Conflict & Justice

Indonesia Offers A Lesson For Egypt

At a Thai restaurant near Al Azhar University two Indonesian students eat Tom Yum soup and fried rice. In the next room some patrons turn on the TV to watch protests in downtown Cairo.

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35-year-old Indonesian theology grad student Rafli Syarqawi Zain says that as he watches the 20-something activists in Tahrir Square, he thinks about when he was a 20-something activist in May 1998.

"I was a college student in Jakarta and I was part of the student movement against the regime of President Suharto," Zain said. "We had networks of student groups at universities across Jakarta to spread news of protests. There are similarities with Egypt, the word of the day in the Reformasi was 'change'; we also had a repressive and authoritarian regime and we wanted change."

Much like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Indonesia's Suharto ran a centralized, military-dominated government, and the two also shared similar reputations for corruption and repression.

In the late 1990s peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations in Indonesia played out much as they did last January in Cairo. The police killed protesters, which then fueled public rage against the state.

Rafli, who goes by one name, says what Indonesia did so well — which Egypt is finding hard to do — was get rid of the generals in charge.

This past spring Indonesia's Minister of Foreign Affairs made a visit to Cairo for a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart. Marty Natalegawa said the process Indonesians call "Reformasi" or Reformation is hard, but not impossible.

"The military used to sit on our parliament, which it no longer does," Natalegawa said. "But I think the lesson learned for us is that it is possible for a democratization process to result in a return of the military to its — what must be-its original function, namely to protect the country from external threats."

And that's exactly why Indonesian theology student Rafli says Egyptian activists need to join political parties and make constitutional reforms from inside the parliament.

He says some of his Indonesian activist friends from college in Jakarta now work for Golkar — which was once Suharto's party.

But Egyptian political activist Ahmed Salah disagrees. He says because the Egyptian army is still in control, the parties are forced to make bargains and play games – and he doesn't want to be a part of it.

"I would share the idea of wanting to be in a political party, once you get rid of the corrupt regime fully," Salah said. "But right now we are still fighting and when you are still fighting you cannot do politics. They are two different issues. If you want to play a game the game has to have fair rules, if there are no fair rules, it is all chaos, then there is no game."

Rafli admits that even though the army is no longer in parliament, the Reformasi in Indonesia is far from over.

Corrupt former army generals still own many companies and large parts of the rainforest.

And just last month a notorious Suharto-era army man announced that he is running for president in 2014.

The former head of special forces is appealing to farmers and workers.