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Message to Egypt’s next president

By ensuring there are limits to his power written into a new Constitution and Egypt's emerging political culture, the country will have a respected president rather than an absolute ruler

Waheed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 24 Feb 2011

A historic mission awaits Egypt’s new president who will be chosen by the Egyptian people in a few months, in the first ever free presidential elections if all proceeds along the path laid out by the January 25 Revolution.

This revolution transported Egypt into a new phase where life will genuinely change. This change is already taking place, but is not yet over. The constitutional reforms under discussion do not alter the essence of the Constitution nor address the structure of the regime of absolute individual power.

The temporarily suspended Constitution gives the president of the republic absolute powers which could juxtapose the manner by which he is elected with political life. Constitutional reforms are expected to allow for free presidential elections, but they do not prevent him from becoming a new dictator if we do not overhaul the entire Constitution – especially articles pertaining to the structure of the regime and the powers of the president.

It would have been better to hold parliamentary and presidential elections and give priority to drafting a new Constitution through a wide-ranging national dialogue that is not exclusive to political parties and forces under the supervision of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This would require extending the interim period during which the supreme council is in charge of the country from just six months up to 18 months. This would truly transport us to a new era and a political regime befitting of Egypt in this day and age.

There is no need to rush since the new phase must be worthy of the revolution which opened the door for it. If we arrive at this stage through a new Constitution which limits the authority of the president and guarantees checks and balances, then the next presidency will be an experiment of interaction between the spirit of a new Constitution and new political practices. This requires changing the Constitution, which seems unlikely as discussions over amending the 1971 Constitution are underway, and a hasty election will take place after the short interim period.

This is what makes the mission of the new president momentous; he needs to be responsible and initiate drafting a new democratic Constitution as soon as he is elected. By doing so, he will not only be acting in the nation's interests, but also give himself a fighting chance to succeed in his post and garner public respect. He would also guarantee a power greater than the actions of the president as prescribed in the 1971 Constitution.

An absolute ruler viewed by their public as a Pharaoh with limitless powers is less powerful than a president who is limited by strict checks and balances that hold him accountable.

A president who is in power in a democratic regime yields more power than one who is not held accountable, despite the vast powers which the latter is guaranteed in a Constitution written according to his whims and is amended as he pleases.

An absolute ruler does not actually exercise all the extensive powers at his fingertips all the time because that would be beyond any human being. Even if he is knowledgeable about all the issues under his authority, he would not have the stamina needed to pursue them all. And if he does possess the knowledge and stamina, and is able to be on top of everything in the country, he would not have the time for it all. Even with the vast authority afforded to him by the Constitution, he cannot add more hours to the day.

Accordingly, the absolute ruler only exercises his limitless powers through a small circle, which contradicts the definition of a republic, and confidantes, the majority of whom may not be qualified. As time goes by, the power and influence of the entourage becomes stronger and the role of the president shrinks.

The president does not exercise absolute authority most of the time, but the majority of those around him exercise part of this authority in his name and are only loyal to themselves and their interests, while expertly playing the role of loyal subjects who are willing to sacrifice themselves for him. It is not easy for the sole absolute president to realise his extensive powers are slipping through his fingers, or that his men are no more than tools to implement his policies.

Often, this type of president becomes a victim of absolute power which intrinsically creates axes of power around him in the absence of effective institutions. But in reality he is a victim of his passion for hypocrisy, lying and yes men. In all cases, the absolute ruler loses his political sense and connection with the people and society, unlike his democratically elected counterpart whose power is derived from the people and, hence, he is sensitive to public opinion throughout his tenure. Accordingly, he does not need anyone to relay to him what is happening in his country or detract from his powers.

And so, the regime of a sole ruler becomes a tyrannical rule of a minority or oligarchy, and the president with limitless powers becomes less powerful than some of his men and family members, as witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia.

The next president needs to reflect on this and learn from history, not only from the fate of former president Hosni Mubarak but also that of Anwar Al-Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Mubarak’s case is the gravest because he was in power for the longest, more than the tenures of both predecessors combined. At the same time, it came to a much more dramatic end.

To Egypt’s next president I say, beware the pitfalls of absolute power and don’t be fooled by its false allure. Be worthy of the hopes of a great people from whose revolution the world today learns.

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