped. It also, as yet, lacks a person or party to lead. Nor is it yet clear that the Egyptian masses will rally to the idea of liberal democracy as Indonesians and Filipinos have done rather than opt for a new, possibly Islam-based, authoritarianism.

Because of its diversity, Indonesia can only survive if pluralism is its basis. Egypt has no such constraint, but it has had 5,000 years of history to teach it the follies of ideology and extremism.

If Asia is an example, political change will probably not undo the liberal economic tendencies that Mubarak had showed in reversing the socialism inherited from the era of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Indeed, if Indonesia is any guide, the reaction against crony capitalism will open the economy up to competition.

There is the danger that a reaction against the corruption under Mubarak will lead not just to attempts to recover ill-gotten gains from Swiss banks, but to an attack on the credibility of all business that have prospered under the ousted regime. As in Asia, family wealth is now in legitimate businesses and held through third parties.

For the longer term, Egypt might just get a new set of cronies, or the gradual return of old ones, as has happened in Indonesia and the Philippines. But that is another issue.

In Indonesia and the Philippines, efforts to prosecute past misdeeds soon lost steam, which was a poor reflection on good governance but allowed for an atmosphere of forgiveness that contributed to political stability.

Some Egyptian distancing from the U.S. is inevitable, just as the post-Marcos legislature got rid of U.S. military bases. But nothing fundamentally changed in Washington’s relationship with either the Philippines or Indonesia. By that measure, the most important foreign aspect of the Tahrir revolution will be its impact on Arab politics.

Egypt’s centrality to the Arab world, and to all Middle East politics, give it an importance that surpasses its size. Nonetheless, the “people power” experiences of two larger but less central Asian nations give some encouragement as Egypt feels its way to the future. By PHILIP BOWRING for International Herald Tribune

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