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Could Indonesia's democracy be Egypt's model?

Abu Bakar Bashir's trial demonstrates the struggles Indonesia faces a decade after transitioning from authoritarian rule to the world's largest Muslim democracy.

By Correspondent / February 18, 2011

Militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, center, talks to journalists from inside a holding cell before the start of his trial at a district court in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday.

Achmad Ibrahim/AP

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Jakarta, Indonesia

The similarities between Indonesia a decade ago and Egypt today are striking: a Muslim majority, a popular uprising, and the ouster of a long-running strongman. Indonesia's strides after driving Suharto out of power in 1998 make it a potential model for Egypt, which is trying to build a post-Mubarak nation.

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Many have praised Indonesia for its swift transition from a period of domestic upheaval to a state that boasts Southeast Asia's largest economy, as well as a vibrant media and civil society that has twice participated in open elections. The international community has also praised Indonesia's success in cracking down on terrorism.

But accountability remains weak, illustrated by a web of corruption trials in which suspects have been acquitted or sentenced to short jail terms. Despite economic growth of more than 6 percent last year, the wealth gap has barely budged, and recent attacks on religious minorities largely ignored by the police have some worried about growing intolerance.

This nation's struggles in making everyone accountable before the law, as shown in the upcoming trial of Indonesia’s famed hard-line cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, is a reminder of the difficulties in building and maintaining democratic institutions long after the end of authoritarian rule.

Bashir case could set precedent

Bashir faces a litany of charges that include raising funds for a militant training camp in Aceh and sanctioning armed robberies and killings in support of holy war. After escaping convictions in his previous two trials – earning him the moniker the "Teflon Terrorist" – Bashir now faces a dossier of evidence that allegedly ties him to the camp in Aceh, including testimony from his inner circle.

Observers say prosecutors only have to make the charges stick on one count to secure a guilty verdict and provide a milestone for Indonesian democracy.

“Of course, the more charges they get to stick, and the more damning, the better,” says Greg Fealy, a professor of Indonesian politics at Australian National University. Some Islamist politicians remain skeptical about Bashir’s support for terrorist activities, but Professor Fealy says a conviction would put an end to such doubts.

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