Cultivating a Deep-Rooted Democracy in Egypt

Although Egypt's parliament has held its first post-Mubarak legislative session, real democratic progress appears to have stalled.  The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still controls most of the power.  Nobel Prize-winner Mohamed ElBaredei recently ended his presidential bid in protest of the way Egypt's military rulers have governed "as though no revolution has taken place." 

There is no disputing the fact that the military has moved very slowly in relinquishing power or that some of its members have on more than one occasion used an inappropriate level of force.  But it might be a mistake to automatically assume that they are seeking to impose their own dictatorship.  Compared to some of the other countries in the region and throughout the world, Egypt's military has actually shown admirable restraint since the protests first began a year ago.  Indeed, the success (so far) of the Egyptian revolution can be directly linked to the military's refusal to interfere with the protests in Tahrir Square while Hosni Mubarak was still in power.  The main concern of the military appears to be that this revolution will quickly devolve into mob rule.  This is a legitimate worry that is also shared by many common Egyptians and businessmen throughout the land.  The other threat on nearly everyone's mind is that yet another strongman (either secular or religious) will emerge to purge those in the country (including the military) who do not show a sufficient degree of fealty.

These are by no means irrational fears.  The simple, sober truth is that most democratic movements over the last few hundred years, from the French Revolution to the "presidential" dictatorships that dot today's 21st-Century world have failed for one or both of those reasons.  That doesn't mean that anyone should give up.  A vibrant democracy in Egypt is certainly attainable.  Directly addressing the legitimate concerns that the military or anyone else in the country might understandingly have concerning those real threats to success and stability may be the key to a viable way forward. 

The main point of contention has been the drafting of the Constitution.  Many in the democratic movement wanted a new constitution drawn up from scratch before any elections took place.  The SCAF wanted parliamentary elections first within the framework of the old constitution.  The plan is for both newly elected houses of parliament to select a 100-member assembly that will draft a new constitution.  One can easily imagine, if the military had taken the opposite tack and insisted instead on writing a new constitution before elections, that many in the movement would be clamoring for free and fair elections first.

The two key factors to a successful democratic transition in Egypt will be in the drafting of the constitution and exactly how the military conducts itself once that constitution is written.  Perhaps it might be best to actually include a defined role for the former in the latter.  The easiest way to do this is to give the military a certain number of seats in the Shura Council, which is Egypt's upper house of Parliament.  As it stands now, the Council is made up of 264 members.  One hundred and seventy-six are elected, with 88 seats appointed by the president.  If the majority of those appointed seats are tentatively reserved for the military, that would go a long way in reassuring them that they will have a place at the table.  The benefits of this are twofold.  Firstly, it will actually limit the military's involvement in the new government.  But much more importantly, it will also have the effect of transferring the guardianship role that the military now has in this nascent democracy to more of a stewardship role held by the more expansive Shura Council, which will include the military but encompass so much more of Egyptian society.

There is some historical precedence there.  It's remarkable to note the relatively longtime democratic success (and refreshingly muted religious ideology) of Turkey as a role model in the region -- and the major role that the military has held in maintaining that success.  Recently, Turkey has started to move away from a reliance on its military to shepherd its democracy, as the democratic institutions are now on firm enough footing that said reliance is no longer necessary.   

The simple fact of the matter is that some type of stewardship role is needed in a struggling new democracy.  And that role should properly be held by the legislature rather than the military, the chief executive, or even the courts.  Clearly, one needs separate and well-defined executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  But it is the legislature that should always be seen as if not the core, then certainly first among equals.  The legislature should have the ability (with good reason -- i.e., neither politically nor capriciously) to remove the chief executive at any time.  The very different styles of democracies in Great Britain and the United States have thrived for so long precisely because in their respective early days, the Senate and House of Lords held an ascendant role in the government.  It's true that the House of Lords has less power than it did centuries or even a few decades ago, but it has always acted as a necessary counterweight as Great Britain's democracy evolved in that it gave the appropriate recognition to Great Britain's many diverse tribes, clans, and nationalities.  Although it largely has a symbolic presence today, it still serves a useful purpose.   

That doesn't mean that that arrangement has to be permanent.  Today, the U.S. Senate is relatively as strong as it ever was, while the House of Lords, like the monarchy, has a largely symbolic role. 

Of course, giving the legislature an ascendant stewardship role may not be the only way to insure success -- but it is the surest.  In any case, when the selected framers of the new constitution sit down to business in a few months, they need to demonstrate to themselves and the Egyptian people that that they have the proper controls in place to insure that this democracy won't be derailed and become a crude caricature of itself as so many other democracies have in the past.