Accessibility links

Indonesian Experience Offers Framework for Egypt

  • Gary Thomas

Egyptian Army soldiers remove tents of protesters from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Feb 13, 2011

Egyptian Army soldiers remove tents of protesters from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Feb 13, 2011

Now that the army has taken power in Egypt, the question arises of when - or even if - they will give it up. But another Islamic country under autocratic rule halfway around the world held its own "people power" uprising 13 years ago and emerged with a functioning democratic state. Indonesia's experience may hold some lessons for Egypt.

After some three decades in power, an autocratic ruler of a Muslim majority nation suddenly finds himself under pressure after massive street protests. The military forces the president, himself a former general, to resign, sparking wild jubilation in the streets. The military still wields considerable power after the ruler steps down.

But the country is not Egypt and the ousted ruler is not Hosni Mubarak. It is Indonesia, and the toppled president is Suharto.

Former National Security Council director for Asian affairs Karen Brooks says there are significant parallels between Egypt in 2011 and Indonesia in 1998.

"In both you saw longtime U.S. allies, Mubarak and Suharto, each supported by the U.S. for 30 some-odd years - arguably at the expense of the development of democracy and the protection of human rights - come unglued, thanks to initially exogenous factors - in Indonesia the Asian financial crisis, in Egypt the Tunisia example," said Brooks.

The military has held a significant political role in Egypt and Indonesia, although it can be argued it was more direct in Indonesia. The Indonesian military under Suharto had a so-called "dual function" in which it played both a security and political role. Karen Brooks, who was a significant contributor to the Clinton administration's Indonesia policy, points out that both militaries were the key players in orchestrating events.

"In both cases the military is a secular, nationalist institution which played and continues to play, particularly in Egypt at this critical juncture, a critical role in determining the trajectory of events. In both Egypt and Indonesia the military played the key role in getting their respective leaders to step down," added Brooks.

Egypt is currently under the rule of a military-run Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Analysts say it is always a concern that the military in any post-revolutionary country will not relinquish power back to civilian control. But as former CIA senior intelligence analyst Emile Nakhleh points out, they did so in Indonesia, in part because of training they received at U.S. military institutions.

"The Indonesian military, also, under Suharto - the former dictator - had many of those officers who were trained in this country," said Nakhleh. "They realized that ultimately for Indonesia to move forward, there's got be civilian control. And so the military was in the background, saying that they wanted to protect Indonesia, to safeguard Indonesia, regardless of the regime."

Will the military do the same in Egypt? Analysts point out that, like their Indonesian counterparts, many Egyptian officers also received American military training. Retired U.S. Army Col. Joseph Englehardt, who was U.S. military attache in Cairo, and knows several members of the council, believes the army wants out of the political arena as quickly as possible.

"My strong belief is that these officers took this on as a duty and a responsibility," noted Englehardt. "They understand it's a bounded set [limited period]. And so the inclination of this group is going to be to do what they have to do and then get back to what they normally do, which is running the military."

Egypt's military council has said it will temporarily administer the country for six months or until parliamentary and presidential elections.

Former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh says the first, and most significant step, for the ruling military to take would be lifting the state of emergency.

"When will they remove the state of emergency? They have dissolved the parliament, which is a right step forward. They dissolved the constitution. They kept the present government as a caretaker government for six months. But I think the key is dissolving or removing the state of emergency. To me, this will be a major litmus test," noted Nakhleh.

The state of emergency in Egypt was declared by Mubarak when he assumed office as president after Anwar Sadat's assassination in October 1981.