Since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned in the face of widespread demonstrations, attention has shifted to what comes next. Fears have been raised that Egypt's transition may follow the Iranian path, where the Shah's overthrow led to a repressive Islamic regime that turned away from the West and has been a source of regional instability.
Indonesia provides a better analogy for Egypt than Iran. Over the past decade, Indonesia—home of the world’s largest community of Muslims—has made a successful transition to democracy that clearly refutes the proposition that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
Those who invoke the Iranian model for Egypt fear that by providing an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to contest elections, democracy will create a theocracy. But whether democracy empowers radicals or tames them depends on a whole host of factors. In Indonesia, like Egypt, political Islam was suppressed during the 32 years of Suharto's military-backed rule. In three sets of free and fair elections held since 1999, Islamic parties have never won a majority and today hold only 28 percent of parliamentary seats although close to 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim. Moreover, Indonesia has adopted one of the world’s most successful counter-terrorism programs and is a linchpin of regional stability.
The Indonesian lesson for Egypt is that when people are freed from oppressive regimes, the broad center holds.
Asia Society Associate Fellow Ann Marie Murphy is an associate professor at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University.