Lessons for Cairo from Jakarta, Manila and Elsewhere

By Vatikiotis, Michael | International Herald Tribune, July 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Lessons for Cairo from Jakarta, Manila and Elsewhere


Vatikiotis, Michael, International Herald Tribune


Authoritarian leaders may come and go, but security forces seldom submit easily to the will of people.

The Egyptian Army's intervention to remove President Mohamed Morsi may have pleased liberal opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood that backed his election last year, but it has dashed hopes that the middle-class-led overthrow of the Mubarak regime in 2011 would yield a stable democratic order.

The recent events in Egypt illuminate the challenges any country faces when making the transition to democracy: Authoritarian leaders may come and go, but the security forces that back them seldom submit so easily to the will of people. For even as military leaders make it possible for unpopular leaders to be removed, they tend to linger in the wings, ready to reassert their power when fragile popularly elected transitional governments fail, as they often do.

There are lessons Egypt could learn from the Asian experience, in particular from Indonesia, where the army was slung out of power with the downfall of the Suharto regime in 1998. Since then, the military has been effectively contained by a legal framework grounded in civilian supremacy.

One of the weaknesses of political development in both Asia and the Middle East has been the failure to build a strong institutional foundation for democratic reform. Part of the problem is the archaic security and legal frameworks inherited from the colonial era that were designed to protect those in power.

In addition, personality tends to trump ideology, and the resulting vacuum stymies growth of political parties that promote sensible social and economic platforms. The first priority after any popular uprising is to hold elections, but people end up voting along emotional, often sectarian lines at a time when politicians give little thought to what they should responsibly and collectively do with their newly won freedom, other than seek power and promote their own interests.

With the ensuing chaos and disappointment, the military becomes a life raft. It is usually the strongest institution, with the clearest vision of what the nation needs. Military chiefs first staunchly back the forces of democratic change and insist they have no designs on power. But when sectarian violence is the byproduct of the first blush of freedom, as it so often is, the army's sense of guardianship over the integrity the state, including the need to guard its own economic interests, eclipses any respect for civilian primacy.

So why has Indonesia bucked the trend? Like Egypt, Indonesia's transition was messy. Following Suharto's downfall, the country was convulsed by violence: More than 5,000 people died in a vicious war between Christians and Muslims in eastern Indonesia. Many felt that disgruntled military elements were stirring the religious pot to justify a return to power in the ensuing chaos.

Perhaps the main reason the military stayed on the sidelines is because the army has become a principal source of civilian political leadership. Leading military figures demonstrated their commitment to the democratic process from the start, not by challenging it when things went wrong, but by standing for election. …

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