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Can Egypt Move Beyond the Politics of Retribution?

BALI, Indonesia-- Former United States President Bill Clinton likes to tell the story about the time Nelson Mandela first took him to see his old prison cell on Robben Island, where the South African icon was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the collapse of apartheid. In a small room with barely enough space for a man his size, Mandela slept on the floor, without a bed, for more than 6,500 days. Clinton asked, "Weren't you bitter and angry when you finally walked out of here?" Mandela replied, "Yes, I was. But then I said to myself, 'Mandela, they had you for 27 years. If you are still angry with them when you pass through the gate, they will still have you.' But I wanted to be free, so I let it go."

Clinton often adds that "nearly all of the conflicts in the world could be resolved if one side would just stand up and let things go. But there aren't many men like Mandela in the world, because the instinct to hold on to old hatreds and fears is greater than the instinct to let go."

That story comes to mind as I sit here in Indonesia, reading and hearing of old hatreds and fears driving Egypt's abrupt slide from democracy into crisis. As the world tries to make sense of the Egyptian military's slaughter of President Mohamed Morsi's supporters-- Egypt's first democratically-elected leader, overthrown in a coup on July 3rd--the contrast to Indonesia is stark, despite a similar recent history.

Both nations have overwhelming Muslim majorities. Both endured decades of repression at the hands of military dictators. Both witnessed the downfall of those regimes sparked by outside influences--the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 for Indonesia, the Tunisia uprising of 2011 for Egypt. Both saw street protests and suffered religious violence in their transitions to democracy, although more Indonesians--5,000--died in bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims. And in both countries, a strong military played a key role in forcing their respective leaders from office while continuing to wield power in the aftermath.

So how is it that Indonesia today is into its second decade as the world's third-largest democracy and one of its fastest-growing economies while Egypt's experiment with democracy has been stunted a year into its existence? The answer comes back to the theme Mandela confronted at Robben Island: retribution.

Unlike Indonesia, which has managed its transition from authoritarianism without putting revenge at its core, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood sought to institutionalize political payback, needlessly antagonizing allies of the old regime. As a result, Egypt remains challenged today by the oldest sickness in the Middle East: namely, can Egyptians move beyond the politics of retribution to imagine a better future? The signs aren't encouraging.

It's not hard to understand the vitriol that led to the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who spent three decades quashing human rights while corroding economic opportunities. Nor is it surprising that many Egyptians called for Mubarak's National Democratic Party to be punished in the aftermath. Those efforts seemed to crest in April 2011, when an Egyptian court dissolved the NDP and ordered the state to seize its assets.

While most Egyptians quickly moved past vengeance to vision--wondering how Morsi would revive a moribund economy--the Brothers remained fixated on settling old scores. As Middle East scholar Tarek Masoud has observed, "Morsi and his Brothers viewed as Egypt's primary problem not the crumbling of its economy or the decay in public order, but the continued presence of Mubarak's allies and appointees in almost every corner of the state apparatus."

Hence, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Islamists in the Egyptian legislature attempted to rewrite the laws on political participation, seeking to ban anybody associated with the NDP from either running for office or even voting. The courts rejected the change, leading to an election where Mubarak's last prime minister nearly defeated Morsi at the polls.

Upon taking office, instead of uniting Egyptians, Morsi expended political capital to revive the NDP ban by writing it into the Egyptian constitution, and then threatened the public with a return to dictatorship to win its approval by referendum.

It had the unintended effect of turning allies of the old regime--from the police to NDP-affiliated business owners and television personalities--sharply against Morsi. It didn't help that the Brotherhood also wrote elements of sharia law into the secular constitution, "imposing the Brotherhood's religious agenda," as scholar Michael Rubin writes, "on a population that wanted jobs, not Islamic law."

By contrast, Indonesia took a different path, as Dr. Masoud, a Harvard scholar, forcefully argued in a recent Foreign Policy essay. Unlike Egypt, which sentenced Mubarak to life in prison, Indonesians let Suharto go free. Rather than ban Suharto's ruling party, Indonesians have allowed it to participate in every election since. Rather than demonize Suharto's former allies, every government has worked with them to build Indonesia's economy--even allowing the military to hold vast economic interests, and not put them at risk, as Morsi did. It's not that Indonesians suffered less under Suharto than the Brotherhood did under Mubarak--but rather, it was what Masoud calls "their willingness to forgo retribution and work with supporters of the old regime" that helped democracy ultimately take root in Indonesia's vast island nation.

Today, Indonesia's democracy is far from perfect--rampant corruption has made many people here long for the security of the last years of Suharto. But it keeps trying. While Egypt has a second chance today to relearn the lessons of Indonesia, the actions of the Egyptian military in the month since the coup--including its arrest of Morsi and its targeting of Brotherhood supporters--has only repeated the cycle of vengeance that led to this crisis and will only invite retaliation against a future regime. Is Egypt even capable of a Mandela moment? No one knows for sure. But the fate of its democracy--and its future--rests in the balance.

The author is Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC. This is a personal comment.

This post has been updated since its original publication.