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Should Egypt Drop the Presidency?

David Landau, Florida State University College of Law

Bruce Ackerman recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for Egypt to drop the institution of the presidency from its new constitutional order, and instead to use a parliamentary system with a constructive vote of no confidence. Ackerman argues essentially that the figure of the president allows the Muslim Brotherhood to govern without gaining support from other groups, whereas a Parliamentary system would force Islamists to govern with support from other groups.

The article revives one of the older debates in constitutional design. Juan Linz and others have long argued that presidentialism creates a winner-take-all logic that is detrimental to democratic stability, and have recommended parliamentarism instead. Some more recent work by Cindy Skach and others has focused particularly on the semi-presidentialism found in Egypt, France, Russia, and elsewhere, where there is both a directly elected president with real power and a separate prime minister. These regimes supposedly create vagueness in the distribution of powers that is especially destabilizing to democracy.

An opposing line of research has defended presidentialism. For example, scholars argue that presidentialism increases electoral accountability both because voters have a clearer sense of what they are voting for and because it is easier for them to figure out who to hold accountable for governmental failure. Some also note that parliamentary regimes can in fact be highly unstable, with governing coalitions forming and dissolving in rapid succession (as has occurred at times in Italy). And others defend the decisiveness with which presidential regimes can supposedly respond to crisis.

The competing claims remain difficult to assess empirically; statistical analyses for example are difficult because of the number of confounding variables. The Latin American experience – where the major countries are presidential – nonetheless looks quite different than it did twenty years ago. The argument that presidentialism breeds instability is more difficult to support in a region that has been much more consistently democratic than in the past. The issue of overall performance and quality of governance is more difficult to assess, but even multiparty presidential systems like Brazil appear to have improved quality of governance. At least over time, then, it may be that Latin American presidentialism is maturing to the point of workability.

As Ackerman suggests, much of this debate might be better considered in concrete terms, in the context of a particular party system and particular set of political and social problems. The Egyptian experience seems to validate the anti-presidential argument to an extent. Some of the key problems stemmed from the composition of the Parliament, rather than the presidency. The first Constitutional Assembly, which was seen as stacked by Islamist elements, was selected by a Parliament that was insufficiently pluralistic, perhaps because of the rapid timing of elections. But the issue of presidential emergency power was salient, for example, in Morsi’s decree last November stating that his declarations would not be subject to judicial review. Presidentialism does not appear to have been the only reason for Egypt’s instability, but it seems likely to have played some role.

If Egypt does stick with the presidency, it should carefully consider the issue of presidential power, especially affirmative decree and emergency powers. The experience across much of Latin America suggests that emergency decrees can occasionally be destabilizing, often lack popular legitimacy, and may limit the development of other democratic institutions like legislatures. The question of presidential emergency powers – and emergency powers in general – is likely to arise repeatedly because of the unstable nature of the democratic transition. The distribution of power between president and prime minister is a second important dimension in the medium and longer term. The cohabitation problem seems to be endemic to semi-presidential systems, and at some point the Egyptians are likely to face it. The broader point is that some of these issues might be better dealt with through specific, detailed points of design, rather than the broad question of regime type.

Suggested Citation: David Landau, Should Egypt Drop the Presidency?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, July 27, 2013, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2013/07/should-egypt-drop-the-presidency/

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Published on July 28, 2013
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