A new element has entered the complicated equation of Egypt's future: cooperation with Indonesia on promoting democracy.
The move originated with a request from Egypt for Indonesia to assist in the process of organising Egypt's coming elections and regulations related to political parties.
Inside and outside Indonesia, there has been the expectation in recent years that Indonesia's democracy could serve as a model for promoting political reforms in the Muslim world, and the Middle East in particular. But some observers were sceptical about the prospects of making Indonesian Islam and democracy an inspiring model for the Arab Middle East, arguing among other things that some Arabs hold a patronising view of Islam in Indonesia.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
There are grounds for wondering why Egypt didn’t address, for example, Turkey, its regional neighbour, but rather asked the support of a country far from the Middle East. After all, Egypt has much more in common with Turkey than with Indonesia.
But Egypt, a prominent actor in the Middle East, perhaps prefers to address a Muslim country located far beyond the horizon of Middle Easterners, rather than Turkey, its competitor for regional hegemony. Indonesia seems aware of such sensitivities; Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa has stressed that ‘we have to do it wisely so that it doesn’t seen seem as though we're preaching to them.’
But perhaps a more insightful explanation is suggested by the amazing similarities between the current circumstances in Egypt and those of Indonesia of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In Indonesia in May 1998, it was primarily a massive protest for democracy by the Muslim middle class that brought an end to three decades of corrupt authoritarian rule headed by ex-general Suharto. At the crucial moment, Suharto lost the support of the army, the most significant pillar of his power.
The political shift in this Sunni Muslim-majority country was soon followed by efforts to build democratic institutions and to implement democratic procedures. But the preliminary years of the post-Suharto era were marked by deep political uncertainty and turmoil, including religious extremism, sectarian conflict, awakening separatist aspirations, increasing religious militancy and the threat of terror.
Many watched these developments gloomily, fearing that the just-born democracy was liable to crash soon. It was only in 2004, after democratic elections for both the parliament and the presidency that observers started to believe that Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim community in the world, had consolidated its democracy.
Since then, optimism about the future of liberal democracy in Indonesia has strengthened. The Indonesian model frustrated the hopes of Islamic political parties such as PKS, whose ideological roots go back to a large extent to the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, to achieve a leading position in the post-Suharto era. The voters have actually proved, through fair democratic elections, their loyalty to a deeply anchored principle of the Indonesian state over the separation between state and religion.
The democratic reforms also considerably decreased the involvement of the army in politics. Even the principle of gender equality was manifested by having a woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, as president. Indonesia's democracy has also been determined and effective in fighting terror.
Indonesia's democracy still has some shortcomings, including weak enforcement of law and order to prevent Muslim extremists from harassing religious minorities. But one can’t ignore its achievements. Egypt, which has strong relations with Indonesia, certainly sees the visions and hears the voices. It’s also aware of some significant elements that have ensured the success of democracy in Indonesia but which are missing from its own context, such as a strong, organised, moderate Muslim civil society committed to democratic values.
Amid growing pessimism about the future of democracy in Egypt, the fact that Indonesia's democracy is preferred by Egypt as a model to be examined and learned from offers some food for thought.
Giora Eliraz is an Associate Researcher at the Harry S Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)