Mohamed Morsi and the Case Against Presidents

Egypt's new leader shows exactly why strong executives are the wrong choice for post-revolutionary governments.

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Egypt has dominated the news in the Middle East over the past week following President Mohamed Morsi's assumption of expanded powers and, in particular, his declaration that his actions are beyond the reach of Egypt's courts. Morsi's power grab has sent hundreds of thousands of demonstrators back into the streets around Tahrir Square. Police and protestors have been facing off with rocks and teargas like they did in January 2011. But this time, of course, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood hold the reins of power rather than being among those chanting anti-regime slogans. There is a tragic irony to Morsi, who rose up through the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood while it was establishing itself as the primary opposition to the autocratic Hosni Mubarak and calling for limits on the state's power, now adopting the same stance as his predecessor in asserting that he has the right to undertake "acts of sovereignty" to protect the institutions of the state.

As the battle lines, both literal and figurative, take shape between the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and secularists and liberals on the other, some are pointing out the naïveté of those who assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood would ever act democratically, while others are trying to locate Morsi's actions in the context of overreaching in an effort to save Egyptian democracy. While Morsi's motives will continue to be debated, his actions illuminate a larger question about what happens when you mix a presidential system with a fragile transitional state.

Presidential systems have their pros and cons, and both of these are enhanced when dealing with a state that has weak political institutions and a history of conflict. On the one hand, because a president is directly elected, he can be viewed as a unifying figure who stands above politics and is concerned with the good of the nation as a whole. If the president is seen as a credible and non-partisan figure who is directly accountable to voters in a way that parliaments are not, then a president can help paper over divisions that exist in society and within the political class. One of the reasons that George Washington was viewed with such awe by his contemporaries is precisely because he was seen as a figure above politics, and as such he was uniquely able to heal divisions that had been exposed by the American revolution and set the United States on the path to democracy.

Yet a presidential system also carries with it significant dangers for transitional states. A president is bound to come from one of the groups vying for power, and he can be expected to privilege that group above the rest. When this happens, it fractures a country and worsens any divisions that already exist, as the conflict now involves the institutions of the state as well, and it generally destroys any real chance for democracy to take root. In a polarized society, a presidential system might also create a problem of dual democratic legitimacy, where some people turn to the president for leadership and others turn to the parliament or the courts, fostering ever greater splits in a country already segmented into distinct groups.

Presented by

Michael Koplow

Michael J. Koplow is the program director of the Israel Institute and a Georgetown University Ph.D. candidate in Government specializing in the Middle Eastern politics and democratization. He has written for Foreign Policy and Security Studies, and writes regularly at Ottomans and Zionists.

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