Creating the rules of Egyptian democracy

Even a perfect constitution cannot create a perfect liberal democracy, and it will take leadership and personal determination for democracy to hold.

November 28, 2011 06:27
3 minute read.
Egyptian police throw stones at protesters

Egyptian police 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The violent clashes in Cairo beginning this past weekend beg the questions: Will the current elections create the best type of democracy possible? What is the best type of democracy for Egypt? Since the rules of the game shape the end result of the game, the constitution and electoral rules need to be written in order to create and protect the rule of law.

Democracy – a system of voting that promotes majority rule – alone is not sufficient. Egypt needs some form of liberal democracy – free and fair elections and protections for minority rights, and safeguards for certain fundamental freedoms. But how can this be achieved in Egypt? In theory, it should be very easy.

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However, the violence leading up to the election shows that problems arise when political constraints are taken into consideration.

In the choice between parliamentary democracy and presidential democracy, a parliamentary system looks as if it would most accommodate both liberalism and efficiency within an Egyptian context. Psychologically, a parliamentary system might appear more trustworthy to the Egyptian people due to the fact that they were under the rule of an authoritarian president for 30 years.

This system would also be more likely to ensure efficient and fair democratic results for the specific demography of Egypt. A presidential system often entails slow democracy, whereas a parliamentary system would be more likely to allow Egypt to make the necessary changes to advance the country both politically and economically.

To ensure these results, the electoral system should be one of moderate proportional representation. This would create a few catch-all parties capable of working together to form coalitions by having the population vote for half the members of parliament from a party list and the other half from a pool of individuals.

That way, neither the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) nor the Islamist parties could hold all of the power without sharing it.


To accommodate diversity, a bicameral legislature would allow for regional representation. The people of Egypt have a wide spectrum of concerns (individuals living in Cairo and the Sinai might not have the same priorities). This would also assist minority groups, such as Coptic Christians who make up 10 percent of the population. A federal and decentralized government should be created that would include a medium- to-high election threshold, around 5%, that would not exclude the Coptic population but that would exclude radical groups.

In order to ensure greater efficiency, the bicameral legislature should also have power shared between the executive and the legislative branches. This way, Egypt would have created a liberal democracy where there are enough checks and balances to ensure one group does not have the monopoly of power but also allows enough fluidity in the government to institute quick and necessary changes.

However, government does not exist within a vacuum. The leaders in Egypt know that the rules of the constitution and the electoral process will dictate who will retain power and therefore there is much incentive to manipulate the outline of a constitution.

This is why the SCAF wants the constitution to be written now, the Islamists want the constitution to be written after they are (probably) voted into power and the youth movements wants the process to be stalled until they can better organize. This is why the protests began on Friday: The Islamists saw that an electoral system run by SCAF will result in SCAF leadership.

As of right now, the electoral rules are conducive for the ruling party to retain power. Two-thirds of the seats are supposed to be decided by lists; one-third will be given to individual winners and some seats will be appointed. The biggest problem is that voting will not be held on one day – the multi-tiered electoral process means that groups counting the votes can round them up or down to whatever percent they want.

Even a perfect constitution cannot create a perfect liberal democracy, and it will take leadership and personal determination for democracy to hold. The miracle of the American constitution was not the system of government written down but rather the fact that George Washington stepped down from power after two terms. We can only hope that whatever system of government Egypt decides on is actually implemented.

The writer is a research intern at the Institute for National Security Studies.

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