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If democracy is about surprises, it is easy to see what connects the Middle East and Indonesia. In both places, the arrival of democracy has resulted in elections that have sprung surprises.
A case in point is the free elections in Egypt and Libya, two countries chosen here because they illustrate the principle of surprise most dramatically.
The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt raised fears that the Arab Spring had unleashed a wave of fundamentalism across the region.
But the victory of liberals in Libya quickly dashed those fears.
In Egypt, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi in the presidential election revealed the entrenched influence of religious forces which had legitimized themselves by taking the democratic route to power.
Although democracy has a wonderful way of blunting the edges of religious fervor because religious parties have to make secular compromises to come to power and stay in power, for such parties and groups, the final destination is not democracy but the establishment of a religion-based society driven by religious law.
This is what some fear in Egypt. Egyptian liberals are already warning that the country faces the replacement of the “deep state” of the ancien régime — the structures of power and mechanisms of control that determined political outcomes in the Hosni Mubarak era — with another deep state that will have the Brotherhood at its core.
Writing in the leading Al-Ahram Weekly, Eman Ragab worries that Egypt will soon witness attempts
by the Brotherhood and the forces of political Islam to assert their “hegemony” over institutions of the state.
“The degree to which the Muslim Brothers succeed in this is contingent, at least in part, upon the ability of these institutions to sustain their political neutrality, regardless of the ideological orientation of the political party in power,” the writer adds.
Interestingly, religious hegemony is a possibility in Egypt, which was a quasi-democracy full of vocal liberals and other dissidents under Mubarak. By contrast, the fall of Muammar Qaddafi has catapulted to power liberals, an endangered species in formerly authoritarian Libya.
Former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance won 39 seats, or nearly half of those allocated for parties, leaving far behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, which came in second with 17 seats. Jibril’s alliance defeated Islamist parties by wide margins of tens of thousands of votes, and did so in the largest two cities, Tripoli and Benghazi.
The point that Egypt and Libya make is that that genuine democracy is an open-ended process whose results cannot be predicted. Much depends on the balance of forces in each society, which determines the direction of political evolution.
This is exactly what has happened in Indonesia, where democracy has become entrenched by allowing various political forces, ranging from the secular to the insistently religious, to rise, contend among themselves, and share power according to the degree of popular support that they enjoy.
Their interaction throws up surprises. Some surprises can be nasty but, overall, the reflection of the popular will in free and fair elections is the best guarantee that political stability will hold in the long term. There should be no surprises on that front.
The Arab Spring vindicates the validity of the Indonesian path to democracy.
Looking ahead, developments in the Middle East strengthen the universal practice of democracy into which Indonesia fits as well. The key link among variations in that practice is how the challenge of extremism can be contained through what may broadly be called empowerment: empowering the masses through economic development and empowering them to participate politically.
There is little point in enjoying a host of political freedoms if poverty and illiteracy undermine them. However, the onset of democracy offers a new beginning to leaders who wish to use political mechanisms to spread economic development across broader swathes of people. Education is the fundamental way to do so.
Expectedly, the Arab Human Development Report 2012 focuses on the theme, “Empowerment: The Will of the People”.
Produced by the United Nations Development Program, the report declares unequivocally that “the Arab region has embarked upon the most dynamic period of its modern history”.
However, the region is dominated by “long-standing state structures” which have inhibited empowerment. This legacy should be reversed through more accountable and effective governance; an emphasis on development that benefits all and not only the few; and efforts to promote pluralism and consensus.
For all the false starts and missteps of its transition to democracy, Indonesia is trying to do just this. The “deep state” of the Soeharto years has been dismantled through transparent governance.
Although corruption and chicanery continue in the corridors of corporate power, no deep state replacing the New Order state has emerged, or is in danger of being captured from within by religious or other elements.
Economic development is yet to be spread evenly, but political decentralization provides one avenue for empowering grassroots and local activism in securing the fruits of economic growth.
The good growth rates that Indonesia is enjoying give it the wherewithal to invest more in education, health and social welfare.
Finally, the Pancasila state, rooted in pluralism and consensus, is challenged by extremists on the fringes, but it is not under threat. Indeed, the more fringe groups clamor for its abolition, the more passionately liberal and other mainstream groups defend is importance.
It is to be hoped that countries in the Middle East and Indonesia, working together, will make a success of the great project of democracy that they have undertaken. Islam is a reality (although not the only one) in both places.
What is interesting is to see how democracy sets in place possibilities and structures that encourage Arabs and Indonesians to be true to their religious selves while not forgetting that they have an allegiance to the state as well.
As democracy blooms in the Arab Spring unleashed by the Jasmine Revolution, its fragrance and surprising beauty are a source of comfort in Indonesia.
The writer is vice chairman of the Indonesian Employers Association (Apindo) and president director of PT Gobel International. The opinions expressed are his own.