Mohamed Morsi and the Case Against Presidents

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


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.

Egypt under Morsi demonstrates the two sides of this problem. Before taking office, Morsi resigned his position as head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, ostensibly to demonstrate that he was not acting on behalf of any particular faction but that he would serve as the president of all Egyptians regardless of their affiliation. Morsi also frequently employs rhetoric stressing the need to protect the revolution, including this past weekend when he defended his actions as necessary to guard against remnants of the Mubarak regime trying to take over the state. He dubbed his new initiative the Revolution Protection Law.

The Democracy ReportThe reality, though, is that Morsi is behaving precisely how critics of presidential systems would expect. Rather than privilege one ethnic or sectarian group over the others, Morsi is privileging one ideological group over the others. The non-Islamists have quit the constituent assembly charged with writing Egypt's new constitution en masse because their concerns have been ignored by the body's Islamist majority. The Muslim Brotherhood is contending that anti-Morsi protestors are creating an unnecessary crisis in order to subvert democracy. And the constituent assembly passed an article yesterday empowering the Islamist Shura Council to issue legislation despite the lack of a parliament. Furthermore, Islamists are predictably holding up Morsi as the sole legitimate state authority while the Muslim Brotherhood's opponents contend that the largely secular courts are the true guardians of Egyptian democracy. Whatever one thinks of Morsi and his actions as president, events in Egypt are playing out exactly as presidential system detractors would predict.

Egypt is also particularly ill-suited for a presidential system given its history of military-dominated politics, which meant a preference for hierarchy and authority vested in a strong national figure. When a military-dominated state adopts or keeps its presidential system following the fall of the authoritarian leader, it is unsurprising that the old patterns persist, which explains the strange optics of the Muslim Brotherhood now calling for the same strong presidency that it once professed to abhor.

I do not mean to suggest that Morsi is a misunderstood democrat hemmed in by Egypt's political system, since that would deny his own agency and absolve him of responsibility for his recent blatant anti-democratic behavior. There are plenty of good reasons to doubt the Muslim Brotherhood's professed desire for democracy, including its violation of its initial pledge not to even run a presidential candidate; and it's plausible, perhaps even likely, that a parliamentary system controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood would quickly reveal itself to be an authoritarian state with a democratic façade.

But by keeping the presidential system that existed under Mubarak rather than overhauling the entire structure following his downfall, Egypt placed itself in a big hole from the outset. Morsi's efforts to consolidate power and discredit his opponents proves exactly why presidential systems are so dangerous in states without strong political institutions or long traditions of democratic politics. Had Egypt gone in a different direction, the prospect of a second Egyptian revolution in as many years aimed at bringing down an authoritarian regime could have been avoided.