How Egypt Can Make Democracy Work

Is the country better suited for a Parliamentary system than a U.S.-style presidency?

Is the country better suited for a Parliamentary system than a U.S.-style presidency?


The Egyptian military has dissolved both the parliament and Constitution that were central to now-resigned President Hosni Mubarak's rule, promising free elections in six months. Mubarak's government is already disappearing, but its not clear what, exactly, will come next. As Egypt's future hangs in the balance, what's most likely to determine the outcome? Observers are now focused largely on the army, but there's much more at play that will determine the future of governance in Egypt.

At this point, a democratic transition will most likely require the army to continue to play a strong, guiding role. Now that the military is transitioning from managing the protests to running the country, it is in a position to either seize power for itself or secure a path toward democracy.

Any political transition is likely to be more successful if more and more citizens come to feel that they "own" the protests and the resulting transition. In this respect, the fact that the demand for Mubarak's immediate resignation originated from Cairo's Tahrir Square rather than from the Obama administration is a positive development.

Many of the opposition groups, representing a broad spectrum of opinion - including a traditional liberal party, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and the Facebook activists of the April 6 Youth Movement - have indicated that they might support an interim government, possibly one led by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei.

But, in order to choose a leader, these groups must coalesce into a coherent force. Great civil-society protest movements - such as those in Egypt and Tunisia - can overthrow a dictatorship, but a true democracy requires parties, negotiations, election rules, and agreement on constitutional changes. In most successful transitions, the first step toward forging the unity required to create an interim government is taken when the diverse groups begin to meet more often, develop common strategies, and issue collective statements.

Regardless of who leads it, there are some things an interim government should not do. Judging by the transitions that we have studied, a successful democratic outcome stands the best chance if the interim government does not succumb to the temptation to extend its mandate or write a new constitution itself. The interim government's key political task should be to organize free and fair elections, making only those constitutional changes needed to conduct them. Writing a new constitution is best left to the incoming, popularly elected parliament.

Most activists and commentators are now asking who will or should become the next president. But why assume that a presidential political system, headed by a powerful unitary executive, will be instituted? Of the eight post-communist countries in the European Union, not one chose such a system. All of them established some form of parliamentary system, in which the government is directly accountable to the legislature and the president's powers are limited -- and often largely ceremonial.

That was a wise decision. A presidential election at a moment of great uncertainty, and in the absence of experienced democratic parties or broadly accepted leaders, is filled with danger.

To elect a president is to commit to one person, generally for at least four years. But, because the country's political parties are so young, so numerous, and so inexperienced, it is very uncertain that any person elected today in Egypt would have the same support in even a year. For example, if there are many candidates in a first round of a presidential election, it is conceivable that neither of the two candidates in the second-round run-off will have won more than 20% in the first round. The winner would thus assume all the burdens of leadership with the support of only a small minority of the electorate.

It is also possible that a new president turns out to be incompetent, or is in a permanent minority position and unable to pass legislation. In this way, many new democracies fall rapidly into "super-presidentialism" with plebiscitary qualities.

Fortunately, some Egyptian democratic activists and theorists are already debating the parliamentary alternative. In that case, Egypt's first free and fair election could create a constituent assembly that would immediately provide a democratic base for the government, as well as a means to amend or re-write the constitution.

At that point, the constituent assembly and government could decide whether to switch to a presidential form of government or establish a parliamentary system on a permanent basis. Under a parliamentary system, any future democratic government would gain invaluable flexibility, for two major reasons.

First, unlike presidentialism, a parliamentary system can give rise to multiparty ruling coalitions. Second, unlike a president, who, however incompetent or unpopular, remains in power for a fixed term, the head of government in a parliamentary system can be removed at any time by a vote of no confidence, clearing the way for a new, majority-backed government - or, failing that, fresh elections.

Some democratic nationalists in Egypt are defending parliamentarianism with an important new argument: a contentious, pluralist, probably multiparty coalition government would be harder for the United States to dominate than a lone "super-president" like Mubarak.

Perhaps most importantly, a parliamentary system could address the huge task of creating democratic and effective political parties better than presidentialism would. Criticizing Mubarak as a "pharaoh" makes for great political rhetoric, but for democracy truly to work in Egypt, it will need to do more than subject the president, and the presidential system, to meaningful elections; it will need a new system altogether.

This post also appears at Democracy Digest; it is distributed by Project Syndicate, 2011.

Photo by Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty