Egypt faces grave concerns about its future. A deepening economic crisis, growing crime, and episodes of violence all offer grounds for anxiety. The ruling military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), continues to rule in heavy-handed fashion, reasserting its extensive prerogatives in Egyptian politics and resisting demands for greater democracy. Recent elections produced a strong showing not only for the well-established Muslim Brotherhood but also for the more stridently puritanical, salafi Al-Nour Party, raising alarms about possible moves to expand the role of Islam in Egyptian society at the expense of liberal values and religious freedoms.
The fall of the Mubarak regime in early 2011 has inspired many observers to draw parallels with other "People Power" uprisings in places as diverse as Chile, Thailand, and the former Czechoslovakia.
But there's another case that just might offer a more instructive guide to where Egypt may now be headed. Indonesia in the years 1998-1999 offers a number of striking parallels. Both countries are regional giants. Indonesia's population of 240 million makes it the largest country in Southeast Asia, while Egypt, with its 80 million, is the biggest in the Arab world. Both countries are predominantly Muslim and boast long traditions of Islamic scholarship and social activism. But both are also home to important non-Muslim minorities (ethnic Chinese and Christians in Indonesia, Coptic Christians in Egypt) whose disproportionate influence in business and the professions has sometimes led to tensions.
In the 1950s and 1960s, both countries ended up with populist nationalist leaders (Sukarno in Indonesia, Nasser in Egypt) who championed "Third World" independence, economic nationalism, and socialism, engaging in conflicts with pro-Western neighbors, resisting U.S. "imperialism" and flirting with the Soviet Union and China. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, popular nationalism in both countries met with defeat and disillusionment. The same years saw the rise of more conservative military rulers (Suharto in Indonesia, Sadat in Egypt) who moved to seek accommodation with their neighbors, embraced the United States, and opened their economies to flows of international finance, investment, and trade.
Both countries experienced three decades of authoritarian rule under a single military strongman: Indonesia under Suharto (1966-98) and Egypt under Mubarak (1981-2011). Both followed the economic guidelines of the "Washington Consensus," reducing dependence on external rents (e.g. oil revenues, Suez Canal transit fees) and moving from import-substitution industrialization to export-oriented manufacturing based on economic liberalization, privatization, and deregulation. In both cases these policies led to higher growth but also exacerbated social inequality, labor unrest, and struggles over land. The result was greater vulnerability to regional and global economic crises, as seen in Indonesia in 1997-98 and Egypt from 2008 onwards.
In both places, years of authoritarian rule under a single military strongman spawned centralized corruption, cronyism, and nepotism. Both presidents encouraged their children to establish themselves as major figures in the business world, thus spawning the diversified conglomerates of Suharto's sons and daughters and the vast empire of Mubarak's son Gamal. Over their final years in office, moreover, both leaders began to set the stage for dynastic succession in politics. Suharto's daughter Tutut and Mubarak's son Gamal rose to positions of increasing prominence within both regimes.
The final decade of military strongman rule fueled social and political change in both countries. Religious mores, demonstrated by growing conservatism in dress and behavior, increasingly asserted themselves. Islamic organizations began to assume more prominent positions in social and political life. In Indonesia this process began with the formation of the Indonesian Association of Islamic Intellectuals (ICMI) in 1991. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood increasingly asserted its presence in various professional associations and made a dramatic showing in 2005 parliamentary elections.