Egypt and East Asia: drawing lessons from each other

Egypt and East Asia: drawing lessons from each other

By Amitav Acharya

Many people wonder if the crisis in Egypt, leading to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, might spur similar popular upheaval for regime change in Asia. Asia has no shortage of potential candidates, including the biggest of them all: China. Then there are also Vietnam, Burma and North Korea.

In East Asia, one finds many recent assertions of ‘people’s power’ that one saw in the streets of Cairo: the Philippines in 1986 and 2001 when surging crowds ousted presidents Marcos and Estrada respectively, and Thailand in 2008, when protests ended the remnant of the Thaksin Shinawatra regime. But the situation in Asia is quite different. Asia has already seen more transitions to democracy than the Middle East. Although many Asian countries are not paragons of liberal democracy, outright dictatorships in the region have fallen in number relative to the past and to democratic or semi-democratic governments.

At 30 years, the Mubarak regime held power far longer than any regime in Asia under the same leader. The leader’s persona matters, as change of the top leader may mitigate popular anger even if the regime remains in place. China and Vietnam have replaced their top leadership before they became lightning rods for popular anger. Indonesia’s Suharto might have averted catastrophe for himself and his nation by following a similar path before it was too late, as Malaysia’s Mahathir did a few years later. In Singapore, the ruling People’s Action Party regularly replenishes its top leader, even Lee Kuan Yew, despite his high popularity.

Another obvious difference is that authoritarian governments in Asia, with the exception of Burma and North Korea, enjoy an impressive economic record. Although claims that authoritarianism promotes economic growth are highly spurious, there is less doubt that growth prolongs authoritarian rule. And economic downturns can bring about regime change, as happened to Indonesia’s Suharto.

Egypt’s economic performance under Mubarak has been highly uneven, compounded by corruption and rising inequities. Egypt demonstrates what democratic transition scholars have called democratisation’s “snowballing effect”. After being ignited by the Ben Ali regime’s fall in Tunisia, unrest in Egypt threatens to spread to other countries. Jordan and the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia included, are understandably nervous. But such snowballing has rarely happened in Asia. A few years ago, democratic change in Indonesia spurred ‘reformasi’ in Malaysia. But its effect was limited.

Until his unceremonious exit, Mubarak was a model US ally. He played closely by the script written in Washington, maintaining peace with Israel, and fighting the war on terror, in return for $1.5 billion in annual US aid, much of it to support the military. Yet, the Obama administration, after an initial moment of confusion — perhaps underestimating the force of popular sentiment in Cairo — moved quickly and decisively to distance itself from Mubarak as protests mounted. In the end, it chose to side with the protesters. One lesson that America’s Asian allies might draw is what it means to be a close US ally. This could be a real worry for pro-US authoritarian regimes in Asia: when the chips are down, they might be abandoned despite a record of steadfast loyalty.

Perhaps they need not worry too much. The Obama administration’s response to Egypt does not have anything that might remotely suggest that the US will adopt a more vigorous policy of democracy promotion in Asia. The Economist magazine asks whether events in Egypt and the Arab world might vindicate George W Bush’s policy of seeking regime change in Iraq and promoting democracy in the Middle East. The answer has to be a clear no. Bush wanted to impose regime change from above, the Egyptian case is regime change from below. Bush’s real motive was not democracy but revenge.

The crisis in Egypt is also a reminder of the debate over the impact of democratisation for conflict and violence. By Asian standards, the revolution in Egypt has been relatively peaceful thus far. According to Amnesty International, perhaps 1,000 people died in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 in Beijing (the Chinese Red Cross estimates double that figure). Indonesia’s democratic transition might have claimed 19,000 lives in various forms of violence, including communal strife, and secessionist conflicts in East Timor and Aceh.

The issue is not just what Egypt means for East Asia, but also what East Asia means for Egypt. In South Korea and Indonesia, Asia does seem to provide models for Egypt to achieve stability through the democratic path. Indonesia is a more relevant model. Like Egypt, it is a large Muslim nation and home to extremist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah that is more shadowy and violent than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. While South Korea’s democratic transition came with robust economic growth, Indonesia’s took place on the throes of a severe economic downturn. The accompanying malaise of impoverishment, corruption and lack of accountability is similar to Egypt’s predicament.

A major difference is that the Egyptian military is far more entrenched in special privileges – fostered by US aid – than its Indonesian counterpart in Suharto’s heydays. But it is possible to imagine an Indonesian-style democratisation in Egypt that progressively reduces the military’s role and encourages multiparty electoral democracy.

This essay was first published as “The Cairo Connection” in The Times of India.

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