Egypt – what happened last time this happened

16 06 2012

The latest fashion among foreign affairs miserablists is to write off the Egyptian revolution in the wake of the military’s machinations to hold onto (and indeed increase) its power.

As the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi gears up to take on the old order’s Ahmed Shafiq in today’s first post-Mubarak presidential election, received wisdom has it that the revolution is dead and the ancien regime is back in charge.

This is perhaps magnified by the fact that the British media doesn’t have a favoured son in this election. Most commentators in the British press are liberals, socialists, or varying shades of closet Islamophobe. Pitting an Islamist against a militarist confounds their hopes and confirms their fears.

Evidently there are serious problems, with Egypt’s military playing on fear to divide and outmanoeuvre the democracy movement. But those who write off Egypt are forgetting the lessons of recent history.

The disaster that didn’t happen 

When was Indonesia last in the news? Back in 1998-99, it was never out of the news. Foreign policy miserablism was focused squarely on the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Received wisdom had it that the country was headed for a catastrophic break-up, bloody civil war, and the rise of militant Islam.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

In May 1998, the three-decade rule of Indonesia’s oppressive dictator Suharto collapsed amidst the Far Eastern financial crisis. The shooting of student protestors triggered mass protests and widespread rioting that finally forced his resignation.

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President Suharto. Not a super genius.

As Suharto went, his vice-president, BJ Habibie, was anointed into office. A man who described his old boss as ‘Super Genius Suharto’, he was the very embodiment of the old order. The promise of elections to follow failed to quell suspicions that the existing regime was seeking to renew itself.

What followed was more than a year of increasing chaos and violence. Day after day, week after week, month after month, Jakarta was the scene of mass protests demanding Habibie’s resignation and Suharto’s prosecution. From September to December 1998 there were repeated clashes between pro-democracy activists and security forces. Up to 100,000 people joined an opposition rally in Jakarta at the end of November. 

The following year saw more of the same as the authorities dallied in accepting parliamentary election results that brought an opposition victory. The government tried to pass a draconian security bill giving the military sweeping powers, and Habibie chose the controversial military chief General Wiranto as his running mate as he geared up for presidential elections in October, despite mass protests calling for him to quit.

That wasn’t all. The East Timorese vote for independence in 1999 triggered mass violence by the occupying Indonesian troops. Violence flared in separatist regions such as Aceh. The ethnic Chinese minority – which was viewed as comparatively wealthy – was targeted by violent pogroms.

Faced with growing opposition from his own side, Habibie pulled out of the presidential election at the last moment. Elections in October 1999 brought a surprise victory for ailing cleric Abdurrahman Wahid, who rapidly failed to get to grips with the country’s ethnic and economic problems. The country appeared to be falling apart.

And then… nothing.

Over a number of years, Indonesia sorted itself out. The economy stabilised and grew. Ethnic conflicts died down. The military was reformed. Democracy took hold. The expected rise of militant Islam never came, for the simple reason that voters didn’t want it. 

The country still has problems – and its fair share of dodgy clerics – but when was Indonesia last in the news?

Two-stage revolutions

Indonesia is an example of a two-stage revolution. Some autocracies are based entirely around a delusional, demi-god personality cult. All power rests with one person. Get rid of that person, and you get rid of the regime.

Other autocracies are based around faceless bureaucracies or military setups, with backseat drivers in place of strutting leaders.

Then there’s the third kind, where you have a bit of both – a high-profile front man, and then an extended bureaucracy or military behind them. All focus is on the leader, but power vests more widely. Get rid of the guy at the top, and it can seem like the work is done – but there is a whole super-structure behind him that will try and stay in place. That was Indonesia. That is Egypt. A revolution in these countries doesn’t happen all at once – there’s the first stage that gets rid of the high profile leader, and then the second stage to get rid of the regime that kept him in power. Both stages are painful and messy, and can be bloody. But once the first stage happens, the momentum generated makes the second stage inevitable.

When a wound heals, it doesn’t heal overnight. First the blood stops pouring. Then it forms a scab. It takes time for the scab to fall off. Habibie was Indonesia’s scab. Ahmed Shafiq and the military are Egypt’s. They’re irritating at first. They take some picking. But they always fall off in the end.

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