The Case Against Presidential Systems, Egypt Edition

November 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

The current constitutional crisis in Egypt pitting President Morsi against the secularists and the courts has been dominating the news, and it got me thinking about how in some ways Egypt’s transition was set back irrespective of who won the presidential election just by dint of the fact that Egypt kept its presidential system in the first place. I wrote about it for the Atlantic, and here is a teaser:

As the battle lines, both literal and figurative, take shape between the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and secularists and liberals on the other, some are pointing out the naïveté of those who assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood would ever act democratically, while others are trying to locate Morsi’s actions in the context of overreaching in an effort to save Egyptian democracy. While Morsi’s motives will continue to be debated, his actions illuminate a larger question about what happens when you mix a presidential system with a fragile transitional state.

Presidential systems have their pros and cons, and both of these are enhanced when dealing with a state that has weak political institutions and a history of conflict. On the one hand, because a president is directly elected, he can be viewed as a unifying figure who stands above politics and is concerned with the good of the nation as a whole. If the president is seen as a credible and non-partisan figure who is directly accountable to voters in a way that parliaments are not, then a president can help paper over divisions that exist in society and within the political class. One of the reasons that George Washington was viewed with such awe by his contemporaries is precisely because he was seen as a figure above politics, and as such he was uniquely able to heal divisions that had been exposed by the American revolution and set the United States on the path to democracy.

Yet a presidential system also carries with it significant dangers for transitional states. A president is bound to come from one of the groups vying for power, and he can be expected to privilege that group above the rest. When this happens, it fractures a country and worsens any divisions that already exist, as the conflict now involves the institutions of the state as well, and it generally destroys any real chance for democracy to take root. In a polarized society, a presidential system might also create a problem of dual democratic legitimacy, where some people turn to the president for leadership and others turn to the parliament or the courts, fostering ever greater splits in a country already segmented into distinct groups.

To read the whole thing and find out why I think this applies particularly well to Egypt and Morsi, please click over to the full piece at The Atlantic.

The NYT Editorial Board Needs A Political Science Lesson

November 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday entitled “Tunisia’s Challenges” that dealt with the tensions between Tunisia’s Islamist government and the secular opposition, and more broadly attempted to grapple with the role of Islam in a nascent democracy. The gist is that Ennahda has promised to respect liberal values and not impose its own views of morality on the rest of the county, but has also tried to engage Tunisian Salafis, and in so doing has imperiled Tunisian democracy and not shown enough commitment to moderation. In the words of the Times,

Ennahda has also drawn fire for allowing the introduction of constitutional proposals that would enshrine Shariah, or Islamic law, and compromise rights for women. The party eventually backed off those positions and the constitutional draft before the assembly omits Shariah and endorses gender equality. Ennahda leaders may have been maneuvering to draw the Salafis into the process, while maintaining their political support, but it gave the secularists another reason to doubt Ennahda’s commitment to moderation…

The pressure is on Ennahda to deliver a Constitution that protects the rights of all Tunisians under a system of equal justice and to create jobs so educated but unemployed young Tunisians are not drawn to the Salafi movement, which would try to exploit their disillusionment. The pressure is also on the secularists to find ways to work with Ennahda to build a better state. That will require more compromise and commitment to the common good than either side has been willing to show so far.

This all seems like a plausible argument, but it also demonstrates that the Times editorialists have a misinformed and naive view of how democracy works and what brings it about. Let’s start with the glaring contradiction in this editorial, which is that on the one hand the NYT wants Ennahda to speak for all Tunisians but on the other seems to want to cut the Salafists, who last time I checked are Tunisian citizens, out of the process altogether. Tunisian Salafi groups espouse extreme and retrograde positions on all sorts of subjects, including women, secularism, and Jews, to name just a few. The problem is that Ennahda cannot just make the Salafists go away. They are a force to be dealt with, and Ennahda’s determination seems to have been to try and co-opt them in order to reduce their capacity to make mischief. In many ways this has been a bad strategy, and the violence carried out by Salafists on university campuses and against television stations is deplorable and has often been ignored or downplayed by the government. There is no good excuse for this – or, for that matter, Ennahda leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s encouragement and advice to Salafists on how to eliminate secularist power – but what the NYT misses is that Tunisia is not a country with decades of liberal tradition. The Salafists are not committed democrats willing to work within the confines of the political system, and so Ennahda has been trying to figure out a way to bring them in with as little chaos as possible. Yeah, the initial constitutional proposals were pretty bad, but like anything else this is a game of back and forth, and the current draft constitution is largely where it should be.

This brings me to the crucial point here, and the one on which the New York Times needs some schooling. Democracy does not just emerge from the mist, and leaders in a newly post-authoritarian state cannot just close their eyes and tap their heels together and create a democratic political system. Democracy has been aptly described as a second-best solution, because it results from a stalemate in which no side has the power to fully impose its will and thus everyone becomes willing to roll the dice and take their chances with democratic politics in order to win something. Essentially, democracy is installed by non-democrats who have no other choice, and over time democratic politics become habituated and the system (hopefully) becomes self-perpetuating. If this does not describe what is going on in Tunisia, then I don’t know what does. Tunisia is not filled with committed democrats, but is instead a combustible mix of parties that would all like to impose their will. The Salafists would like to create a pure Islamic state, Ennahda likely wants something closer to what the Muslim Brotherhood wants in Egypt, and the secularists want Ben Ali’s Tunisia without Ben Ali. Make no mistake though; the secular parties would just as soon impose their vision of society on everyone as the Salafists would if they had the strength to do so. The fact that none of these factions are able to carry out their will unimpeded is what gives me hope that Tunisia will emerge democratic.

This is precisely how democracy comes about, and yet the New York Times seems to think that democracy is not the end result of a difficult and torturous process. Let’s remember that the United States went through slavery and a civil war, so it’s not like we had an easy time of it either. When the Times editorialists talk about the need for more compromise, the maneuvering around the constitution is exactly that. Parties in a newly democratizing state are not going to compromise out of the munificent goodness of their hearts, but out of the need to break the gridlock, and that is what’s going on here. It may seem counterintuitive, but in new democracies the process is more important in some ways than the substance. Tunisia still has a long way to go, and Ennahda has displayed plenty of disturbing behavior to make doubts about a successful democratic transition perfectly legitimate. I don’t in any way mean to give Ennahda a free pass or to minimize the serious concerns everyone should have over the party’s flirtation with extremely illiberal and violent elements within Tunisian society. But in fretting over the haggling surrounding the constitution and sermonizing about commitment to the common good, the New York Times is missing the point about how democracy is born and demonstrating why taking an introductory course to comparative politics might be a useful thing to do.

What Democracy Is, and Is Not

June 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

I know I should be writing about Israel or Turkey (and Turkey has plenty of interesting stuff going that I want to get to, particularly surrounding the elusive Fethullah Gülen and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s very public invitation for him to return), but I can’t stop watching what is going on in Egypt. Just as voting got underway yesterday in the second round of Egypt’s presidential election – voting which was hollowed out by the dismissal of parliament last week – the SCAF issued a constitutional declaration expanding the military’s powers over the president and the constitution writing process. Among other things, the SCAF gave itself veto power over any new constitutional elements proposed by the Constituent Assembly, which it has also given itself the power to appoint, and required the president to get its approval before going to war. In a nutshell, the SCAF essentially institutionalized its position as sitting above the rest of the political system with oversight of all relevant executive, legislative, and judicial bodies, and is unquestionably the highest power in the land irrespective of who the next or future presidents are. Some are looking at this as a preemptive strike against a Morsi presidency, and that may well have been the point, but these moves make democracy in Egypt an absolute and complete impossibility no matter how many free and fair elections take place down the road.

It’s worth thinking a little about why this is. This same issue comes up with regard to Iran, where people sometimes claim that Iran is a democracy or somehow more democratic than its Arab neighbors because it has an elected president and legislature with campaigns that feature genuine choices in the voting booth. This claim is utterly false. Despite its elections, Iran is not a democracy because even a minimalist electoral democracy is about much more than just elections, and Egypt today officially entered a pattern in which it too cannot attain democratic status unless the new constitutional provisions are discarded. Neither Iran nor Egypt have what is called vertical accountability, meaning that there is an unelected group that has a reserved domain of power and that stands above elected officials without being accountable to the electorate. In Iran that group is the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, and in Egypt it is now the SCAF. The elected president of Egypt is subject to a military veto, and the military is accountable to nobody. Egypt can hold elections every four years that are unassailably free and fair with regular transfers of power between parties, and none of it will matter because Egypt will still not be democratic.

In a way, what has taken place in Egypt is a lot more problematic than the type of military coup seen in Turkey or Latin American countries during the latter half of the last century. When the military intervenes in politics to depose an elected civilian government, it often does whatever it feels needs to be done and then returns to the barracks. As was the case in Turkey, this did not mean that another coup would not happen in ten years, but at least in the interim civilian politics was given a chance, albeit with the omnipresent specter of the military hovering over the proceedings. In Egypt, however, the SCAF is not simply intervening in civilian politics; it is establishing a permanent military veto and permanent martial law that will exist in conjunction with civilian politics. Even if the military does not ever actively remove the president, the president cannot go to war without the SCAF’s approval or do anything to curb the military’s power to indiscriminately arrest civilians or remove SCAF oversight of the legislative process. This is more insidious than a temporary military coup, because it permanently cements the subordination of elected officials to unelected generals. As much as the military was preeminent under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, this is a step even farther, since now the military will be actively involved in governing. Nobody should fool themselves about what it means should Morsi actually be declared the winner of yesterday’s election; just because he wins and Shafiq – widely presumed to be the SCAF’s favored candidate – loses does not make for a triumph of democracy, or even a glimmer of hope. There is no democracy in Egypt, and that won’t be undone through the process of elections.

One final thought about Egypt and democratic transitions. For the last year and a half, it has been fashionable to talk about Egypt’s transition or Egypt’s emerging democracy. Neither of these terms was ever accurate. A democratic transition is a frustratingly nebulous concept, and there is no good way of measuring when one has actually occurred and a state has crossed some magic threshold. That said, there are a couple of baseline definitions one might use. One (from O’Donnell and Schmitter) is the interval between the original political regime and the one that replaces it. Did that ever happen in Egypt? To my mind, the answer is a resounding no. Mubarak is gone, but his regime never went anywhere. His defense minister and army chief of staff have been running Egypt under the guise of the SCAF, and his last prime minister just participated in a two man runoff to become the next president. That is not a regime change, or even a change of government. There has been no interval between political regimes in this case since the original regime has not been replaced or even deposed.

Another definition (from Przeworski) is that a transition has occurred once a state has arrived at the point where no actor can intervene to reverse the outcome of the formal political process, and the transfer of power occurs from a set of people to a set of rules. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that this ever occurred in Egypt post-January 2011. Clearly the military has stepped in on a number of occasions to reverse the outcome of formal politics, with yesterday and last week being only the latest and most egregious examples. Egypt has also not really come close to vesting power in a set of rules rather than in the SCAF. It is tempting to describe what has just taken place as an aborted transition, but that implies that a transition was in process against all evidence to the contrary. The old regime has been in power from the start, and just signaled that it has no intention of giving that power up, no matter who wants to call himself president of Egypt. There are lots of different definitions for what constitutes a democracy and plenty of vigorous debate over what is required, but as things stand today in Egypt, it is not a democracy and did not undergo even a limited transition, and pretending otherwise is an exercise in futility and false hope.

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