Thu, Feb 10, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Does Egypt need a pharoah?

Instead of asking who would be the next president, switching to a parliamentary form of government might be a viable alternative

By Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz

Illustration: Mountain People

As Egypt’s revolution hangs in the balance, what factors are most likely to determine the outcome? While all eyes seem to be focused on the army, watching to see which way it will jump, other key questions are being overlooked.

Of course, what the army does is important. Splits in a military-supported authoritarian regime can create gaps between the temporary interests of the small group closest to the “military as government” and the long-term interest of the “military as institution,” which is to be a respected part of the state and nation.

The Egyptian army’s statement early in the protests that its soldiers would not shoot at protesters against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a classic “military as institution” move and useful in itself for a democratic transition. By contrast, the army’s decision to allow Mubarak loyalists — some riding camels or horses — to charge into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and attack thousands of anti-government demonstrators was a classic “military as government” move.

At this point, a democratic transition will most likely require that the army play a more active role in protecting protesters. What is clear is that the interest of the “military as institution” depends on the army’s ability to establish much greater separation from the regime.

Successful political transitions are also helped if more and more citizens come to feel that they “own” the protests and the resulting transition. In this respect, the fact that the demand for Mubarak’s immediate resignation originated from Tahrir Square rather than from the US administration is a positive development.

Many of the opposition groups, representing a broad spectrum of opinion — including a traditional liberal party, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and the Facebook activists of the April 6 Youth Movement — have indicated that they might support an interim government, possibly one led by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei.

However, in order to choose a leader, these groups must coalesce into a coherent force. Great civil-society protest movements — such as have occurred in Egypt and Tunisia — can overthrow a dictatorship, but a true democracy requires parties, negotiations, election rules and agreement on constitutional changes. In most successful transitions, the first step toward forging the unity required to create an interim government is taken when the diverse groups begin to meet more often, develop common strategies and issue collective statements.

Regardless of who leads it, there are some things an interim government should not do. Judging by the transitions that we have studied, a successful democratic outcome stands the best chance if the interim government does not succumb to the temptation to extend its mandate or write a new constitution itself. The interim government’s key political task should be to organize free and fair elections, making only those constitutional changes needed to conduct them. Writing a new constitution is best left to the incoming, popularly elected parliament.

Most activists and commentators are now asking who will or should be the next president. But why assume that a presidential political system, headed by a powerful unitary executive, will be instituted? Of the eight post-communist countries that are now in the EU, not one chose such a system. All of them established some form of parliamentary system, in which the government is directly accountable to the legislature and the president’s powers are limited (and often largely ceremonial).

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