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Book launch Lost in Transition:

Comparative Political Transitions in Southeast Asia and the Middle East

Remarks by James M. Dorsey at the Asian Research Institute on 30 August 2016

Political transitions are processes, not momentary events. They can take a quarter of century if not more.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is as much an expression of a global trend driven by economic, political and geopolitical uncertainty and security and safety fears that produces lack of confidence in the system and existing leadership as are Donal Trump, the 2011 Arab popular revolts; the rise of the far right in Europe; tensions between concepts of freedom, privacy and security; and the wind in the sails of democratically elected, illiberal leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Benyamin Netanyahu in Israel and Narendra Modi in India.

Nonetheless, there are specific reasons why the transition process has moved forward in Southeast Asia despite the military coup in Thailand and the corruption and governance issues that Malaysia is confronting whereas the process in the Middle East is far more torturous, volatile and violent. Three of those reasons stand out:

  • Southeast Asia has benefitted from the fact that it does not have the equivalent of Saudi Arabia, an arch-conservative absolute monarchy with regional hegemonic ambitions whose ruling family will not shy away from anything to ensure its survival;

  • Southeast Asia further had the advantage that it is not wracked by regional rivalries like those between Saudi Arabia and Iran or Iran and Turkey and is not populated by countries whose ambition is to dominate others. Equally important is that no country in Southeast Asia had the kind of revolutionary ambition that Iran, Egypt, Libya or Algeria had at given times in their more recent history;

  • Differences between Southeast Asian nations are not fought on the battlefield and Southeast Asians do not employ militant and violent proxies to influence events in other countries. With other words, there is no equivalent in Southeast Asia to Hezbollah, Hamas or the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units nor is there a pattern of support by any one Southeast Asian nation for restless ethnic or religious in another country in the region such as Saudi support for restless Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan or Baluchis in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province.

Just published:

Geopolitics aside, there are some fundamental lessons to be learnt from the Southeast Asian experience:

First and foremost, there is no successful transition without the participation of at least a significant faction of the military that sees the preservation of its vested interests in change rather than maintenance of the status quo. In Myanmar, the military took the lead, in Indonesia and the Philippines, a faction of the military reached out to civil society groups. And it was that alliance that pushed the process of toppling an autocrat forward.

No military or faction of a military in the Middle East and North Africa saw or sees the preservation of its interests best served by a transition from autocratic or military rule to a more liberal, more democratic civilian rule. On the contrary, autocrats and militaries in the Middle East and North Africa have worked out a number of models to sustain autocratic rule that gives militaries a vested interest in the status quo.

Protesters in Egypt in 2011 chanted the military and the people are one when the military refused to step in to crush the revolt. The transition in Egypt however was initially one from autocratic rule in which the military and the security forces were the dominant players to outright military rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. A brief democratic transition was brutally ended with a military coup that was backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The explanation for the differences in attitude between Southeast Asian militaries and militaries in the Middle East and North Africa lies for a large part in differences in the relationship between autocrats and militaries. It also lies in different approaches to the two regions by international donors, particularly the United States, towards the militaries and civil society.

Western donors worked with Southeast Asian militaries on issues such as civil-military relations and human rights. They also were able to give relatively unfettered support to civil society groups. The result was greater differentiated thinking within Southeast Asian militaries and the existence of a civil society that was able to rise to the occasion. In a study of civil military relations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)) concluded that there was ample opportunity for serious work on civil military relations in the Philippines. Despite at times rocky relations with former President Suharto in Indonesia, the US also had programs on civil military relations for the Indonesian military.

The study constituted a rare US look at the potential for similar programs in the Middle East and North Africa. Its conclusion for that region was radically different. The study said flat out that the Middle East and North Africa was not ripe for concepts of civil-military relations. The conclusion was in line with US policy that saw autocracy rather than transition as the guarantor of regional stability.

As a result, the United States allowed Middle Eastern and North African autocrats like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to decide which civil society groups could receive US support and which ones could not. Hardly, a recipe for development of a robust and independent civil society.

The alliance between the military and civil society in Southeast Asia produced one other key ingredient for relative success: the ability of the street to better evaluate when best to surrender the protest site and move from contentious to more conventional politics and the ability to manage post-revolt expectations.

Civil society was effectively locked out of the transition process once Mubarak resigned on the 11th of February 2011. Its power was significantly diminished with the evacuation of Tahrir Square even if mass protests continued for another nine months with an ever rising number of casualties. The military coup two years later was made possible of course by the missteps of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

It was however also made possible by dashed social and economic expectations that the revolt would produce immediate and tangible social and economic benefits strengthened by a manipulative military and security service.

None of these Southeast Asian lessons provide quick fixes for the multiple crises in the Middle East. What it does however demonstrate is that even if popular revolts are often in and of themselves spontaneous events, the run-up to watershed protests are as much a process as is the post-revolt transition. In sum, the Middle East and North Africa has much to learn from the Southeast Asian experience even if Southeast Asia’s path was in some ways easier because it did not have to contend with some of the Middle East and North Africa’s complicating factors.

Thank you.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario


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