Prabowo camp using Shihab’s repatriation to hold onto Islamic support base

CNN Indonesia – July 11, 2019
Prabowo holds integrity pact at 2nd Ijtimak Ulama – September 16, 2018 (Tribune)
Prabowo holds integrity pact at 2nd Ijtimak Ulama – September 16, 2018 (Tribune)

Jakarta – Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab’s name has again come into the public spotlight in the midst of a planned political reconciliation following the 2019 presidential elections.

Loosing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto has put forward a number of conditions for a reconciliation with president elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, one of which is Shihab’s repatriation to Indonesia.

Shihab has been in hiding in Saudi Arabia for more than two years after the police charged him in relation to several criminal cases. In late April 2017, he went on a holy pilgrimage to Mecca, one week before being declared a suspect in a pornographic sex chat case with a woman called Firza Husein.

Since then Shihab as remained in Saudi Arabia even though the Metro Jaya regional police dropped the pornography charges against him.

In addition to the pornography case, the West Java provincial police also declared Shihab a suspect for allegedly insulting the state ideology of Pancasila. The police also halted this case early last year.

While in Saudi Arabia, Shihab continued to consolidate support for Prabowo in the elections. He took part in planning the 2nd Ijtimak Ulama (meeting or assembly of Islamic clerics) which threw their support behind the presidential ticket of Prabowo and his vice presidential running mate Sandiaga Uno.

Prabowo meanwhile, also pledged to personally pick up Shihab from Saudi Arabia and bring him home if elected as the next president.

“During the 2nd Ijtimak I said that as soon as I win I’ll bring Habib Rizieq Shihab back. I will send my own private jet to pick him up”, said Prabowo in February.

Prabowo went on to lose the presidential election. The secretary general of his Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Ahmad Muzani, has admitted that Shihab’s repatriation was one of the conditions for a reconciliation between Prabowo and Widodo.

Gerindra communication division member Andre Rosiade says that Shihab’s repatriation is a moral responsibility to their supporters on the part of Prabowo and Gerindra.

“This is part of Pak [Mr] Prabowo and the Gerindra Party’s moral responsibility to all of our supporter who defending (supported) us”, Rosiade told CNN Indonesia.

Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko meanwhile says that Shihab was the one who choose to go to Saudi Arabia and he was not expelled by the government.

“Who went, who should repatriate him. He left of his own accord right, why should he be repatriated by [the government], what’s with them? Was it indeed us that expelled him, no”, said Moeldoko at the Presidential Palace in West Java on Tuesday July 9.


Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) Director Sirojuddin Abbas says that setting Shihab’s repatriation as a precondition for reconciliation is just rhetoric on the part of Gerindra.

He believes that Gerindra is simply entertaining their support groups from the 212 Alumni Brotherhood (PA 212) and the FPI.

“It’s just rhetoric, rhetoric to entertain groups in the 212 and the FPI so that they see Gerindra as their defender”, he said during a discussion with CNN Indonesia on Wednesday July 10.

“If this happens then it looks like Gerindra is hoping to score political points from the 212 groups and the FPI”, he said.

According to Abbas, setting this precondition cannot be separated from Gerindra’s efforts to maintain its mass base of support among Islamic groups, particularly Shihab’s supporters who are part of the PA 212 and the FPI.

He says that Gerindra is afraid of losing this not insignificant support from Shihab’s followers. “Yes that’s what the [real] concern is”, said Abbas.

Abbas said however that the Prabowo camp does not actually have any political bargaining power because the Constitutional Court has rejected their challenge against the presidential election result.

Whether or not this condition is met, he continued, will have no impact whatsoever on the legitimacy of the next administration during Widodo’s second term in office with vice president elect Ma’ruf Amin.

According to Abbas, neither Prabowo or Gerindra have any real bargaining power against the government. “Does the Prabowo group still have bargaining power, I don’t think they have any bargaining power any more”, he said.

2024 elections

Jakarta Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) political observer Ahmad Bakir Iksan believes that the condition being set by Gerindra is related to their interests in the 2024 elections.

According to Iksan, Gerindra is well aware that Shihab as a leader has sway over a number of Islamic groups. It is these groups which are devoted to Shihab that Gerindra wants to manage for their long-term political interests.

“Habib Rizieq is still and icon for some sections of a movement which is seen as having ‘succeeded’ in having a political impact in this country”, said Iksan.

“With his repatriation later, Habib Rizieq can become [political] capital. For Gerindra of course he can become capital to mobilise different resources for Gerindra’s interests, especially in 2024”, he said.

Iksan however predicts that the government will not simply meet this condition. Moreover, the public is still divided post the 2019 presidential elections. There are indications of this concern in statements by Moeldoko.

“It may well be that the government will feel that Habib Rizieq’s presence [back in Indonesia] will be ‘troublesome’”, he said.

“Because of this there’s a good possibility that the government will not immediately agree to this condition for negotiations [with the Prabowo camp]”, asserted Iksan. (fra/arh)

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was “Kepentingan Gerindra di Balik Syarat Pemulangan Rizieq Shihab”.]