Indonesia and Egypt separated at birth? No, just completely separate.

Indonesia and Egypt separated at birth? No, just completely separate.
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Indonesia and Egypt are large. They're Muslim. They've thrown off long-standing dictators. These similarities aren't particularly meaningful.

Since Hosni Mubarak was toppled a year ago, I've been periodically asked to write a piece comparing Egypt now to Indonesia after Soeharto.

Since "country x is not country y" is one of my mantras, I've declined. I covered the fall of both men, and see very little beyond superficial similarities between Indonesia in 1998 and Egypt today.

But a small literature comparing Egypt's uprising to Indonesia's in 1998 has cropped up, suggesting Indonesia may be a predictor or a model for Egypt. So I've decided to throw my hat into the ring as a corrective. 

The latest example to catch my eye is John T. Sidel's essay in Foreign Policy. Dr. Sidel, an academic focused on Southeast Asia, begins by listing a set of "striking parallels" between Egypt now and Indonesia over a decade ago: The countries are big, with Muslim majorities and significant non-Muslim minorities. They were led by anti-Western gadflies in the 50s and 60s. And after that they were military-dominated dictatorships with warm relations with the US, particularly during the cold war.

Egypt Revolution

This is all true, but not particularly relevant or instructive. Most discussions of what Egypt and Indonesia have in common ignore the rather striking differences between their economies, geographies, and historical experiences. These differences are far more important than both states having lots of Muslims.


Indonesia is an archipelago blessed with vast natural resources. It has abundant natural gas and oil production that, though dwindling, dwarfs Egypt's. The country holds the richest tropical forests outside of the Amazon, the largest copper and gold mine in the world, and is the dominant exporter of commodities ranging from palm oil (with exports worth about $14 billion a year) to natural rubber ($7 billion a year) to plywood and paper.

Indonesia has dramatically more arable land than Egypt, with parts of Java and Bali home to some of the most productive soils on the globe. Traditionally, rich farmland has taken the edge off of economic shocks, with laid off factory workers returning to the village.

Indonesia has enjoyed centuries of maritime trade with China to the east and India to the west. It has a far more literate and productive population than Egypt. 

So, the geographic and economic reality couldn't be more different between Egypt and Indonesia. Indonesia was a funnel for foreign manufacturing investment before the 1998 economic crisis that led to Soeharto's downfall, and was so again a few years after. The country was soon booming again –thanks in part to having China and India nearby – creating jobs and leading average Indonesians to be happier with political change. Egypt, with creaky infrastructure and low productivity, has been losing manufacturing jobs for years. Egypt's prospects for a fast economic recovery – let alone a boom like Indonesia's – are much grimmer, and economics influences politics.


Sidel's comparison of the revitalization of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) under Megawati Sukarnoputri in the early to mid-1990s and the rise of the Kifaya (Enough) movement in Mubarak's final years is also misplaced.

Megawati, as the daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, had an almost pre-fab cult of personality around her, with many early supporters muttering that she had some of her father's mystical aura. The PDI was one of two opposition political parties legally tolerated by Soeharto, and he allowed her to take the reins, reasoning that a poorly-educated and inexperienced housewife would prove easy to control.

Soeharto's guess was wrong, mostly because an ambitious group of reformers hitched themselves to Megawati's star and started real opposition politics as Soeharto's family members began jockeying to succeed the aging leader.

She was eventually removed as the head of the party, though perhaps had the last laugh when she became Indonesia's president in 2001. Once in power, she demonstrated autocratic tendencies, a hyper-nationalism that sought to forgive human rights abuses by the Indonesian military, and an unwillingness to take steps that might effect the power and privilege of the Indonesian elite she'd been born into.

The Kifaya movement in Egypt was a far looser protest movement opposed to the continued rule of Mubarak and the obvious plans the regime was laying for succession by his son, Gamal (another superficial, but not particularly interesting parallel with Soeharto; despots frequently like dynastic succession). But Kifaya hasn't existed in any real sense for years, never had a unifying political personality like "Mother Mega" (as her fans called her), and the activists that worked with it years ago have splintered into various political camps – socialist, Islamist, etc... since.

Immediate aftermath

And though the ultimate cause of Soeharto's demise was the military withdrawal of support, as was the case with Mubarak, Soeharto was immediately replaced by his civilian vice president, BJ Habibie. Egypt's military, meanwhile, has ruled directly for the past year in a fashion more like the military command council that followed Soeharto's 1965 coup than post-Soeharto Indonesia in 1998.

The mercurial Habibie defied the military and set the stage for the independence of tiny East Timor. By June of 1999 the country had held its first free legislative elections since 1955. The result? The dominance of secular parties in the new legislature (among them Soeharto's Golkar, which unlike Mubarak's NDP was not outlawed). Islamist parties took about 35 percent of the vote (compared to the over 70 percent Islamist groups won in Egypt's just completed parliamentary election.)

Indonesia did experience years of upheaval, with some horrific religious wars in Maluku and parts of Sulawesi. Egypt, too, could face religious conflict as Sidel suggests. But Sidel is wrong to see "many parallels" between the war in Maluku, which was as much about cultural clashes between economic migrants and longstanding residents as it was about faith, and the recent killing of Coptic protesters by Egypt's military during a protest outside the state TV building in Cairo.

The nature of communal religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt is far different from those in Indonesia, which is also a dramatically more religious and culturally diverse place. Exhibit A might be Abdurrahman Wahid, Habibie's successor. Mr. Wahid was the hereditary head of a mass organization called the Nahdlatul Ulama, or roughly "The Revival of Muslim scholars." His National Awakening Party won 12.5 percent of the vote in the first post-Soeharto elections, making it the biggest "Islamist" party in Parliament (compare that to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is the single largest party in Parliament, with about 48 percent of the seats).

But Sidel suggests that Wahid's success parallels the Egyptian experience so far. But Mr. Wahid is a brand of "Islamist" that almost no one in Egypt would recognize. He was a long term defender of religious pluralism, the right of Muslims to convert to other faiths (most Brotherhood members would be uncomfortable with this). He made a habit of meditating and communing with the Javanese spirits for guidance (the average Brother's discomfort would shoot to horror at this point) and he once told eminent Indonesianist William Liddle that his favorite book was My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok's allegory about a descendant of a long line of rabbis struggling to reconcile modernity and faith. Potok is not generally found on Brotherhood reading lists.

Sidel concludes his piece by suggesting that Egypt could very well follow the footsteps of Indonesia, which has prospered mightily since the fall of Soeharto, and forged a much more open and responsive political culture than had ever been possible there. Let's hope he's right. But Indonesia, with its dramatically different culture, economic standing, and results in early elections, teaches us nothing about what's coming next in Egypt.

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