Over the last weeks, the presidential election has dominated Egypt’s political conversation, eclipsing a topic of far greater importance: the drafting of a new constitution. Since this foundational legal document will govern the lives of citizens, determining their rights and responsibilities and shaping the government’s ability to advance society’s interests, Egyptians ought to consider their options carefully. This overview attempts to help the process. It describes two basic types of democracy — parliamentary and presidential — and explains what each can offer to Egypt.
Given Egyptians’ disenchantment with an overpowering president, the Constituent Assembly may decide on a parliamentary democracy like that which exists in the Federal Republic of Germany. In such a system, the executive branch of government — that is, the branch that implements the law — emerges from the legislative, or law-making, branch. Following parliamentary elections, when a new parliament is seated, the coalition of parties that together hold more than 50 percent of electoral votes choose the prime minister. In Germany, the last elections took place in 2009. The winning coalition consisted of the Christian Democrats (38 percent of votes) and the Free Democrats (15 percent of votes). For prime minister they chose Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat. Her role is to head the executive and implement legislation that parliament has passed. At the same time, she can introduce bills (i.e., suggestions for laws) into parliament.
When the prime minister fails to carry out the will of the legislators, they withdraw their confidence from her, forcing her to step down and make way for a replacement. In this system, the parliament is the dominant feature — there cannot be a government without it — and it forms the hinge between the executive and the public. A president does exist — in Germany, his name is Joachim Gauck — but his function is largely ceremonial and carries little actual power. In fact, few outside of Germany even know the president’s name.
To reinforce the predominance of parliament, the constitution of a parliamentary system provides that voters only elect the legislators. Legislators in turn elect the executive. This procedure, which in Germany happens every four years, gives members of parliament democratic legitimacy, because they are a direct reflection of the popular will. The prime minister and his ministers have somewhat less legitimacy; being chosen by lawmakers, they reflect the popular will only indirectly. Because the executive’s legitimacy derives from parliament, it is exceedingly rare to see a prime minister address the public without clearing his message with the parliamentary majority.
This system is clearly very different from what has been practiced in Egypt. The parliament plays a far more influential role, the prime minister is more powerful, the president weaker, and because the prime minister depends so heavily on the legislature, it is unlikely that he will succumb to the control of military leaders.
If Egyptians choose this system, they need to pay close attention to getting the electoral process right. Some democracies, such as the United Kingdom, embrace majoritarian representation. Here, each electoral seat is assigned to one specific geographic district. Individual candidates from that district run for the seat, and who gets the most votes wins it. This system typically produces two large parties in the legislature. In the UK, they are the Conservatives (47 percent of seats) and Labor (39 percent). The remainder of the seats is held by the Liberal Democrats (nine percent) and a few minuscule parties.
The alternative election model is proportional representation. Here, each party draws up a list of candidates, and citizens vote for one of the lists. A parliament elected through proportional representation has typically a greater variety of parties than the majoritarian system. On the plus side, this variety reflects the diversity of the population better. The risk, however, is that parliament may become fragmented into splinter parties. A governing coalition must then be cobbled together of several small parties that have very different ideologies, and the resulting governing coalition tends to be unstable. To prevent this, Egyptians may want to require that parties win a certain percentage of votes before being admitted into Parliament. Germans, for example, demand that their parties must win five percent of the votes.
The fundamental alternative Egyptians have at their disposal is the presidential democracy. The most famous example is the United States. Here, the people elect both the president (the executive) and Congress (the legislative) directly. While elections for members of Congress unfold regionally (e.g. only Texans can elect congressmen representing Texans), the president is elected by the entire electorate. He therefore has much greater democratic legitimacy than any individual member of Congress. This helps explain why the US president is much more visible than the German prime minister.
Because Congress did not elect the president, its members do not have the power to unseat him by withdrawing their confidence. And unlike the German prime minister, the American president does not have the power to introduce bills. His formal opportunity to influence legislation comes only at the very end of the legislative process, once lawmakers have agreed on the text of a bill and asked the president to sign it. At this point, the president can cast his veto, that is, voice his objection. When he does, Congress is forced to muster a supermajority of two-thirds to pass the bill despite the president’s objection.
Following the strict outlines of the US Constitution, the president’s role in the legislative process is thus far more limited than that of Germany’s prime minister. Informally, however, it is expansive, because the president possesses enormous democratic legitimacy. This allows him to appeal directly to the voting public, explaining his legislative ideas and asking for the public’s support. The president can also back members of Congress in their reelection campaigns. Realizing the Roman saying “One hand washes the other,” members of Congress who share the president’s political outlook — typically members of his party — are therefore eager to help him, either by introducing bills on his behalf or by helping gather support among members of Congress. Opposition politicians, however, need not fret. Thanks to extensive provisions guaranteeing their freedom of speech, dissatisfied members of Congress can criticize the president, and they often do so harshly.
Egyptians who favor the presidential system need to be aware of its drawbacks. Because the executive and legislative are elected separately, the president and the congressional majority are often from different and thus competing parties. It can therefore happen that relations between the executive and legislative become gridlocked. In the United States, between November 1995 and January 1996, this caused an embarrassing episode where public servants were not paid the wages they were due — a Republican-controlled Congress, trying to put pressure on President Bill Clinton, refused to pass the budgetary legislation for operating the federal government. Clinton, unwilling to yield to their pressure, was forced to suspend non-essential federal employees for a total of 28 days.
In a parliamentary system, relations between the legislative minority and the governing majority can of course be hostile, too. But if the governing coalition is stable, a hostile minority will not prevent the executive from functioning.
Choices for Egypt
Constitutional framers are often tempted to create institutions that cement the power relations among them. Egypt’s Constituent Assembly should steer clear of this trap and avoid prioritizing short-term gains for their respective groups, because a constitution based exclusively on short-term considerations may not survive the long run.
The challenge for the framers is to design a system that creates real balance among the branches of government, ensuring that democratic representation will be carried forth into the future. To create buy-in on the part of the population, the system should reflect society’s most fundamental values. Lastly, it should be sufficiently flexible to adapt to future challenges that the framers at present cannot foresee.
Three specific recommendations flow from this.
First, the country needs strong parties. Islamists are sometimes opposed to a parliament based on parties. Their claim is that parties are divisive, destroying the harmony among the electorate. There is, however, a different view, one that is shared by most democrats: parties are assemblies that generate visions for the nation’s future. A variety of such assemblies will generate a range of visions, giving the electorate a menu of choices. Do Egyptians want to compete in the world market? Or do they prefer to separate their economy from the rest of the world? By voting for alternative parties, citizens can express their economic desires.
Parties are integral to a functioning democracy, and in order to fulfill their role, they must be strong, with sufficient funding to deliver their message to the electorate and with good connections to the grassroots. That way, the expressed needs of citizens on the ground can actually find their way into party platforms. This is where Egypt’s party system has failed; parties — especially from the opposition — were never given the power to connect with the voting public. If Egypt is to become democratic, this must change.
Second, the constitution should guarantee that office holders are accountable to those who elected them, not to organizations without democratic accountability. For example, if Egypt implements a presidential system, the president should be required to implement only mandates given to him by the entire electorate. He must not be permitted to take orders from an unelected organization such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Third, Egyptians might want to consider decentralizing their government. Currently, all political power is concentrated in Cairo, and all important government agencies are located there. The disadvantage of such a system is that remote provinces — like Sinai — are often neglected. Successful decentralization requires that the framers democratize not only Egypt’s national institutions but also governance in the provinces, for example through provincial or municipal elections, and develop ways for holding local office holders accountable to the voting public.
Egyptians live at an exciting time, because they have the rare opportunity to reimagine the way they are governed. The two systems described above are two basic types of democracy, but they can be varied in an almost infinite number of ways and adapted to the country’s needs and circumstances. Nations all over the world have practiced democratic governance for decades and furnish a rich array of models from which the Constituent Assembly can draw.
This is the nation’s chance to get it right.
Nivien Saleh is an associate professor at the Center for International Studies, University of St. Thomas.