Thomas Carothers: Egypt and Indonesia





[Thomas Carothers is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and has written extensively on democratic transitions and international support for democracy.]

As mass protests sweep through Cairo and Hosni Mubarak teeters, some U.S. observers have turned almost reflexively to the analogy of Iran and the Shah in 1979. “Just look at Iran,” Leslie Gelb wrote earlier this week: If the Muslim Brotherhood takes control in Egypt, which Gelb believes may be at hand, “it’s going to be almost impossible for the people to take it back.”

At times of unexpected but momentous political change in distant countries, we grasp onto political analogies to help get our bearings. Even if we know they are imperfect, we can’t resist their tempting suggestiveness. But, if we cannot resist them, we can at least choose them thoughtfully. Invoking Iran after the Shah is scary indeed, but dangerously misleading. A different analogy that provides more useful grist for our unsettled analytic mill concerning Egypt is Indonesia and Suharto in the late 1990s.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt today is significantly different from the Islamist movement driven by Ayatollah Khomeini that ended up grabbing power in Tehran. It has renounced violence in both word and deed for decades and undergone a significant process of moderation. It lacks a charismatic leader such as Khomeini and has already confronted limits to its popular backing through its unofficial participation in parliamentary elections. The current protests in Egypt have focused on non-religious concerns and not featured Islamist slogans or objectives. The Muslim Brotherhood will certainly play an important role in post-Mubarak Egyptian politics, but Egypt is not ripe for a radical Islamist revolution.

In Indonesia, a dictator who had ruled for more than two decades—holding himself out as the only guarantor of his nation’s stability and serving as Washington’s steadfast ally—tumbled from power after a brief but intense surge of protests led by students and a smattering of NGOs that had managed to survive in the narrow margins of Indonesian political life. The Clinton administration stayed with the aging tyrant almost to the bitter end, issuing tepid calls for reform, refusing to believe he could fall so quickly and worrying deeply about what might follow—chaos, an Islamist takeover, or an actual breakup of the country....

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