Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Egypt's democratic potential

While the US may no longer be a true democracy, Egypt has the opportunity to become one through drafting an exemplary new constitution, writes Nile El-Wardani*

The dynamic revolution that began in Egypt over a year ago has not only put us in the world spotlight, but has also thrown the gates wide open to unprecedented opportunities for democratic change in Egypt. Egyptians now have the possibility of drawing from the best examples worldwide, while avoiding the horrendous pitfalls that have undermined democracy in other countries.

As an Egyptian citizen, I have high hopes that Egypt will draw from these lessons. As an American citizen as well, I hope that Egyptians will heed this warning: do not replicate American pitfalls. The message is simple. Draw up a new constitution that will not allow money and the media to take over politics and in turn to dictate who will rule Egypt. Egypt must design an electoral system that will not allow for the kind of erosion of democracy that we are witnessing in America today.

American presidential candidates are predicted to spend more than $8 billion on their electoral campaigns in the 2011-12 season, according to Bill Holman, government affairs lobbyist with the organisation Public Citizen. US President Barack Obama is expected to raise more than $1 billion for his re-election campaign. By the time the elections take place in November 2012, the candidates will have been campaigning for nearly two years. Both the lengthy process and the huge sums of money involved substantially undermine democracy.

There is no limit on what presidential candidates will raise and spend to get elected. This stands in start contrast to the $38.5 billion in spending cuts (authorised by the president and Congress in April 2012) from federal government programmes that will cut school budgets, healthcare for the elderly, environmental budgets and more, begging the question of what are the priorities of elected officials.

As money takes over politics and dictates who the US's elected officials will be, many Americans are outraged and feel their democracy has been eroded. Campaign spending is out of control. The Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, which dealt with the issue of campaign funding, stated that "restrictions on corporate independent expenditures are invalid." This opened the floodgates for corporations to buy presidential candidates at any price. This is not democracy. This is plutocracy: a government of the wealthy.

We Americans desperately need campaign finance reform and more, if we are to return to democracy. There are solutions, beginning with a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Such an amendment would get corporate and special interest money out of politics. But this is just the beginning. There is much more that can be done to produce an equal playing field for all candidates, real transparency, wider civil participation, the rule of law, and greater democracy overall. Egypt must draw from these lessons and implement them now, via a new constitution, well before the elections take place.

Egypt now has the unprecedented opportunity of crafting the best possible constitution that will incorporate lessons learned throughout the world. This must be done now. The next president of Egypt will serve for only eight years, while a well-crafted constitution will serve Egypt for generations to come. It is therefore imperative that the new constitution be written and crafted before the presidential election. It must include what we Americans wish we could have through much-needed electoral reform.

There are many examples of countries that have incorporated democratic processes that assure greater equality amongst candidates. A new Egyptian constitution should incorporate these examples and more, including limiting the presidential campaign season to three months and tightly regulating it by a National Elections Commission, making sure that no fundraising, advertising, mailings, debates or promotional activities take place outside this three-month time frame and ensuring that no corporation, special interest group, or citizen can donate more than $100 to a candidate or a party during each campaign season.

Furthermore, the new Egyptian constitution should limit the amount of money each candidate and party will have to spend during a campaign season, as decided by the Elections Commission. This amount will be the same for each candidate running for the same elected position and must also be tightly regulated. Each official candidate should also have a specified number of hours of media time in which to campaign and to explain her/his policies, platform and promises. The number of hours should be the same for each candidate, and no candidate should be able to buy additional hours.

Egypt should choose an electoral process that is as democratic as possible. A simple majority vote is not always the most democratic. For example, deciding the elections by rank order would result in a consensus vote and a winner who is the most acceptable to the greatest number of people. This and other electoral processes should be considered in Egypt.

Egyptians have shown the world that they want democracy. Now is Egypt's unprecedented opportunity to usher in a new constitution and an electoral system that can assure greater democracy than most countries in the world. This window of opportunity must not be lost to power-grabbing opportunists in Egypt who wish to push through a quick election in order to control the process and hang on to power.

Now is the time for all Egyptians to demand that a new constitution and electoral process be ushered in before the presidential elections. Shout it via your TV sets and radios; write it in your papers and magazines; share it in your villages and hamlets; spread it in leaflets and announce it from the rooftops. Now is the time to build a democratic Egypt for centuries to come.

* The author is an Egyptian-American activist, radio host and writer based in Los Angeles.

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