Asian and European lessons for the Middle East

14 October 2014

Posted on 18 Aug 2011

By SHADA ISLAM -- As the Arab spring turns into summer and autumn, European and Asian policymakers can share experiences with their Arab counterparts on the democratic transformation of former communist eastern Europe and the transition to democracy in three leading Asian nations: Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea.

The framework provided by ASEM (the Asia-Europe Meeting) provides a good platform for just such a discussion. The results of such an Asia-Europe brainstorming should then be shared with Arab policymakers, business leaders and scholars.

Such a three-way conversation is especially needed at a time of increasing uncertainties about the future of Tunisia and Egypt, where pro-democracy movements have achieved democratic change.

European and Asian lessons in transition and reform can also be helpful for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, whether in Libya, which is currently in the midst of a brutal civil war, or in Syria where demands for change have been met with a government crackdown or in Bahrain and Yemen.

As the Arab spring ebbs and flows, an initial period of hope is being replaced by uncertainty over whether the region can produce viable, and economically vibrant, democracies.

Historical parallels are never perfect of course; Arab countries, with their mix of disaffected young people yearning for change, under-developed or non-existent political parties and well-organised Islamist organisations present a complex picture.

However, European, Asian and Arab policymakers can learn from each other's experiences on what works and what does not when peoples’ demand for freedom and reform can no longer be ignored.

Certainly, the transition from communist, centrally-planned economies to free market democracies – and membership of the 27-nation European Union – as experienced by many ex-communist eastern European nations since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall provides an interesting blueprint for the Arab world.

The region’s experience with civil society movements, the formation of electoral and governance systems, economic reforms and the often rocky transition to stability could help reassure Arab public opinion about the direction of their own people-power revolutions.

Asian countries like the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia also went through long and difficult transition periods following the fall of entrenched, corrupt, dictatorships.

The three countries lived through riots, uncertainty and pain. The economy suffered. The army watched warily as protests spread. Today the three countries are functioning democracies and active participants in Asia’s rise.

In the Philippines in 1986, the "People Power movement" drove President Ferdinand Marcos into exile and installed Corazon Aquino as the new president. The Philippine armed forces unexpectedly deserted Marcos, and the US told him that it was "time to cut, and cut clean" paving the way for a series of weak but essentially democratic governments, with a very free press and a vibrant civil society.

In South Korea, meanwhile, the democratic uprising of June 1987 represented a nation-wide movement which resulted in the authorities giving the green light to democratisation. South Korea today has a robust democracy and has emerged as one of Asia's strongest economic power houses.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, faced food shortages and massive unemployment triggered by the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. Anger and riots exploded against President Suharto and his government forces, leading to the unpopular president's resignation on 21 May 1998. Since then, a strengthening of democratic processes has included a regional autonomy program, and the first direct presidential election in 2004.

In the last 13 years Indonesia has emerged as a vibrant and dynamic democracy and a middle income economic power with impressive regional and global outreach. Membership of the Group of 20 gives it additional international clout. Indonesia is also working within the region and outside it to promote democracy, including through the annual Bali Democracy Forum.

Indonesian policymakers say democracy is inherently messy. "Revolutions and their aftermaths, of course, are always fluid and fickle times, and the outcome is often perched on a knife’s edge," according to comments published recently by Mulyani Indrawati, Managing Director of the World Bank Group and a former finance minister of Indonesia.

Ms. Mulyani underlines the challenge new democracies face in bridging the vast gap between high expectations and the reality of limited budgets and capabilities. "But transitions are also times of great opportunity," she adds.

Eastern European members of the EU have come out of their turmoil as strong democracies and market economies. Some of the revolutions in the region (1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Prague and 1980 in Gdansk) were initially brutally repressed but the seeds of change stayed alive to flower years later.

Meanwhile, despite their flaws, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea are also proof that countries can change direction, peoples’ aspirations for democracy can be met and that chaos can give way to peace and development.

Such a powerful message of hope should become part of ASEM’s political and diplomatic outreach to other parts of the world.


Shada Islam is a journalist in Brussels with a long experience of EU-Asia relations. This is a part of a series of articles being published by Ecorys Research and Consulting, as member of the COWI Consortium which is under contract to the European Commission, to look at different aspects of the multi-faceted Asia-Europe relationship. This article represents the views of the author and does not commit the European Commission in any way.