For an idea of what might be next for Egypt, look no further than the last 14-odd years of Indonesian history. Indeed, there are striking parallels between post-Arab Spring Egypt and Indonesia’s Reformasi period. The two countries are overwhelmingly Muslim but secular in their makeup.
In both cases, you had a civil society protest movement triggering the removal of long-ruling, venal and corrupt presidents, i.e. Hosni Mubarak and Suharto. In both instances, their ultimate successors were Islamists, namely the Freedom and Justice Party’s Mohamed Morsi (who recently beat the Mubarakist Ahmed Shafiq) and the late Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid of the National Awakening Party (PKB).
In Egypt as in Indonesia, it was often only the Islamists who had the credibility, confidence and numbers to challenge the military. They filled the vacuum in society and politics — whether by providing social services or advocacy for the underprivileged — brought on by the destruction or silencing of leftist and liberal voices.
Indeed, Morsi is very much in the same position as Gus Dur was in 1999. The similarities between the two men — Morsi’s technocratic background as an engineer to Gus Dur’s lifelong clerical vocation notwithstanding — are more than coincidental. Both cut their political teeth in Islamist movements — Morsi in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Gus Dur in Nahdlatul Ulama, and yet seem to stand apart from, even transcend these organizations.
Both also campaigned on a platform of protecting human rights and eradicating corruption rather than on moral policing or promises of a theocratic state like their fundamentalist rivals. Gus Dur was a famed champion of pluralism. Morsi likewise has moved to calm the fears of Egypt’s minorities, publicly resigning from the Brotherhood and promising to appoint a Christian deputy.
Like Gus Dur, Morsi will have to manage a ruined economy as well as a diverse society experiencing an unfamiliar democratization and sectarian tensions. And like NU, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood will have to deal with a highly-influential, secular military that is nervous, if not outright hostile, to their religious backgrounds.
But as history shows, Gus Dur was not able to manage these tensions and was removed in 2001.
While one wishes him well, there’s a strong possibility that Morsi will fall victim to a similar fate given how the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has all but emasculated the once-powerful Egyptian presidency and strangled the Arab Republic’s first democratically elected parliament in the cradle.
This leads to one final, albeit conjectural parallel between Egypt and Indonesia. The victory of a Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate for the presidency has provoked the usual near-hysterical reactions from certain sections of the Western press. The Islamophobes are now predicting that Egypt will go down the path of Iran-style theocracy and that this will be the first “domino” of a Middle East-wide fundamentalist takeover.
But look at Indonesia and you’ll realize that this may not necessarily be the case. Gus Dur’s presidency was arguably the high-water mark for Indonesia’s Islamist parties and things have been going downhill for them ever since.
It could well be argued therefore that while Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and NU play vital roles in overthrowing dictatorships, the experience in government may cost them much of the credibility that brought them into power in the first place. Mobilizing the masses is emphatically not the same thing as governing competently and transparently.
This leaves them vulnerable to being surpassed by secular and nationalist forces, although they remain players in the political equation. One should never try and predict the future, but Morsi’s victory may be the last hurrah of Egypt’s Islamists.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his timebetween Indonesia and Malaysia.