Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mideast Turmoil, Indonesian Déjà Vu

As the rest of the world watches the revolution in the Middle East with amazement, and some trepidation, Indonesians can be forgiven for viewing it with a measure of deja vu. Relax, they say. We have been there, done that. Indeed, it is the Middle East in turmoil which perhaps should look at Indonesia as a model for how to build a democracy with Muslim characteristics.

What unites the Iranian revolution of 1979, the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, the overthrow of the Suharto regime roughly a decade later and the recent “Jasmine Revolution” is their objective: ditching autocracies that have passed their sell-by date. These revolutions represent a massive clearing of historical shelves.

It does not matter what kind of product has gone stale: pompous monarchies, vanished socialist states, murderous juntas, civilian despots or the creeping dotage of corrupt, inefficient and irresponsible regimes. It does not matter whether the revolution is sparked by the presence of a Berlin Wall, the collapse of an economy, or the screaming self-immolation of a street hawker who becomes the contorted face of a whole country, a whole region and a whole era.

All that counts is the objective: the demolition of a state apparatus built around a hated leader to protect him and his cabal from the people.

Indonesians understand these sentiments instinctively. They have been through it all. However, the key question is what occurs in the aftermath of a successful display of the people’s power. Will a new system that is both legitimate and stable emerge, or will the people’s power pass into the hands of a new oligarchy? Will a religious takeover kill off secular liberalism? Or will civil war among opposing forces split the nation into 20 roads to nowhere? Will the revolution eat its young?

Here, without intent to boast or preach, I can say that Indonesia has answered these questions convincingly since the advent of democracy. The world’s largest archipelagic state has not splintered following the departure of East Timor. Indonesians have abrogated draconian laws formulated on the self-serving fiction that they were not fit for freedom. There were fears that its laws would collapse under the weight of democracy — but they have not. Instead, democracy has become a law. Indeed, democracy has stabilized to the point where there is no return to the way things were before.

Moreover, there were fears that a predominantly Muslim country would turn into an Islamic state. This has not happened. Instead, the Pancasila state has co-opted Islamic parties and drawn them into the democratic mainstream. It has done this so well that the legislature has become the central arena of political debate for all Muslims (and others) except the extremist fringe.

Indeed, multi-ethnic coalitions are becoming a noticeable feature of politics. Constitutional requirements oblige political parties to have a national foothold, while local elections do not encourage parties to appeal to large ethnic groups. These two factors have helped create a culture of pluralism, which makes the need for ethnic compromise more powerful than ethnic competition.

Thus, more than a decade since the departure of former President Suharto, political risk is at its lowest in a generation. Fears about democracy and Islam have proved to be exaggerated. And Indonesia has emerged as the world’s largest Muslim democracy. True, each Middle Eastern country has its own past and will chart its own future. The trajectory of democracy in Egypt will differ from that of Libya.

Under these circumstances, it is preposterous to think that the Indonesian model can be transplanted to the Arab region as a whole.

However, the Indonesian experience is proof that it is possible to have a largely nonviolent transfer of power from an authoritarian system to a democratic one if certain safeguards are in place. This proof is relevant to the Middle East.

The first safeguard is that the departure of the old regime will lead to lasting change only if, paradoxically, there is some institutional continuity.

What this essentially means in places like Egypt is that the military is the best bet to ensure the survival of the new order. As in Indonesia, where the military recast its role to become the defender of the post-Suharto democratic status quo, the Middle East will need its armies to preserve stability amid change.

The Egyptian military has undertaken this task already. While democratic purists will balk at that role, in an imperfect world, the military cannot be left out of any viable strategy for the future. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the region will follow suit.

The second safeguard is civil society activism. Any people-power movement rests on the ability of activists, drawn from a broad range of social groups, to come together. The test lies in whether they remain together after the transition to democracy has begun.

A vibrant civil society scene, including a free press and the presence of nongovernmental organizations, is the secret to Indonesia’s democratic success. It is easy to see this being replicated in Egypt and Tunisia, but a Libya wracked by civil war is another matter.

The last safeguard has to do with the handling of Islamic resistance movements. It is necessary to proceed with an open mind and give Islamic groups the benefit of the doubt so that they both support the transition to democracy and are willing to work within its parameters. Interestingly, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has reportedly approached India for help in conducting elections once Egyptians are ready for such an exercise.

Democracy is at its strongest when it is most inclusive. So long as religious parties or movements are prepared to work within the democratic process, the government should work with them.

These are some ways in which an Indonesian model could appeal to citizens in the Middle East looking for both Islam and democracy. Whether they find the model appealing is up to them, but Indonesia should not be shy to declare that it has been there and done that.
By Anindya Novyan Bakrie is the vice chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) , chairman of Viva Media Group and chief executive officer of Bakrie Telecom.

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