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From Egypt to Indonesia

First published by The Jerusalem Report

Irhal (leave or go away), the slogan chanted by millions of Egyptians against ousted president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, sent a highly effective mobilizing message. It bound together, at a crucial historical moment, millions of Egyptians of diverse and sometimes even conflicting motives, expectations, agendas and visions – but united by one deeply-shared emotion: resentment against Muslim Brotherhood rule and its attempted monopolization of power, coupled with its extreme incompetence in managing the affairs of state, especially the economy.

But does the irhal battle cry, a sort of common denominator for diverse anti-Muslim Brotherhood forces, indicate any direction for substantial political reform, beyond strong emotions of rage, anger, frustration and even fear?

A travel through time from the Egypt of 2013 to Indonesia in 1998 and beyond offers food for thought. In Indonesia in 1998, the salient slogan used by the protesters against the authoritarian regime of then president Suharto was reformasi (reform). This slogan generally indicated, and still does, a democratic political reform. In other words, it supplied a compass that helped Indonesian society navigate the early stages of transition to democracy, despite the severe turmoil and turbulence of violent sectarian conflict, growing terror and awakening separatist aspirations. Thus, while many observers viewed Indonesia through gloomy glasses, Indonesian society never strayed from its democratic path.

But a similar political compass is not evident in post-Morsi Egypt. Are there themes, ideas or visions that can tie together the diverse civil anti-Muslim Brotherhood forces? Indeed, it is hard to see how a true democratic vision could be used as a common denominator for all of them.

On the one hand, one cannot ignore the significant role played by secular liberal circles, inspired by democratic, pluralistic ideals, in driving the massive popular protest against Morsi and the Brotherhood. However, for many others, who participated in the impressive demonstration of the will of the people in squares and streets, democracy is not the “only game in the town.”

Poorer Egyptians, for example, would be satisfied with any capable, effective governance that rescues them from deep poverty, hunger and despair. Others would be happy with strong national governance that restores law, order and stability. Women would welcome any governance that guarantees gender equality, and secures their place in the public sphere. Similarly, Christian Copts would be grateful for government committed to separation of state and religion, guaranteeing civil equality and securing their safety. Moreover, the nature of civil-military relations will have a very significant impact in shaping Egypt’s future political landscape. If the current unrest continues, the army could become the dominant force, preventing any genuine democratic flowering.

The comparison with Indonesia yields another significant insight; the absence in the Egyptian Arab Spring of an influential leading mainstream in the form of a strong pluralistic Muslim civil society that could effectively lead a transition to democracy.

This is precisely the powerful mix that served as the driving force for democratic change in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. In the absence of such a force, Egypt will find it hard to avoid deep dichotomy and bitter polarization between a secularism that is not in total harmony with democracy and an Islamism to which most democratic and pluralistic values are extrinsic.

*Dr. Giora Eliraz is a Research Associate at the Harry S. Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Affiliated Fellow at KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, Netherlands and an ICT Research Fellow. 

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).