IPD Workshop | Egypt-Indonesia Dialogue on Democratic Transition
Jakarta | 25-26 May 2011
The first meeting in the IPD “Egypt-Indonesia Dialogue on Democratic Transition” took place in Jakarta on 25-26 May 2011. A wide range of political leaders, democracy activists, academics and representatives from NGOs and media organisations from Egypt and Indonesia gathered to share ideas about political renaissance, revolutionary change and democratic reform. A two-day workshop discussed the agenda for change in Egypt, with the Indonesian participants presenting their views on the nature of their country’s political transition after 1998 and conclusions they had drawn from that experience. The Egyptian participants were invited to raise issues about current events in their home country, whether to seek more details and elaboration or to challenge the Indonesians to explain and justify the decisions they had made.
Highlights of the dialogue
Discussion in the workshop sparked immediately after the presentation by the first panel of speakers and continued over two days of lively and animated dialogue. Some concern was initially expressed by a number of Egyptian participants that they might not have enough opportunity to express their views, but the workshop soon developed into a genuine two-way exchange of ideas. The following is a summary of highlights.
- The role of the military in the transition and its place in a democratic society.
With the key role played by the military in the old regime of both countries, both as an institution and in terms of prominent individual leaders, it was agreed that negotiating the withdrawal of the military from politics was a critical task for a new democracy. Both the military and police contained many different elements and while some leading officers might support change, there was always the potential for retrograde factions to threaten progress and to try to hold on to political and economic privileges. The right of former military figures and rank and file soldiers to exercise their democratic rights to stand for office and to vote was the focus of particular discussion in the workshop.
- Constitutional and political reform
The need to change the constitution and empower representative institutions has been at the forefront of thinking in Egypt, as it was for Indonesians after 1998. The contrast between “reformasi” or gradual reform in Indonesia and the urge for revolutionary change in Egypt was highlighted at various times during the workshop, with a number of Egyptians expressing concern that incremental reforms within existing arrangements might impede progress towards political renewal. Post-1998 political institutions in Indonesia, including the presidential system and decentralisation of governmental powers to the regions, was subjected to detailed questioning by the Egyptian side.
- Election laws and management, including the importance of an independent elections commission
There was predictably intense interest in the question of how both countries could design and manage an electoral system that both guaranteed free and fair elections and produced truly representative and workable institutions of government. The Egyptians were impressed with Indonesia’s success in managing a huge managerial and logistical task and took particular note of the governance structures of the independent elections commission.
- The role of political parties and civil society in building a representative democracy
The strong representation of political parties and activist groups in the Egyptian delegation ensured that there was a lively discussion about the role of civil society in the political transformation of both countries. A particular point of contention arose around the question of banning the ruling party from the old regime, which had recently occurred in Egypt but which had never happened in Indonesia. This generated a fascinating discussion about the continuing political role of figures from the old order, whether they could and should take part in the process of reform, as well as the question of accountability for past policies and practices, including trials for corruption and abuse of human rights.
- Islam, politics and the state
Both sides affirmed the fundamental affinity between the Egyptian and Indonesian attitude of tolerance and inclusiveness regarding the place of religion in society and politics. In both countries Islam is the majority religion, but significant minorities profess adherence to other faiths. Some Egyptians expressed concern about the dangers of intrusion into private religious belief, whether by the state, religious authorities or extremist groups, particularly the potential impact on the rights and security of minority groups. Various ideas about the appropriateness of the notion of secularism in an Islamic majority country were aired, given the argument that Islamic ideas about the role of the state in religion do not always accord with those current in the West. In this context, questions were raised about how state sponsorship of religious values and standards could be reconciled with the civic rights of the individual in a democratic state.
- The role of the media in consolidating democracy
There was strong representation from Egyptian media organisations in the workshop. The dialogue with a number of well-known figures from Indonesian media world on the place of the media in a democracy was particularly stimulating. Speakers observed that rapid changes in media technology meant that pro-democracy activists in Indonesia in 1998 had made use of different forms of technology from those used in the Egyptian uprising more than a decade later, but the clear conclusion was that innovative use of communications technology was critical to the success of popular mobilisation. A significant part of the exchange of ideas about the media concentrated on the issue of how and when the laws on the media should be reformed in Egypt. In the light of Indonesian experience after 1998, a number of Egyptian participants expressed their appreciation of the valuable lessons that they had been able to draw from the Indonesian approach to media law reform.
- Ensuring the full participation of women in the political process
Discussion on the question of the participation of women in the political process in Egypt and Indonesia quickly returned to themes similar to those that had come to the fore during the earlier session on Islam and the state. There was agreement that the intertwining of Islamic ideas and traditional cultural practices created special challenges for women in pluralistic societies. Many speakers argued that the dominant interpretations of Islam in both Egypt and Indonesia had supported an equal role for women in public life, but that pressure on women reflected trends towards intolerance of political and cultural diversity in some sections of society. The relative merits of methods to promote women’s political leadership, such as quotas and other special provisions in the electoral law, proved to be a point of special interest.
The way forward for dialogue
The success of the workshop for both sides was clearly indicated by the enthusiasm for maintaining the dialogue in the near future and for further activities to be convened in Egypt. Many participants expressed the hope that the dialogue would form the basis for a more solid partnership with a wider program of activities. As a first step, the Egyptian side initiated the creation of a Facebook group, through which participants can share thoughts and experiences, maintain communication and publicise future events in the dialogue.
IPD is currently developing plans for a second workshop to be held in Cairo in the near future, which will aim to involve a wider range of Egyptian participants and to bring a group of Indonesians into closer contact with the debates currently occurring in Egypt. CDI, along with our close partners in NDI, have already expressed our keen willingness to support the continuation of the dialogue in any way we can.