By Ruth Pollard
Standing amid the violent chaos of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, as the tear-gas hung heavily in the air and badly injured protesters were rushed to makeshift field hospitals, it was easy to feel that the Arab Spring had veered way off script. Democracy, it seems, cannot deliver the Hollywood ending many have come to expect from such an extraordinary year.
Twelve months ago, it was impossible to imagine an Egypt without Hosni Mubarak (30 years in power), a Libya without Muammar Gaddafi (42 years), a Tunisia without Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (23 years), or a Yemen without Ali Abdullah Saleh (33 years).
Since then, we have been seduced by the euphoria that comes with that first, early scent of democracy, inspired as one dictator after another fell across the Middle East and North Africa. We marvelled at the bravery of the demonstrators and rebel soldiers and shook our heads at the shameful images of old men who chose to commit further bloody crimes against their people rather than go with some grace. Now we are tapping our toes and impatiently waiting for the next leader to fall.
Egypt is a mess, Libya is divided and the death toll mounts daily in Syria, the international community having determined that nothing can be done as ordinary Syrians go up against the firepower of the decades-long family regime of Bashar al-Assad. There is talk of buffer zones and safe corridors for Syrians trying to flee the violent government crackdowns, but nothing resembling the NATO-led intervention in Libya that allowed the inexperienced rebel forces to press forward to Tripoli and take back their country.
Syria’s strategic position in the region, with its ties to Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon and, for now, Hamas in Gaza – along with Russia and China’s consistent use of their veto powers in the United Nations Security Council – have seen to that. There are genuine fears any intervention could tip this already volatile region into war – just a cursory glance at the daily papers in Israel will tell you it is spoiling for a fight with Iran. And all the while, the bloodshed continues in the uprising in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain – while Yemen’s future remains uncertain.
Only one country, Tunisia, is viewed by experts as making progress post-revolution – it has held multi-party elections, elected a president and is in the process of drafting a constitution. But it would be a mistake to believe that the Arab Spring has stalled, or lost its way, or settled into a long, cold Arab Winter. Democracy takes time. Yet in the impatient, instant-gratification world of the West, we want everything resolved, we want to be able to draw a line under it and declare it done.
The messiness of the Arab Spring revolutions disturbs our sense of order and tests our need for definite results. It is worthwhile, as others have done, to look to an example closer to home to explain the slow and straying path to democracy. Remember how uncertain and messy it felt in the first few years after the end of the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1998? Since then, Indonesia has had four presidents: B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid – seen as its first democratically elected president – Megawati Sukarnoputri and, since 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
In that time it has faced many hurdles: the rise of Islamic extremist groups such as Jemaah Islamiah and their campaign of terror in Bali and Jakarta; the need to eradicate the corruption that had poisoned much of the public service and the military during the Suharto regime; the extreme poverty in which many Indonesians live; the extraordinary death and destruction from the Indian Ocean tsunami; and the role of Islam in a democracy. Along the way there have been great disappointments, none more so than the expectation that, once freed from the prison of authoritarianism, the standard of living for Indonesians would automatically rise.
On this and many other challenges, Indonesia has a long way to go. But there is no doubt it is growing into a more mature democracy, says Stephen Sherlock, the director of the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National University. ”There is a well of patience that is required and a realisation that change will only happen step by step – these revolutions are as much a beginning of something as they are an end to the regimes.”
As for Indonesia, it ”does not get enough credit for what it has achieved over a relatively short period of time”, Sherlock says. Fourteen years is a blink of the eye in democracy’s progress.
Since March 2011, the centre has been conducting a ”dialogue of democratisation” between Indonesia and Egypt. The similarities between the two countries, in terms of size, religion and the central role their respective militaries have played in politics, suggests the Indonesian experience post-Suharto could prove invaluable to Egyptians as they emerge from the shadow of the Mubarak regime.
Yet as we watch the images coming out of Egypt, it is easy to worry that its revolution has stalled. When thousands of activists flooded Tahrir Square again in late November and into December over the failure of the ruling military council to do as it promised and step aside for civilian rule, many raised fears that Egypt had simply swapped one dictator for another.