Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian democracy reconsidered

Egypt has been a democratic country, at least on paper, since the beginning of the last century, but it has never been a truly functioning democracy, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Egypt became the first Third World country to introduce democratic principles into its political system. Democracy as a system of government has accompanied the ups and downs of modern Egyptian history ever since, yet it has been more than two centuries and the country is still grappling with democracy.

Over these two centuries Egypt has passed through many crises —political, economic, societal, and in the field of foreign policy. In 1882, immediately after the introduction of democratic principles of governance in the shape of a representative assembly, the country was occupied by the British. This occupation lasted for 72 years, during which the world and Egypt saw two world wars.

Egypt was declared a British protectorate in 1914 and then gained nominal independence in 1922 as a direct consequence of the 1919 Revolution. From 1922 to 23 July 1952, when the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by the Free Officers Movement in the 23 July Revolution, Egypt entered what is known as the era of political liberalism, or as the few supporters of the ancien régime called it, the liberal age.

Was it truly a liberal democracy? It is difficult to answer in the affirmative as the perennial problem of democracy in Egypt has always been the adoption of the trappings of democratic rule without respect for democracy as a system of governance anchored in checks and balances.

From 1922 until today those ruling Egypt, whether a king or a president under the republican system announced on 18 June 1953, have not shared power.

The executive branch of government has always reigned supreme. During the monarchy, from 1922 to 1952, 10 elected national assemblies out of 11 were dissolved by royal decree because the monarch could not work with the representatives of the people.

Our constitutional system of governance has always favoured the executive at the expense of the other two branches of government, namely the judiciary and the legislature. In other words, the basic idea of democratic rule, of checks and balances, has never had a chance to become a cornerstone of Egyptian democracy.

Another major hindrance, or rather insurmountable obstacle, has been what is known as the duality of the executive. From the 1923 Constitution onwards, the head of state has exercised executive authority with a prime minister. The prime minister has answered to an elected assembly, whereas the head of state has not been answerable to any institution. The predominance of the executive branch, on the one hand, and the supremacy of the head of state in the Egyptian political system, on the other, both under the monarchy and the republican regime, have undermined the consolidation of a democratic system of government in the country.

The 1923 Constitution, modelled on the Belgian constitution of the time, introduced a parliamentary system that, as events proved, was not suitable for Egypt. The country needs a strong executive that is highly centralised but that also exercises its power with and is checked by a strong representative assembly.

I personally believe that the failure of democratic rule in Egypt goes back to the inherent and built-in contradiction between the need for an effective democratic system of government and a weak parliamentary system that has seldom acted in the name of those who have regularly gone to the polls to elect their parliamentary representatives.

The 2014 Constitution has tried to deal with this structural contradiction, but unfortunately has made matters worse. It sets up neither a parliamentary system nor a presidential one. Seemingly, those who drafted the constitution borrowed from the constitution of the Fifth Republic in France without taking into consideration the fact that Egypt utterly lacks strong political parties that are run democratically as is the case in France. This serious mistake has been repeated in almost all the Egyptian constitutions, whether under the monarchy or the republic.

One of the reasons why the transition to democracy has been faltering in Egypt is the absence of political parties that are deeply rooted and democratically run. Two exceptions stand out, however, the first under the monarchy and the second under the republic, though the latter was called a political organisation rather than a political party in the classic sense of the term.

The Wafd Party under the monarchy was a mass movement that reached its climax during the fight for independence prior to the 23 July Revolution. It had won all the popular elections from 1923 to 1952 only to see the houses of representatives with a Wafd majority dissolved by the king. As mentioned earlier, out of the 11 elected national assemblies carried by the party, ten were dissolved.

By 1952 and as the struggle for power between the court and the party of the parliamentary majority continued, the power of the Wafd had waned. It returned many years after all the country’s political parties were dissolved in 1953, but it has failed to regain its days of glory before the 23 July Revolution.

The second exception was a political organisation rather than a political party and was the Socialist Youth Organisation set up during the rule of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. If the role of political parties is to articulate interests, then I would have to say that this organisation qualified for the title.

Unfortunately, though, it was short-lived. Had it had the chance to grow and expand nationwide, politics in Egypt would have been different.

It could be argued that Egypt has known constitutional democracy, at least on paper, but not a functioning democracy. Egypt has always enjoyed the exterior trappings of democratic rule, but it has not for one reason or another adopted the very essence of democratic rule, which is checks and balances and the rule of law. Without these two pillars of any functioning democracy we are not in a position to claim that we are on the right road to democracy.

Another stumbling block facing the democratic transition in Egypt is the unfortunate delinkage between economic development and the establishment of democracy. It is difficult to imagine a working democracy in an economic system that favours the wealthy and makes the gap between the haves and the have-nots grow by the day. Democracy cannot flourish in a sea of misery and deprivation. It is to be hoped that our ongoing democratic transition will take this into consideration.

Checks and balances, the rule of law, deep-rooted political parties and growing economic and social equality are the sine qua non for a successful transition to democracy in Egypt.


The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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