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

Indonesia and Egypt are large. They're Muslim. They've thrown off long-standing dictators. These similarities aren't particularly meaningful.

By Staff writer / February 17, 2012



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

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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.

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.

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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. 

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