It is difficult to imagine it now, but continental Europe struggled with foundational divides—with periodic warnings of civil war—as recently as the 1950s. Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands were divided into ideologically opposed subcultures, sometimes called “spiritual families” or “pillars.” These countries became models of “consensual democracy,” where the subcultures agreed to share power through creative political arrangements.

If we have learned anything, though, it is that lessons learned in Europe are not easily applied to the Middle East. Consensual democracy works best when there are multiple centers of power in society, none of which is strong enough to dominate on its own. While this more or less holds true in Lebanon, and even then precariously, it is not applicable in much of the region. In countries like Egypt, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, the perception that Islamists are too strong and secularists too weak makes polarization significantly worse than it might otherwise be.

In continental Europe, the lines were also drawn more clearly. In Belgium, for instance, there were distinct groups of Flemish and Walloon that could be plainly identified. Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia, however, relatively homogenous. More homogeneity is almost always viewed as a positive factor in forging national identity, but it can also have its drawbacks. Islamists and non-Islamists are different, but not different enough. They live in the same cities, go to the same schools, visit each other on holidays, and sit together at family dinners. This can make it better. It can also make it worse.

Despite this surface-level homogeneity, the underlying principles of consensual democracy—that power should be shared, dispersed, and restrained—can still be useful. A “pure” parliamentary system with only a ceremonial president could have helped alter Egypt’s course. But this is not what Egypt had. From independence onwards, the Egyptian president had always been a towering figure in the country’s politics, casting a shadow on everything else. As the first elected, civilian president in 2012, Morsi was, in fact, weaker than all of his predecessors, yet he still enjoyed disproportionate powers in Egypt’s centralized, top-heavy system. Not surprisingly, then, he became a lightning rod for the opposition. The fact that presidential contests are all or nothing—only one person, after all, can win –heightened the existential tenor of political competition. These dynamics allowed the military to capitalize on the anger that had coalesced around the person of President Morsi.

A parliamentary system, on the other hand, would have put power in the hands of a strong prime minister, who could have more easily been replaced, without necessitating a rejection of the democratic process Egyptians had agreed to less than a year prior. Early elections and no-confidence votes are regular features of parliamentary democracy. Presidents, on the other hand, are generally difficult to impeach, requiring voters to wait four years or longer to express their buyers’ remorse. Despite their claims to the contrary, presidents invariably represent one party—their own. A prime minister is more likely to govern in coalition with other parties, making him accountable to a larger number of stakeholders. All other things being equal, parliamentary systems also make coups against elected leaders less likely. Of course, coups can and will still happen, but here, too, parliamentarism is the better option. Ousted parties can more easily reconstitute themselves in parliamentary systems, as Turkey’s recurring cycle of military intervention followed by Islamist success suggests.

“Designing” better political systems can only take you so far, however. At some point, parties and politicians must work in good faith to lower the political stakes. There are any number of creative possibilities. Parties, for example, can agree to “postpone” debates on the divisive issues that are likely to fracture the unsteady, diverse coalitions that toppled the authoritarian regimes in the first place. This, though, is anathema to how we like to think about democracy’s development. After 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, it was only natural to expect Egyptians to want to debate anything and everything among themselves; discussions over the role of religion had been suppressed for far too long.

But by instituting an “interim period” before contending with the most divisive issues, democratic competition can be regularized—both sides could, potentially, gain enough trust in each other. Of course, the ideological polarization—over perennial touchstones like alcohol consumption, sex segregation, women’s rights, and educational curricula—would still inevitably come. At least then, though, Egyptians would have had a fighting chance.

* * *

One way to address foundational divides is to build “liberal vetoes” into the political system from the beginning. The most effective way to do this is through permanent guarantees in the constitution. The U.S. Bill of Rights is, in this respect, a towering achievement, imposing clear limits on the desires of the majority. If members of Congress wanted to issue legislation prohibiting Muslims from holding cabinet positions, for instance, they wouldn’t be able to, however large their majority. The constitution wouldn’t allow it. But this raises its own set of difficult questions. After a revolution, who gets to write the constitution?

There are two main possibilities. Historically, elite commissions and committees often drafted constitutions, the most notable example being the United States in 1787. The post-war Japanese constitution, meanwhile, was commissioned by General Douglas MacArthur and drafted by “approximately two dozen Americans during Japan’s postwar occupation, with relatively minor revisions made by Japanese government officials and virtually no public consultation,” writes the legal scholar Alicia Bannon. When Corazon Aquino, Asia’s first female president, led the Philippines’ democratic transition in the 1980s, she appointed a fifty-member commission which drafted a constitution that continues to govern the Philippines to this day. Such top-down approaches have generally fallen out of favor.

Today, the most common approach, adopted by both Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, is to do it democratically. Tunisia directly elected a parliament which doubled as a constituent assembly, while in Egypt, the elected parliament selected the 100 men and women whose sole job was to draft a new constitution. This is the most obvious—and I would argue fair—approach. To the extent that societies should be able to chart their own course, why shouldn’t the population have a say on the basic framework of their political system-to-be? To shut ordinary citizens out is to undermine the legitimacy of any constitutional document, particularly in polarized societies where one group is likely to dominate any appointed body to the exclusion of others. There is simply no way to achieve “fair” representation except through some kind of democratic selection process (which is precisely why we have democracy in the first place). To appoint, rather than elect, a committee also raises the question of who exactly is doing the appointing.

Tunisia and Egypt’s constitution-drafting processes were reflective of the international consensus around the need for popular participation and buy-in. The democratic approach to constitution-drafting, however, is problematic for the same reasons that democracy is problematic—it can lead to illiberal outcomes in societies where a large portion, perhaps even a majority, of the population espouse illiberal beliefs and attitudes. If Egypt had directly elected its constituent assembly, close to 75 percent of the members would have been Islamist. As it turned out, 50 percent were—nearly 25 percent less than their actual electoral weight would have suggested. But while Islamists may have seen this as a “concession,” liberals, rightly, saw the constituent assembly as what it still was: an Islamist-dominated body.

In her study of Kenya’s early-2000s constitution drafting process, Alicia Bannon labels the presumed need for broad participation “the participation myth.” Certain conditions, she argues, can “make broad participation either helpful or undesirable in light of an individual country’s circumstances.” While also citing negative experiences in Nicaragua and Chad, Bannon notes that the broadly participatory process in Kenya was not only expensive, in terms of “expense, time, and opportunity cost,” but also divisive, leading to “ethnic pandering and polarization.”

Lastly, instituting a democratic selection process while, at the same time, agreeing on a limited number of “supraconstitutional principles” is a third, alternative path. Islamists and secularists, however, are unlikely to agree on nonnegotiables. (If they could, then the ideological divide wouldn’t be nearly as large as it is.) In the end, something—or someone—has to give. Either Islamists voluntarily concede some of their preferences, agreeing for example to include only mildly Islamic language, or a supreme body, perhaps one where Islamists are underrepresented, formulates something resembling a “bill of rights” binding on all participants.

This third way would loosely mirror the constitution-drafting process in post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress initially wanted to elect a constituent assembly to draft the constitution but gave in to the objections of F.W. de Klerk’s National Party, which feared a new constitution would not adequately protect the white population. In 1993, 26 parties negotiated a set of supra-constitutional principles, similar to the United States’ Bill of Rights, before directly electing a constituent assembly. Mandela and de Klerk soon shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

Practicality aside, the South African model—in part because we know, after the fact, that it was successful—sounds appealing. I should include a major caveat here, however. As a “small-d” democrat, I am deeply uncomfortable with non-democratic solutions that circumscribe self-determination. Democracy is about representing and reflecting the popular will, and to limit or subvert that on something as fundamental as a constitution sets a troubling precedent. Why shouldn’t Egyptians, Jordanians, or Turks have the right to try out an alternative ideological project outside the confines of liberal democracy, however much we might disagree with it? That should be their choice, not anyone else’s. That conversation, however, is moot if democracy fails to take hold in the first place. A democratic approach to constitution drafting in Egypt ended up fueling polarization and pushed liberals to consider—and then support—extra-legal regime change. If we wish to prioritize the survival of democracy in hostile conditions, then some things, at least in the short run, will need to be prioritized over others. These are necessary evils.


This article has been adapted from Shadi Hamid’s book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World, which has just been released in paperback.