Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Egypt: Parliament to the Rescue

Egypt’s military has begun to commandeer its revolution. Its handpicked commission of legal experts has come up with recommendations for patching up the existing constitution to suit the post-Mubarak era. These top-down reforms have been generated within the space of 10 days and without broad popular participation. They would open up presidential elections to independent candidates and limit incumbents to two four-year terms. However, the commission didn’t touch many of the most problematic features of the old regime and failed to confront the fundamental question: Should Egypt retain the presidential system that enabled its authoritarian past, or should its new constitution model itself on European-style parliamentary democracy?

A presidential system will play into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. As the only well-organized opposition party, its candidate could well gain 20 or 25 percent of the ballots in an early presidential election. If Egypt’s secular opposition splinters into several factions, their new parties may lag behind the Brotherhood in the first round of voting.

At this point, Egypt’s military could be sorely tempted to intervene to prevent an Islamist takeover. Even if the military restrains itself and allows the election to proceed to a runoff, the fate of the Brotherhood will depend on the electoral appeal of the secular candidate.

To pacify these anxieties, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has said that it will not run a candidate in the upcoming presidential election. But once the reforms are in place, it will have the right to put its candidate on the ballot by obtaining the signatures of 30,000 voters from 15 of Egypt’s 29 provinces. Even if it keeps its promise, it can operate as kingmaker by throwing its support behind the “independent” candidate who goes furthest in supporting its aims. Any effort to bar him for his Brotherhood-friendly stance would not only be unconstitutional, but alienate many Egyptians from the entire state-building enterprise.

A parliamentary system will respond to the Islamists in a more constructive fashion. Even if they win a quarter of the vote, three-quarters of the parliamentary seats will go to more secular rivals. They will be in a good position to organize a coalition government without Brotherhood assistance. If some Islamists do enter the government, their aims will be moderated by the need for secular support. While wheeling and dealing for cabinet positions will create political tensions, those don’t compare with the severe crises that could be generated by a presidential system.

If secularists are forced to compete in a presidential system, it’s possible that they would unite behind a single candidate to deprive the Brotherhood of a decisive victory. But even if this strategy succeeds, it will deprive secularists of a much-needed period of democratic experimentation. After their systematic suppression by the Mubarak regime, secular Egyptians should have room to form competing political parties. But this debate about their country’s future will be short-circuited if secularists are obliged to anoint a single leader to defeat the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate.

The secularists’ problem is compounded by Egypt’s “leaderless revolution.” At other times and places, heroes like George Washington or Lech Walesa served as the obvious choice to lead the revolutionary republic. But there is nobody in Egypt who has earned this central position. A presidential system will force the secularists to pick a single leader prematurely. In contrast, a multiparty parliamentary system expresses the fundamental truth that Egyptians have only begun to debate their political options and that ongoing competition among different leaders is a healthy response to freedom.

Parliament is poised to provide Egypt with some much-needed stability during what promises to be a difficult transition period. The first Egyptian president, who won’t be a revolutionary hero with deep reservoirs of good will, is likely to need to make a number of tough decisions right away. He may lose popular support quickly, saddling the country with an embattled leader during most of his four-year term in office.

A parliamentary system generates a leadership coalition, not a leadership cult, enabling different coalition parties to reach out to different sectors of Egyptian society. If the first coalition government loses popular support, it can’t hang on for four or five years. It will lose a vote of no confidence, and a different coalition will take its place — or parliament will dissolve, and the parties will be obliged to return to the voters for new instructions. However troublesome an early election may be, it’s a lot better than the prospect of an unpopular president struggling to maintain power against a hostile legislature.

Constitutional design is no panacea. Wise democratic leadership, as well as engaged citizenship, is even more important. But bad design can make it much harder for good politics to emerge.

The military has proposed to put its “reforms” to the voters in a referendum, but this would only misdirect the conversation. It is not enough to ensure that Egypt’s next autocrat is chosen in one free and fair election. The dangers of the present setup are too serious to ignore. If Egypt’s current leadership is truly serious about forging a vibrant democracy, it should move swiftly to implement a multiparty parliamentary system.

–Bruce Ackerman [cross-posted with permission from]


9 responses to “Egypt: Parliament to the Rescue”

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell Avatar

    My comment is in two parts, owing to the character length (a 4,096 count limit).

    As much as I often find much to admire in Ackerman’s work on constitutional and democratic questions in the U.S., I think his concerns here are rather over-the-top if not wildly hyperbolic. Not a few constitutions have been written or amended “without broad popular participation,” and there’s no compelling reason to conclude that proposals up to now signal the end of the constitutional changes envisioned from various quarters in the society. To the extent that the military regime doesn’t act, or postpones dealing with issues that arose in the uprising, it will be accused of maneuvering to consolidate or simply perpetuate its own political and economic power, such as it is. The characterization of these proposals as “top-down reforms” is singularly unhelpful: show us where identical or similar reforms are or were NOT “top-down,” that is, not involving strategically positioned elites and experts, often without any clear popular mandate in a participatory democratic sense. Such are the nature of many a “coordinating convention,” the point being that we should focus rather on the possible effects for furthering democratic methods and processes over the long-term, for the possibilities and probabilities put in place that future politicians and electorates will have democratic “space” and be accorded democratic opportunities.

    The question of a choice that needs to be made between a presidential system and a “European-style parliamentary democracy” also seems a bit forced if not false. Could not a Presidential model resemble something like a democratic-constitutional monarchy, the president having the largely symbolic “powers” granted monarchs in such systems? And why a European-style parliamentary democracy?

    Overwrought hyperbole again rears its head in the fear of the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood; and here Ackerman seems to betray a deep ignorance of the Egyptian situation and the history and contemporary politics of the Brotherhood. Participation in electoral politics will likely serve to further moderate what some believe (not always justifiably) are Islamist principles and practices contrary to democratic ideals, values, and practices, just as repression has, historically and conversely, served to “radicalize” the politics of the Ikhwan. The specter of an “Islamist takeover” in Egypt is perhaps best described as an Orientalist nightmare whose only touchstone in reality is owing to the fantasies and insecurities of a (neo-)Zionist ideological trope that owes its power and persistence to the “fight against terrorism.” Many of the “secularists” Ackerman refers to are at the same time Muslims, so their understanding of the Brotherhood and their “fears” of an Islamist takeover probably do not coincide with Ackerman’s own or the constructions he attributes to “the secularists.”

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell Avatar

    Ackerman’s anxiety over “top-down” constitutional deliberations disappear, however, when he speaks of the revolutionary process itself, for now the Egyptians are said to be afflicted with a lack of leaders, i.e., chastised for not having a “top-down” structure as it were, for having a “leaderless” revolution, a description that at best is tendentiously true or true in a strongly attenuated or stipulative sense, but hardly literally true. In other words, this characterization is certainly true for those subconsciously clinging to some “Great Man” theory of history and/or revolution. Egypt’s revolutionary leaders were fairly selfless and inconspicuous, at least to mass media observers and pundits, but they were no less leaders for all that, and thus thankfully bereft of that type of revolutionary leader at the front and fount of some Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vanguard hell-bent on saving the masses from themselves. I suspect when the full story of this revolution is written, we’ll learn more about, and come to better appreciate, the plurality of leaders in this revolution, pre-figuring as it does, just that sort of democratic politics Ackerman putatively favors with the return to “routine” politics. Ackerman sees a parliamentary system as avoiding the pitfalls of a presidential “leadership cult,” but this is precisely what Egypt’s “leaderless” revolution accomplished

    Finally, the very reasons Ackerman proffers for skepticism about the value of a referendum on the proposed reforms might equally if not better apply to “swift” implementation of a “multiparty parliamentary system,” given the fact that, as Ackerman himself notes, the Ikhwan appear at this stage to have the best organized party, other such possible parties being either moribund, undeveloped or embryonic when not non-existent.

  3. Bruce Ackerman Avatar

    A few thoughts on Patrick’s comments:
    1. Patrick is right. Most constitutions are written without paopular participation.But that’s because most are not accoompanied by a popular revolution. A different approach is required for constitutions written in the name of the People.
    2. Some popular revolutions are led by revolutionary heros like Washington or Walesa; some are not. This is just a fact, not an addiction to some vanguardist theory of history. Constitutional design should take account of this fact — parliamentarianism does a better job in the Egyptian circumstance.
    3. The Egyptian constitution, with its proposed amendments, contemplates a very strong president, not a figurehead.
    4. Nobody knows where the Brotherhood is going. Parliamentarianism will encourage moderation.
    5. Thanks, once again, for your thoughtful comments.


  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell Avatar

    Thanks to Professor Ackerman for taking the time to respond to my comments. It appears, with a few exceptions, that he’s largely reiterated his argument. I have a few thoughts in reply:

    1. Many constitutions are written “in the name of the people,” a testament to the (seeming) paradox about the relationship between democratic sovereignty and legitimation, their “constituent power” if you will, and the fact that the power of the people is in fact divided, constrained and exercised through institutional forms established through constitutions. Indeed, as Stephen Holmes has well argued, it’s these very constraints and structures that give meaningful expression to the notion of democratic governance, serving as “enabling” mechanisms analogous to the rules of grammar. A revolution by and for “the people” does not alter matters in this regard. There is no way to make “the people” a meaningful referent in the actual coordination upon a constitutional convention (see works by Russell Hardin on this).

    2. I did not make any assertions about addiction to a vanguardist model, the point was rather about the notion of “leadership” in this instance, which Ackerman studiously avoids in his response. Again, why need constitutions take account of “revolutionary heroes”? I see nothing availing for constitutional theory and practice that suggests this necessity. On the contrary, concerns about democratic legitimacy would suggest we take care to avoid such idealization or canonization, a concern Ackerman would seem to share in his worry about the scope of presidential power.

    3. Agreed: but that hardly means things will turn out this way or that the EUROPEAN “parliamentary model” is the only viable alternative.

    4. Again, agreed, although the original essay sketches some apocalyptic-sounding scenarios with regard to the Brotherhood which struck me as highly implausible or unrealistic (i.e., there’s little or no evidence for such speculations). Abiding by the rules of the democratic game, so to speak, serve to encourage “moderation,” and the European parliamentary model does not monopolize such rules.

  5. Bruce Ackerman Avatar

    Contra proposition 1, much of my work is an effort to establish that there is indeed a way — several ways, in fact — “of mak[ing] ‘the people’ a meaningful referent in the actual coordination upon a constitutional convention.” (see We the People, The Future of Liberal Revolution, amongst other writings).


  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell Avatar

    With regard to 1., I was being deliberately provocative as I knew it was at the heart of our differences because I do not believe reference to the “the people” can be anything other than a political fiction, a rhetorical device for democratic legitimation designed as the conceptual locus for the notion of democratic (i.e., popular) sovereignty. It is, I suppose, an unavoidable fiction (on the order of Rousseau’s ‘general will’) that best captures what we mean by the rule of law under a democracy, or at least how we intend to sanction or legitimate such rule as the best among the available alternatives. This is especially so during extra-legal moments, like revolutionary periods and events undertaken, literally and rightly, in the “NAME of the people,” NOT literally “BY THE PEOPLE,” but by a group, however small or large, that acts on behalf of “the people” (their interests, passions, values). This is not “mere semantics” in a colloquial sense if only because it allows for the possibility that what is being claimed on behalf of “the people,” may be in some ways mistaken, a mis-representation, a partial truth, or true in some respects and not others, and so on. This of course is one reason why social contracts are at best analogies or metaphors and not, as Hume appreciated, the description of processes of actual consent but rather, as theorists have come to appreciate, models of “hypothetical” or putatively “implicit” consent. And thus the people are literally “constituted” through written or unwritten constitutions that flesh out what we intend (descriptively and normatively) by “the people” in a democratic polity.

    Other obligations pressing, so I hope to respond in a little more detail anon.

  7. Andrew Arato Avatar
    Andrew Arato

    The people are a always a fiction. Legitimate constitution making is not.
    We impute popular sovereignty when cosntituion making is legitimate according to some reasonable criteria, some contextual and others more universal.that’s one.

    This process has been awful so far. That’s two.

    Hyperpresidentialism is already presupposed in what has been done, and it does not mean regime change under the circumstances. That’s three.

    Forget heroes, think negotiations and agreements. That’s four.

    Forget the bogeyman of the Brotherhood, and think a candidate on the inside track to the Supreme Council. That’s five.

    finally, hope for a surprise ending, like Lenin experienced in 1918 and Kenan Evren in 1983. Even after coups, it is always possible.

    I find by the way both sides of this debate amazingly uninformed about contemporary methods of legitimate constitution making. I am a true admirer of Bruce’s work on America. But i always marvelled at his inability to grasp what was new about the post sovereign multi stage paradigm of Spain, Central Europe and South Africa. Still, at least he does not forget for a minute that it matters how these things are done.

  8. Andrew Arato Avatar
    Andrew Arato

    A parliamentary system in Egypt would indeed be desirable, and some opposition groups have demanded it. Ackerman as well as Linz/Stepan are right on this. But they all seem to forget the two prior questions:

    1. one kind of process can generate it?: answer. One that superimposes a negotiated one on the current top down version

    2. who has the power to generate such a process? only the renewal of the movement that forced Mubarak’s resignation, presupposing that the opposition groups recognize waht is required.

  9. Karim Mohy Avatar

    This question is open to everyone who responded above – what happens if the majority vote against the proposed amendments?

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