The dangers of a parliamentary system

Controversy abounds over the future of Egypt’s political system. Some defend the idea of a parliamentary republic, arguing it’s the only way to build a meaningful democracy. The arguments in favor of a parliamentary system are, in large part, a response to the negative legacy of Egypt’s presidential system since national independence.  Advocates of a parliamentary system warn that a presidential Egypt may be ruled by another pharaoh who prioritizes personal benefit over collective well-being.

The discussion about the parliamentary republic should not revolve around fine legalities, nor should it rely on cultural stereotypes about submissive Egyptians who revere their presidents as Gods, as if the Egyptian people, not the successive regimes, are responsible for over half a century of political repression.  

Egypt’s current historical moment demands careful analysis in order to determine the most appropriate system of government for the country. At the present juncture, the adoption of a parliamentary system would only deepen the chaos and prolong the power vacuum that currently plagues the country. Parliamentary systems are based on striking a balance between the head of government and the parties represented in parliament, making it difficult for the head of the republic to take bold decisions outside the routine practices of government.

Today, the Egyptian political system faces two dangers. First, many Egyptian officials are reluctant to make swift decisions. People have complained about “trembling” ministers who are afraid to make mistakes and face trial and humiliation as a result. They fail to differentiate between accountability – holding officials responsible for their mistakes, usually by removing them from office or not electing them in the future – and criminal trials for corrupt politicians.

This reluctance has created a second danger: the desire on the part of some citizens to restore stability and security, even through undemocratic means.

Under the current circumstances, the parliamentary system will deepen these two negative tendencies. The president will not be able to make any decision without approval from cabinet and the political parties represented in parliament. It will not be in the interest of those parties – especially at such an early stage in Egypt’s democratic transition – to deal decisively with the security void lest they upset any voters and risk a losing a seat in parliament.

The parliamentary system might have worked for Egypt if Mubarak had left the country with a single functioning institution. Reforming these institutions will require careful restructuring that only a directly-elected president can undertake.

Egypt is a developing country. It suffers from poverty, unemployment, corruption and a breakdown in public services. It needs a president with an ambitious program to rebuild the country. Other states offer us examples for how to do this. Take Brazil as a case in point. Former President Lula de Silva thrust his country forward through a presidential program, not a government program that would have been subject to the balance of powers within parliament (as we see in Iraq). Likewise, Egypt needs a democratic presidential system where the president can be free from the daily calculations of parliamentary blocs and devote himself fully to the country’s progress.

Under a parliamentary system, the Egyptian prime minister’s main concern would be to survive a no confidence vote and remain in power. Development projects would be sacrificed amidst concerns not to upset different parliamentary blocs. In the current political climate, introducing a parliamentary system would be like adding to the many Egyptian talk shows where people disagree, curse each other and battle over imaginary pies. Meanwhile, illiteracy will remain high and standards in health, education, industry and agriculture will not improve.

The Egyptian people need a president with real powers. If we continue to be afraid of power on the grounds that it can be turned against the people, we will have forgotten the main lesson of the 25 January revolution: Egypt will never again be ruled by anyone who treats the country as their personal dominion.

At this time, a parliamentary system will be chaotic and ineffective; it may even encourage some people to seek salvation in anti-democratic forces that can restore order and security. For that reason, I warn Egyptians against a parliamentary republic.

Translated and abridged from the Arabic Edition.

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