A vote of confidence in Egypt’s presidency

The ability of the executive to set a clear and cohesive national agenda that is practical enough to be achieved requires genuine independence and freedom from the politics of parliamentary systems. What is needed is an executive who works with parliament for the people, rather than for parliament simply in the name of the people. 

Heba Abou Shnief
21 June 2012

In the wake of the constitution-making process that Egypt has tried to embark upon in recent weeks, members of the Constitution Drafting Committee will eventually have to grapple with the substantive issues that have thus far been delayed by procedural maneuvering.  Chief amongst these will be the critical and over-arching question of whether a presidential, a parliamentary or some hybrid system will best govern a new epoch in Egypt’s contemporary history. 

Apart from the controversies raised about the infamous Article 2 (regarding Shar'ia Law) of the 1971 Constitution, this question of 'parliamentary vs. presidential' will in itself almost certainly stir a heated debate among political forces and intelligentsia.  While the current balance-of-power on the political scene suggests that a strong parliamentary system might help bolster the grip of dominant incumbent political forces on both the legislative and executive branches of government, the current polemic on the political scene, however, tells us a different story:  the presidency does matter! 

Even for the average Egyptian, one only needs to either follow the mainstream media or lend an ear to a daily dose of political chatter at any level of society to understand that the figure of the presidency epitomizes a potent symbol of nationhood and leadership. Yet,  setting political stakes and sentiments aside, the governance model that best captures and addresses Egypt’s contemporary development challenges should be based on an objective, critical and realistic portrayal of where Egypt currently stands in terms of its development trajectory and how it compares to other countries that have faced similar challenges.

Egypt has only recently graduated into the status of a 'middle-income country' as defined by the World Bank, yet it still limps on with chronic problems that are characteristic of those faced by countries that do not typically qualify as 'middle-income', including both the relatively high prevalence of illiteracy and high poverty rates, concentrated in certain geographic areas.  The economy has not been booming either, judging (in part) by the high unemployment rates (especially among the educated), by continued export concentrations in primary and low technology products (instead of a more diversified export base) and lagging industrial performance in comparison with other Middle East North Africa (MENA) countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey.  Upon closer scrutiny, even some least developing countries in the Arab region, such as Djibouti, seem to be faring better in terms of the overall diversity of their exports.

A system fit for the challenge

Facing such daunting development challenges, it is evident that Egypt will need a strong focus on re-building its economy, this time without ignoring any segment of society.  This is no small task and may take decades to fully bear fruit, but it is not a task that has not been faced before by other countries.  Indeed, looking at the experience of countries at a similar stage of development to where Egypt stands now, what becomes clear is not just the need to focus on the economy as a core priority, but also the importance of the type of governance system best-suited to help address Egypt's development challenges in a practical manner. 

By design rather than by coincidence, the widely known success stories of the Far East and of Southeast Asia speak to the important strategic role played by the executive in setting a single national vision, then helping to establish the necessary enabling environment to allow that vision to be brought to life, economically, politically and socially.  Even nowadays, the recent global financial crises do send out strong messages that in times of national vulnerability, the role of the state and its executive-branch institutions in both correcting market failures and stabilizing markets is indispensable.

In many countries that made giant development strides in short periods of time, a strong executive system cooperated with national legislatures rather than being co-opted by them. Leadership demands the ability to set a single strategic vision, and yet flexibly break with the strict constraints of ideological orthodoxies, but only in pursuit of that vision. Policies might be left-of-centre on some issues and yet simultaneously right-of-centre on others.  While the appeal of a simple ideological basis is often compelling at the populist level, centuries of economic evidence have however proved that there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution when it comes to developing a modern economy. 

These lessons are particularly relevant for a developing country like Egypt where the enabling environment for business growth and start-up needs nothing less than a complete overhaul, where consistency and political commitment in pursuing somewhat painstaking but necessary structural and other reforms is unquestionable.  Most of all, the need to stay on track and sometimes take tough, even unpopular decisions, is crucial for this stage of development. Doing this is often considerably easier for an executive who, as mentioned earlier, cooperates with the legislature as a whole entity, rather than being forced to sing to the tunes of a partisan spectrum of often irreconcilable views and an excessive preoccupation with narrow interests.   

An improved system need not be flawless

Yet this model of a strong and capable executive does have its challenges. For starters, the appetite of the policy elite might be more inclined towards a parliamentary model.  If the old homily is true that a child who gets burnt dreads the fire, then the policy elite will be quite sensitive about reproducing any system that allows another pharaoh to reign.  However, at the same time, this puts one at risk of overlooking precisely why the previous regime failed. With hindsight, the lack of accountability and a poorly-enforced separation-of-powers was a basic flaw in the system.  Members of the parliament often held both an executive and legislative position simultaneously, while the president was both the de facto head of government and the leader of the majority party in the legislature in a system where there was simply no real competition allowed.  The end result was an unchecked autocratic presidential set-up that exhibited little, if any, accountability and responsiveness to the public. 

Eyeing the future, the existence of free and fair elections is one guarantee that any incoming president will be directly and electorally accountable to the public, since his (or her) mandate ought to be derived from ‘the people’ and not ‘the parliament’.  If there are any chances of re-election, then the head of state needs to be responsive to the people's needs, within the constitutional imperatives of his (or her) mandate to lead.

There is also some evidence that when legislative and executive elections are non-concurrent, there is more room for holding the executive accountable for national policy.  A fixed-term for the presidency is yet another mechanism that can ensure that the chief executive will not abuse public office, especially if presidential immunity for human rights issues, for example, expires after leaving office.

Furthermore, striving towards a constitutional system that has embedded within it the principles of direct accountability to the public, by including the right to public consultation in decision-making and the right to information, coupled with oversight by an independent and accessible court system that can interpret the constitutionality of both executive (and legislative) actions, will go a long way in realizing oversight over the executive. 

Public sector oversight agencies also have a critical role to play in monitoring the executive – on condition that they are truly independent from the executive.  In Egypt, the basic infrastructure for such oversight does exist. However, reforms to institutionalize impartiality and independence are a key element of needed reform. 

Here again, it is essential that Egypt learns from the experiences of other countries.  If it is the United Kingdom's or the German or the Turkish parliamentary model that some seek to emulate, then Egypt needs to think twice, since these models are not without their flaws too.  The main criticism focuses on the lack of separation-of-powers between the executive and the legislature.  In such unitary systems, the idea of checks-and-balances is diluted away in a relatively cozy relationship between the executive and the legislature and, the legislature has little incentive to challenge the executive or allow for non-partisan oversight by availing information to the public.  Juxtapose this against other democratic governance systems, like the United States' presidential model:  irrefutably, there is a clear separation of powers between the executive and legislature and strong non-partisan oversight over the executive, even if that system has developed its own flaws too. 

In newly democratizing countries in South America for example, their development models were often built on a strong presidency, and in light of their nascent and weaker party systems, this model has proven to be more plausible, especially when it came to generating a clear, cohesive policy environment.  The economic success and the rise of more than 30 million people out of poverty under Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva is living proof of how a presidential system may be more decisively capable of delivering on social justice than a parliamentary system that settles for constant compromises, while at the same time instituting the necessary policies that promote market competition and growth. 

Responsiveness to crises and pursuing structural reforms do require an executive empowered with decreeing powers, so that legislatures do not unjustifiably withhold executive capacity to act.  The experiences of Argentina and Brazil in the past twenty years augment this point, where the institution of the presidency was given administrative, regulatory and provisional emergency decree authority, in addition to partial veto powers over the legislature in certain instances, yet without removing the ability of the legislature (or the judiciary) to keep the presidency in 'check'.  These powers have proven fundamental in dealing with the financial crisis in Argentina at the turn of the millennium and adopting necessary structural reforms in Brazil during the 1990s. 

Interdependence, not dependence

A strong, empowered executive checked - but unhindered - by a legislature is probably needed at this stage of Egypt's trajectory.  The risk of a weak leader in a strong presidency will always be mitigated by the competitive electoral processes that produce the final pool of candidates in a genuinely open competition.  The risk of another pharaoh is considerably diminished if the constitution is crafted to ensure a genuine separation-of-powers between the three branches of government. 

But the ability of the executive to set a clear and cohesive national agenda that is practical enough to be achieved requires genuine independence and freedom from the politics of parliamentary systems.  Even the selection of cabinet ministers and their supporting teams needs to be driven more by merit, qualification and talent, rather than by ideology, coalition appeasement or party seniority.  Simply allowing a parliament to give birth of itself to an executive administration does not do away with the potential tyranny of an autocracy, but merely expands its reach.

The subtle difference, however, between an executive whose tenure is beholden directly to 'the people' rather than to a parliament or its coalitions is vital: it is an executive who works with parliament for the people, rather than for parliament simply in the name of the people.  This is the essence of a system with checks-and-balances, where, along with the judiciary, no branch of government is beholden to the other.

At the end of the day, shifting to a parliamentary system cannot be the panacea to Egypt’s problems, nor is the creation of an unchecked presidency.  The crux of the matter lies in empowering a strong and capable executive while at same time instituting procedures and context-sensitive mechanisms for public accountability and the separation-of-powers regardless of the branch of government.  Doing so can make the difference between an Egypt that is moving with the necessary momentum and diligence needed to catch up, and an Egypt that is limping behind and losing out to other more competitive and institutionally-sound nations.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cairo’s Social Contract Center or any of its partners.

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