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JAKARTA — “We warned them about trusting the military.”
The topic of the conversation was Egypt, but the speaker was no anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) activist or Western human rights worker. She was a top advisor to the vice president of Indonesia, a country with a long history of military involvement in governance.
Egypt’s revolutionaries may — rightly — have little interest in advice from the West, but they are in danger of ignoring the lessons of history in countries with experiences similar to their own.
The parallels between Indonesia and Egypt are striking. Each has a former military general who ruled for three decades. Each has a military that propped up the regime and wove its tentacles into every corner of the economy. And both rulers were ultimately unseated by an economic crisis that brought the masses into the streets.
“They idolized the army as the guardian of the nation,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar, the vice presidential advisor, told me, speaking of the Egyptian politicians, civil society activists and religious leaders who met with their Indonesian counterparts last year. “Now we wonder whether Egypt will be Indonesia in 1966 or 1998.”
The year 1966 is a reference to the infamous “Year of Living Dangerously,” when a military-civil society alliance brought down dictator Soekarno only to have the generals replace him with General Suharto and sideline the civilians, ushering in three decades of quasi-military rule. A popular uprising in 1998 led to Reformasi, when the military ultimately told Suharto it was time to go, opening the way for presidential elections.
Suharto flirted with relinquishing power to the military, but ultimately handed the reins to his vice president. He may well have saved Indonesia from the crisis now gripping Egypt as the generals of SCAF, the transitional military council, flail about trying to negotiate the unfamiliar shoals of politics and diplomacy.
Though many wanted him prosecuted, Suharto was allowed to quietly live out his final years. Similarly, some here think the spectacle of the Mubarak trial is counter-productive.
“The price of blind justice can be political turmoil,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Michael Tene told me.
Other senior officials worry that Egypt will go the way of Pakistan, with the military functioning as a parallel government, but that’s a different story.
Indonesia’s transition was not without trauma; for a few years, the country changed presidents — all civilians — like most people change underwear, but it has now settled into a flawed but functioning democracy.
A decade-and-a-half after its revolution, Indonesia is still struggling to eradicate the kind of corruption that plagues Egypt. Real power is still held by the old oligarchs in new clothes. Islamist militancy remains a threat. And Muslim-Christian violence continues to flare. But the good news is that public outrage and sharp media coverage are pushing things in the right direction.
Corrupt officials are being jailed, Muslim political parties have been incorporated into the government without the imposition of Sharia law, and intra-religious clashes, common after Suharto’s overthrow, are now the exception rather than the rule.
“We look around and say it’s all chaos, but when you look from the outside, you realize things are in pretty good shape,” observes Jakarta Post Senior Editor Endy Bayunie, who just returned from a year in the US.
That’s not to say people aren’t cynical. A recent survey shows that the president’s political party — the most popular in the country — would win barely 13 percent of the vote if the election was held tomorrow.
A critical difference between Indonesia and Egypt is that civil society flourished during the Suharto era, allowing the intelligentsia to create a blueprint for the post-Suharto years. It was a blueprint that compartmentalized the military.
“It is an oxymoron to expect the military to be the midwife of a democracy,” Dewi Anwar says she and her counterparts told the Egyptians. “We said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t give the military a long leash.’”
But that doesn’t mean the soldiers must be locked in their barracks. Indonesia’s current president is an ex-general and the man with the best shot at winning the 2014 presidential election is another ex-officer who also happens to be Suharto’s son-in-law.
Indonesia’s generals may not have been the midwife of democracy, but they were among those attending at the birth. And they are still part of the political landscape 14 years later because they have earned their place through the ballot box.
Lawrence Pintak, who covered the Indonesian revolution, is the founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication and author of The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in the Time of Turmoil. He was previously director of the Adham Center at the American University in Cairo.