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.