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As pro-democracy protests spread across Egypt, Bahrain and beyond, the White House is studying historical parallels. One of those parallels has personal significance to President Obama.

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro explained.

(Soundbite of protesters)

ARI SHAPIRO: In the 1960s, students in Indonesia marched in the streets. They were protesting Indonesia's autocratic government. The demonstrations ended with a coup, and one strongman replaced another.

Soon after the chaos subsided, a young American woman named Ann Dunham moved to Jakarta with her six-year-old son Barack Obama.

President BARACK OBAMA: Innuendo, half-whispered asides, that's how my mother found out that we had arrived in Jakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times.

SHAPIRO: This is from the audio book of Obama's memoir, "Dreams From My Father."

President OBAMA: Word was that the CIA had played a part in the coup, although nobody knew for sure. More certain was the fact that after the coup the military had swept the countryside for supposed communist sympathizers. The death toll was anybody's guess - a few hundred thousand maybe, half a million. Even the smart guys at the agency had lost count.

SHAPIRO: Three decades later, in 1998, the people of Jakarta marched again.

(Soundbite of protesters)

SHAPIRO: And this time, they won. Today, Indonesia is not only the world's largest Muslim country, it is also a democracy.

Barack Obama returned to Jakarta last November, this time as president of the United States. He greeted the audience in their native language.

President OBAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering)

SHAPIRO: He told an enthusiastic crowd at the University of Indonesia that he had returned home.

President OBAMA: Indonesia has charted its own course through an extraordinary democratic transformation; from the rule of an iron fist to the rule of the people.

SHAPIRO: And now, as protests unfold across the Middle East, President Obama's words return to Indonesia.

President OBAMA: And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can't help but hear the echoes of history; echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice.

SHAPIRO: That was from his statement the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

He mentioned Indonesia again during last week's news conference. He said the history of successful transitions to democracy has been one in which peaceful protests led to dialogue, reform and ultimately democracy.

President OBAMA: That's true in countries like Eastern Europe. That was also true in countries like Indonesia, a majority Muslim country that went some of these similar transitions.

SHAPIRO: The White House is studying many global models of peaceful democratic transitions, from Europe to Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Donald Horowitz of Duke University studies democratic emergence, and he says there is no carbon copy model from one country to another. As Tolstoy said about families, every transition to democracy is unhappy in its own way.

Professor DONALD HOROWITZ (Law and Political Science, Duke University): But are there some ideas that you can get? You can get, for example, a notion that one way to proceed would be to allow elected officials to draft the new constitution, rather than just giving it to a commission of experts and hoping that it will be ratified by the public in a referendum down the road.

SHAPIRO: Horowitz says Indonesia benefitted when elected officials drafted the constitution. Conflicting tribes and factions learned to work together.

Historical models are one thing, but there may be a more personal way in which President Obama's Indonesia experience affects his handling of crises today.

Looking at Mr. Obama's speeches and writings, democracy scholar Larry Diamond of Stanford University reaches this conclusion.

Professor LARRY DIAMOND (Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution; Political Science and Sociology, Stanford University): I think observers and critics have greatly underestimated the degree to which he came into office as president, with a moral sympathy for these kinds of struggles.

SHAPIRO: Global alliances have sometimes prevented the president from siding with the people in the streets as vocally as those protesters might have hoped. But now, Diamond sees things changing.

Prof. DIAMOND: President Obama is realizing that there is a new and profound convergence between the values and aspirations he holds personally and the strategic interests of the United States.

SHAPIRO: Just as Indonesia is not the only model that shapes the White House's understanding of Egypt, Indonesia is not the only experience that shapes President Obama.

Cornell's Valerie Jane Bunce studies transitions to democracy.

Professor VALERIE JANE BUNCE (International Studies and Government, Cornell University): If anything, I think that what influenced Obama was his work in community action. He is very sensitive to people-power kinds of ways of thinking about building responsive governments from the bottom up.

SHAPIRO: Bunce says democracy is a process, not an outcome.

It's a process that Barack Obama has been part of his entire life. And now he's part of it again - from the top, instead of the bottom.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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