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 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.