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What system of government in Egypt?

As Egyptians think about what constitution they want, according to what kind of country they want, they must also think of the best means by which to realise their aspirations

Abdel-Moneim Said , Saturday 9 Jul 2011
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We cannot determine the next step in the Egyptian constitution building process until we know what kind of country we want. Last week, I mentioned that the first step in drafting a constitution was to designate the general principles that would define the philosophical and moral framework of the state. Fortunately, after months of din and commotion in the controversy over which should come first, the constitution or parliamentary elections, there now appears a way bridge the gap. It is to hold elections as scheduled but to take a measure that would alleviate the widespread fear that the elected assembly would produce a distorted constitution. That measure is to draw up another document, one that other countries have, called a bill of rights, or declaration of supra-constitutional principles that the drafters of the constitution can not supersede. I propose that such a bill be put to a vote at the same time as the constitution, so both would have equal legitimacy.

The national dialogue —or dialogues —have already produced several documents, perhaps the most important of which was produced by Al-Azhar and was warmly greeted by Egyptian Christians. Another was drafted by Mohammed ElBaradei and the National Association for Change and reflects a greater appreciation of the dangers of political polarisation in Egypt. The Democratic Coalition and the Egyptian Economic and Social Party drew up a couple of others. The four are quite similar to each other and to others that have appeared, so it seems that now some group should pull all three together into a single document that we can then refine and develop into a lengthy list that will set the agenda of political action.

If one camp of opinion continues to hold that the constitution should come first, to the other it must come first, too, albeit after parliamentary elections. Clearly then, it is essential that we turn our minds to the system of government we want and this, in turn, must stem from a vision for our country. In this regard, I believe there are several points we can all agree on:

First, there can be no going back. Yet while most people would immediately think that this refers to the last 30 years, I suggest that it is wiser to extend “back” not only to the last 60 years, dating from the 1952 Revolution, but even before that to the monarchic era. Simply put, these eras are now history. Countries that live in the present and for the future do not turn the clock back; they forge a new history.

Second, we want a country that is truly democratic, in the sense universally understood around the world and not according to some invention of our own, founded upon the peaceful rotation of authority and respect for human rights. During his visit to Al-Ahram last week, Mahathir Mohamed remarked on how painful democracy was because it had winners and losers, and authority vested in institutions and power in the street. Several weeks earlier, an article of his appeared in the New York Timeson the subject of the Arab Spring. He said that the Arabs talk a lot about democracy but, sadly, they do not realise that it comes at the cost of the prevalence of certain values based on individual liberties and of the rule of institutions and law, as opposed to ruling cliques and decrees. He may be right. But in spite of all the pains we can anticipate, democracy is what we need because the only alternatives are to go backwards or plunge into chaos.

Third, we want a state that is effective and efficient, one that can get things done. I am not referring only to a state that can perform the obvious —clean streets, education for all, proper public and private healthcare, smooth-working public utilities —but also to one capable of competing in the global race, as so many other countries have succeeded in doing. We hear quite a bit about Turkey these days, but what most strikes me when I read about it in the foreign press is that its name is almost always appears in conjunction with the note that it has the 16th largest economy in the world. Countries are no longer gauged by the size of their armies and the number of their transcontinental missiles, but by the percentage of their contribution to global production and other such indexes that determine their international ranking. As they say, the rest is detail.

Fourth, we want a state that exercises a regional role. Our constitutions from the republican era always insisted that Egypt is part of the Arab nation and that it would work to achieve its unity. Frankly, I am not sure whether our new constitution should include this provision or leave it up to policymakers. However, we do need to bear in mind that we are part of the Arab region and the Middle East, and that the sources of our life spring from Africa. At the same time, we are part of the world whose distances are shrinking and in which proximity is no longer determined geographically but by the volume of mutual trade, the movement of goods and labour, and the frequency of daily communications, which these days can occur hundreds of times a second. Therefore, the very concept of a regional or international role is far more complex than ever, and we have examples of countries whose regional and international influence rest on conventional sources of power, such as arms, ideology and intelligence, and others whose influence rests on new forms of power and influence and on broadening and diversifying interests and ways of generating wealth.

Discussion of details will probably come at a later phase. For the moment, however, we have an Egyptian consensus over no reversion to the past, true democracy, effective government and an influential regional and global role for our country. Our new constitution has to lay the foundations for this aspiration and its fulfilment within the coming decades. We should bear in mind, in the process, that we will be a source of inspiration to other countries in the region that are being swept by revolution and that are groping their way forward in a climate of upheaval and murky horizons. Nor should we forget that our constitution will be the first concrete step, the first letter of introduction, with which Egypt presents itself to the world in a new and unfamiliar form, not as a monarchy out of the Middle Ages with a king who possess and rules all, not as a Third World republic with its “democracy of the masses” that has proven just another word for authoritarian despotism, but as country truly determined to enter a new, original and vigorous phase in its history.

I believe that the only way forward is through a democratic presidential republican system of government. I have expressed and amplified on this opinion on numerous occasions before and after the 25 January Revolution. At the time of the discussions on the constitutional amendments in 2005, I laid out a conception of the type of constitution that I envisioned for Egypt and I reaffirmed this conception very recently when the prospect of a new constitution became a certainty. I am fully aware that my view does not coincide with the general run of opinion, which favours a parliamentary republic, something along the lines of an improved and updated version of what existed before the 1952 Revolution. Nor do I fall within another camp of opinion, albeit less numerous, that admires the French-style reconciliation between the parliamentary and presidential forms of government as a way to benefit from the advantages of both systems at once. To me, both these trends are influenced by the classical European experience.

In spite of the accomplishments of these models in the countries in which they were applied, few other countries in the world have followed suit. Indeed, the virtually universal trend among countries similar to us that are undergoing democratic transition, in South America, Eastern Europe and in Asia, is to opt for the presidential system. In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdoğan is pushing for constitutional amendments that would change his country’s parliamentary system to a presidential one. But even in Western Europe, the prime minister (in Britain) or the chancellor (in Germany) has, over the years, acquired a status more akin to the president than to the head of a cabinet formed by the majority party in parliament. In fact, Sarkozy asks less like a part of the parliamentary system that brought him to power and more like the president of a republic along the lines of the American system. Anyone who doubts this might try to recall the name of the French prime minister, who is supposed to be a partner in power, whether he hails from the same party as the president or from an opposition party.

What amazes me today is that after all the time and ink that was spent attacking Article 77 of the 1971 Constitution because it did not limit the number of terms a president could serve, and then, after that article was finally amended to restrict the presidency to two four-year terms, a large body of opinion now wants a parliamentary system in which the president would be little more than a figurehead. Meanwhile, under such a system, the prime minister could theoretically rule for life if the people insisted on voting his party back into power with him as its head.

There are certainly finer points we could discuss when the time comes. For the moment, however, I will say that the parliamentary system may have been successful for some countries at their particular point in political evolution, but it was no coincidence that a country such as the US invented the presidential system. Its founding fathers had their sights cast forward; not only did they want their new country to catch up to those that preceded it, they wanted it to surpass them and become a great power. This might be a useful point to bear in mind as we continue our conversations on the constitution.

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