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Consolidating Egyptian democracy

As it attempts to build a democratic order, Egypt does not need to reinvent the wheel, but can learn much from positive experience of others

Paul Salem , Thursday 21 Jul 2011

What happens in Egypt will affect the rest of the Arab world. If democracy develops and thrives in Egypt it will be a force for democratisation in the Arab world for years to come; if it stumbles and retreats, the forces of authoritarianism and conservatism will gain the upper hand. This is why we in other parts of the Arab world have been following events in Egypt with great interest.  

In a recent conference held in Cairo I presented a number of ideas and suggestions to contribute to the debate about elections and democratisation in Egypt. This is based on the experience of other countries around the world in transitioning to democracy, as well as my own experience in pushing for democratic reform in Lebanon, as a researcher and activist, and as a member of the Lebanese National Commission for Electoral Law Reform. 

For Egypt, like for many other countries, the key reform in this transitional period is the establishment of a strong and independent authority to be in charge of electoral matters. This body is usually called the Independent Electoral Commission and has been established in most democracies in the world. The old habit of having elections managed by the ministry of interior has been dropped by most countries. This Independent Electoral Commission would have autonomy from the executive and legislative branches, a separate staff and budget, and responsibility for the following matters:

Examining and reviewing the country’s electoral systems, consulting with parties, experts, and civil society, and suggesting reforms to the electoral systems of the country; democratisation is an ongoing process, and there should be a body that is continually reviewing and improving its institutions.

Supervising the preparation for elections: voters’ lists, candidate registration, ballot papers, etc.

Overseeing the campaign period: monitoring electoral campaigns and ensuring that they do not violate laws relating to campaign finance, vote buying, abuse of media, etc.

Overseeing the elections themselves, and tallying votes and results (this can be done in cooperation with the judiciary).

There are several models for the composition of this commission. In Lebanon, we suggested that it be led by members of the judiciary, but include representatives from the bar associations, civil society, independent experts, and the print and audio-visual media.

In terms of elections themselves, there are four levels that deserve equal attention. Most debates in Egypt today revolve around the parliamentary elections, and indeed these are important and key elections. However, attention should also be given to three other levels of election — local, regional and presidential.

At the parliamentary level, I am pleased that there is growing consensus in Egypt over adopting a mixed electoral system in which some of the candidates are elected from small districts by majority vote, and others are elected from large districts by a proportional party list system. This system was first developed in post-World War II West Germany, and most countries that have adopted democracy in the last 40 years have chosen the mixed system. After much study, this is the system that we proposed for the Lebanese parliamentary elections. 

A second very important level of democratisation is the level of local and regional elections. Democracy must be built from the ground up, and there is no way to sustain democracy if it is only represented at the top of the pyramid. For democracy to become a political culture it has to be part of political life in every village and neighbourhood, and every district and region. 

In addition, the issue of local elections raises the issue of decentralisation. Most Arab states have been built on the extremely centralised model of the colonial state; but all modern and democratising states in the world have moved towards more and more decentralisation. In most developed countries, over 50 per cent of public expenditure is managed by local and regional elected bodies; in the Arab world, that figure is closer to one per cent.  

If good government means more participation and accountability, government needs to be much less centralised, so that citizens throughout the country can participate in democratic decision making that affects them and hold local and regional administrations accountable. This local and regional experience of democracy provides schooling in the habits and values of democracy that is essential for sustaining democracy at the national level. In other words, decentralisation and democratisation at the local and regional levels should be a critical concern for transitioning to a deep and sustainable democracy in Egypt.

Finally on presidential elections: Egypt remains so far a presidential political system, and presidential elections are a cornerstone of building the new executive authority. The issue of presidential election systems might appear simpler than parliamentary elections as there is no complex discussion about proportional representation and districts. However, to make the presidential election process a more meaningful process there is much that we can learn from the experience of other countries. In particular, I put forward a suggestion based on the American and French experiences. 

The suggestion would be to require presidential candidates to first contest and win primary elections within their own political parties and in the various governorates of the country. This is how presidential campaigns begin, for example, in the United States. This would give a dramatically enhanced importance and political life to political parties; it would give great value to membership in parties, and it would enhance the internal democracy of these parties. And by requiring parties to hold primary elections, governorate by governorate, it also requires parties to develop a strong membership in all parts of the country. The process will yield one strong and proven presidential candidate from each party.

Then, following the French example, these candidates will contest the first round of a national presidential election. The candidates with the two highest numbers of votes will then go on to contest a second round. It is important to have two rounds, because in a first round, a country with many political parties, like tomorrow’s Egypt, might see a contest among 10 presidential candidates, and the strongest candidate might only get 20 per cent of the vote; it is not conscionable that a candidate whom 80 per cent of the public did not vote for becomes president. Allowing a stretch of time (for example, a month) for the leading two candidates to conduct a final national presidential campaign will allow voters to exercise their preference among the two candidates, and will ensure that any president will have more than 50 per cent of the vote. 

In closing, I reiterate that we in the Arab world have a lot at stake in the future of your democratic experiment in Egypt. I present these few ideas with humility, hoping that they might be of use in your current debates. You inspired the world from Tahrir Square; we look forward to visiting Egypt as the beacon of democracy in a new Arab world. 

The writer is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, based in Beirut, Lebanon

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