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.

Achmad Ibrahim/AP
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.

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.

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.

“It could be a precedent for going after a lot of other firebrand clerics that are deliberately inciting people to violence,” says Sidney Jones, a senior analyst focused on terrorism issues at the International Crisis Group and leading authority on Islamist militants in Indonesia.

Embattled reputation for pluralism

But Ms. Jones remains wary of pinning too much importance on the aging cleric’s trial. Long considered the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional militant network bent on installing Islamic rule across Southeast Asia, Bashir has lost some of his support in recent years, as militant cells have morphed into a loose connection of small groups.

Terrorism, however, is only one form of extremism, and Jones worries that the government has foundered on addressing lesser acts of violence, such as words that lead directly to assault.

“There is no firm guidance from the state on how to protect its citizens,” says Syafi’i Anwar, the head of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism, a network of progressive Muslim activists. Mr. Anwar says the president is losing his grip on controlling radical groups – and that makes it increasingly difficult to defend Indonesia’s reputation for pluralism.

Indonesia's past in perspective

Despite current concerns about democratic backtracking, Jones says it is important to keep Indonesia’s past in perspective. “It’s because Indonesia has recovered some basic liberties that we can criticize the government for failing to act,” she says.

The takeaway for Egypt?

“Make all the reforms you can while the spirit for reforms is still high; get the military out of politics quickly, and lift all Draconian decrees,” says Jones. And do one thing Indonesia did not do, she adds – ensure that everyone, including police and other minorities, has an equal share in democracy.

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