Wednesday, February 16, 2011
If Only Mubarak had Resembled Suharto
THE societies and governments that have least to fear from the Egyptian phenomenon are those that are most democratic and where government has the greatest legitimacy.
Egypt is the largest Arab country and the leading centre of much Islamic thought, for good and for ill. But Indonesia is the largest Muslim country. The two actually have very close connections. For generations, Indonesian students have been studying Islam in Egypt. Cairo was quite unhappy at the thought that Jakarta might get involved in the Middle East peace process because the presence of Indonesia, with its nearly 250 million people, diminishes the sense of Egypt as a giant. For many years I nurtured, and sometimes wrote about, a fancy that the moderate, inclusive, tolerant brand of Islam in Indonesia would have an influence on Islam in the Middle East. This was an unlikely fantasy on my part. For one thing Arab society often has a quite racist view of Southeast Asians and for another there is a linguistic chauvinism at work. Arab Muslims deprecate Southeast Asian Islam because it does not even take place primarily in the language of the prophet, namely Arabic.
But Indonesia's transition to democracy and modernity has just been so much more politically successful than Egypt's that you hope some notice could be taken. In some ways the parallels between Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for more than 30 years until 1998, and Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for more than 30 years, are striking. They were both military men. At one point they each commanded a degree of acceptance in their respective societies. They both lost popularity as much as anything because of the rapacious commercial behaviour and corruption of their families, especially their offspring. Both, too, were driven from power by middle-class revolts in their capital cities, with soldiers refusing to fire on demonstrators.
But while there are certainly reasons to be hopeful about Egypt, a number of the elements that have contributed so much to Indonesia's success are sadly absent in Egypt. Suharto was destroyed by the sons and daughters of the middle class his economic development created. Suharto had a bad record of human rights abuses, but in the late 1960s he handed over the running of the economy to the so-called "Berkeley mafia" who produced one of the most successful economic stabilisation programs the world has seen. It introduced the classic East Asian development story. Loads of foreign investment poured in, factories, especially in electronics, proliferated and millions of people moved beyond subsistence farming into a commercial-industrial middle class.
There was also a sizeable state sector. It wasn't until about 1993 that Suharto reversed what had been a slow but steady rise of a civil society, based around semi-independent and often quite brave and adventurous media, and even increasingly assertive parliamentarians. Suharto tried to shut this down in the mid-90s as the society
became more ambitious for democracy and more resentful of his family's wealth. The East Asian economic crisis then destroyed one of his two remaining legs of credibility with the people, that he provided economic growth. The other was that he provided stability. The sons and daughters of the Jakarta middle class were willing to risk stability to get democracy and better government.
Suharto's other big failure was a lack of presidential succession, perhaps because he feared for his family's position if he should leave. He built an elaborate ideology around his rule, the so-called New Order, but never let it function without him.
Mubarak made some of the same mistakes, the critical one being succession. Promoting his son as a future president was the biggest mistake of all.
But why do I think Indonesia had quite a lot of things going for it that Egypt doesn't?
First, Suharto's middle class was a commercial middle class. It worked in real companies that made things and traded with the world. It wanted a modern economy maintained, indeed extended. In Egypt something like 35 per cent of the workforce is employed by the government. Their desire for higher salaries and more benefits is actually going to hurt the prospects of economic growth of a kind that decentralises economic and political power.
Second, and most important, the character, the temper, of Islam was different in Indonesia. In Egypt, the best organised Islamic group is the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the treacly and often ridiculous press it is getting in the West at the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood is an extremist, Islamist organisation dedicated to sharia law, establishing an Islamic caliphate and opposing Israel. The two biggest Muslim organisations in Indonesia when Suharto fell were Nadhlatal Ulama, the biggest Islamic organisation in the world, and Muhammadiya. NU in particular, though it has plenty of dark episodes in its past, is dedicated to moderation, tolerance and inclusiveness. Both NU and Muhammadiya framed the central political question, post-Suharto, as: how do we give effect to democracy, not how do we give effect to Islam.
Indonesia's Chinese minority has at times suffered terrible persecution, as indeed have Egypt's Coptic Christians. But under Suharto the Chinese were certainly allowed to flourish in business. Even today Indonesia has not completely integrated its Chinese minority, but neither has it chased it out of the country and this minority still provides much of the economic dynamism of Indonesia.
The succession of presidents after Suharto represented first continuity, under his vice-president B. J. Habibie; then political Islam, under Abdurrahman Wahid, administratively a poor president but a champion of tolerance and inclusion; then secular nationalism under Megawati Sukarnoputri, also administratively a poor president but certainly not one to frighten the horses; and finally Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general and in a sense a moderate and effective fusion of all the above tendencies. The army was removed from politics slowly, gradually, consensually. The Indonesian electorate, and political class, displayed time and again surprising maturity and patience. It's certainly an inspiration for Egypt.
I hope plane loads of Indonesians are on their way to Cairo, not to study Islam but to teach democratic transition. by Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor The Australian Opinion