Rebalancing Powers and Rebuilding the Political Center

Much of the debate surrounding Egypt’s constitutional amendments has focused on individual articles, largely obscuring the rationale behind them: achieving a greater balance of power between the executive and legislative branches and rebuilding the political center.

In order to curtail the powers of the president, long a central opposition demand, the amendments introduced checks on the president’s exceptional powers in times of national emergency, including an explicit prohibition against dissolving parliament except under “exceptional circumstances,” in which case he must call for new elections within sixty days. Furthermore, the amendments significantly enhance the powers of the prime minister by requiring his approval on important decisions by the president. While the president still appoints and dismisses the prime minister, the parliament may withhold approval, requiring the president to accept the resignation of the government. Only if confirmation is withheld a second time can the president dissolve parliament.

Together with the authority that parliament now has over the national budget and the legislative powers conferred on the Shura Council, these changes establish a direct linkage between the majority party (or coalition) in parliament and the composition and platform of the government. Decisions regarding national resources and government policies are thus placed at the heart of the debate between the executive and the legislature. The president’s power to dismiss parliament should be seen as a last resort to break political deadlock.

The second major pillar of the amendments package is an effort to foster greater pluralism in Egypt’s party system, which has atrophied under an electoral system that has favored individual candidates over political parties and local issues over national politics. Elections have benefited candidates with the most resources, while diminishing the importance of party affiliation and positions on issues of national importance. Redressing this situation required a constitutional amendment that would allow for a mixed electoral system including elements of both proportional and single district representation, as well as providing for a minimum representation for women in Parliament.

The intention of the prohibition against religious parties was not, as some have charged, to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from politics, but rather to separate religion from politics. The constitutional prohibition is thus mostly symbolic, adding little to what was already enshrined into law. In this regard, Egypt is by no means unique in the region. The Turkish Constitution features an almost identical provision, whereby the intention has been not to banish Islamists from politics but to establish a threshold that they must cross to be identified as a political party, in effect shedding the religious basis of their platform.

Notwithstanding the objections voiced by opposition parties regarding certain aspects of the amendments, agreement was reached on 32 of the 34 amendments proposed. Opposition centered on the two issues of judicial supervision of elections and the balance between security and civil liberties in combating terrorism.

Amended Article 88 seeks to overcome the huge logistical challenges involved in direct judicial supervision of the balloting process itself. It does not remove the judiciary’s role but relegates it to the level of general supervision of the electoral process through an independent electoral commission, in accordance with international practice. The historical record disproves concerns that this might somehow compromise the integrity of the process; in 1987, before the system of direct judicial supervision was introduced, opposition parties managed to win their largest share in parliament to date.

Similarly, the concern regarding infringement on civil liberties in Article 179 must be placed in context. Here the objective is to replace the state of emergency with an anti-terrorism law that would establish a precise definition of terrorist crimes and delineate the security services’ authority in combating terrorism.

Taken together, the amendments provide for a transition towards a revived party system and more robust checks on executive authority. Like all such transitions, this one will take time to mature. The value of this exercise should therefore be judged according to how well the amendments achieve those objectives, which ultimately will depend more on the actual practice of politics within the parameters established by the amended Constitution than on the particulars of the amendments themselves.

Karim Haggag is director of the Egyptian Press Office in Washington DC.