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Parliament to the Rescue—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67

The following commentary was published in Foreign Policy on March 1, 2011.

Parliament to the Rescue
By Bruce Ackerman ’67

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.