Strong state institutions—namely the judiciary, legislature, and executive branch—are the essence of democracy. Such institutions perform several key functions in government, including checking and balancing power, pacifying political conflict, and facilitating communication between the ruler and ruled.
Democratic institutionalism is by definition the antithesis of dictatorship and autocracy, which rejects accountability, and the separation and sharing of power. The presence of effective state institutions fortifies both society and the political system against multiple challenges, such as crises of popular participation and government legitimacy, lack of community integration, and political instability.
For these reasons, the existence of powerful institutions demonstrates the depth of a society’s democracy, power, and modernity. A successful democratic transition thus requires establishing strong and effective political institutions.
For most of its modern history, Egypt was dominated by dictatorships that subordinated state authority to the dictator’s personal rule. While government institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, and various executive branch ministries, existed, many of these were functionally superficial.
Since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the election of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt has continued to suffer from weak government institutions, and creating strong democratic institutions is proving to be a daunting task, further inhibiting democratic consolidation. While several developments demonstrate this trend, here we focus specifically on Egyptian legislative and executive deficiencies.
The Egyptian Legislature
The absence of a strong and effective legislature is inhibiting Egypt’s democratic development. Currently, the country has no lower house of parliament, which was dissolved after Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) invalidated the June 2012 election and ruled that a third of lawmakers had been illegally elected because the law upon which the elections were held is contrary to constitutional conventions.
Parliamentary elections, which were supposed to be held in April, have been postponed again due to the recent ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). In April, the Shura Council passed the electoral law and political rights law and referred them to the SCC for review. On May 25, the SCC rejected this third version of the electoral law, finding four of its articles unconstitutional. It also rejected the new political rights law, finding nine of its articles unconstitutional. One of the issues raised by the SCC is the ban on the right to vote of military and police personnel; the court found that preventing security forces from voting was a violation of the principle of equality, which is guaranteed in several constitutional provisions.
In the absence of the lower house, Egypt’s upper house of parliament (Shura Council) has been endowed with the power to create and enact laws. The Shura Council has, however, failed to address pressing issues relating to the transition, such as the laws related to the exercise of political rights and the law of the House of Representatives, due to the unconstitutionality of their drafts. Meanwhile the Council has moved to discuss non-urgent issues, such as Islamic bonds and the law governing NGOs, which was put forward for discussion two years ago.
The Executive Branch
The weaknesses of the Egyptian presidency further reinforce the image of ineffectual Egyptian institutions. President Morsi continually seeks to be involved in all political crises, despite his lack of sufficient experience and skills for political leadership.
He has at times exploited the aforementioned legislative gap, evidenced by the controversial constitutional declaration that sought to monopolize legislative authority. The president issued the declaration on November 22, 2012, stating his decisions were “final and unchallengeable by any individual or body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected.”
President Morsi rationalized this most controversial decree as an attempt to protect the transition to a constitutional democracy. Following days of protests and deadly clashes on December 5, he bowed to the pressure and rescinded most of his decree, but agreed to limit its scope to “sovereign matters.” However, Morsi insisted on keeping his right to protect the Constituent Assembly, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies.
Since the revolution began, Egypt’s judiciary has also been regularly embroiled in confrontations with the president. The crisis began with Morsi’s attempt when he came to power to reinstate the dissolved People’s Assembly through a decree, ordering that it carry out its function until another assembly could be elected two months after the institution of a new constitution, which at that point had been suspended by the SCC.
Morsi’s constitutional declaration of November 22 also gave the president the power to appoint Egypt’s prosecutor-general for a four-year period. Judge Talaat Ibrahim Mohamed Abdullah, a former deputy head of Egypt’s Court of Cassation, was appointed via the declaration to the post of prosecutor-general. However, despite the rescinding of the declaration, Morsi insisted on keeping him in office despite judges’ reservation regarding his selection.
The controversial judiciary law moreover, which is being discussed by the Shura Council, raised fears that its implementation will result in the exclusion of significant numbers of judges, because the proposed bill reduces the retirement age for judges from 70 to 60. This move would effectively pension off about a quarter of Egypt’s 13,000 serving judges, and consequently increase the tensions within the judiciary.
President Morsi’s philosophy regarding executive appointments further illustrates the weakness of the Egyptian executive branch. By and large, Morsi has selected ministers based on personal relationships, rather than competence.
Critics of new Minister of Culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz, for example, claim he lacks the necessary experience and academic background, and has failed to make significant contributions to Egyptian culture. Abdel-Aziz’s political leanings are a source of distrust for the Egyptian arts community. He has come under fire for pieces he wrote in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) newspaper critical of the anti-Morsi opposition, which he described as “counter-revolutionary.” In protest against Abdel-Aziz’s appointment, members of Egypt’s cultural community began to strikeat the Cairo Opera House on May 28, 2013, and announced their intention to continue their protests until Abdel-Aziz is removed—particularly after he decided to fire the opera house head Inas Abdel-Dayem.
The ineptitude of the Minister of Irrigation, Baha Eddin, is an additional example of ministerial incompetence. Although he has served in different sectors of the ministry, he has not engaged in any work related to the issues of the Nile headwaters, which has proved particularly problematic in recent weeks. The Nile is the source of almost all Egyptian water, and tensions have arisen with Ethiopia after they announced an intention to build a dam that would reduce the amount of water available to Egypt.
When asked whether precautionary steps had been taken before announcing construction of the Nile tributary dam, Eddin stated, “The Egyptian people were busy with the revolution when conversation began regarding building the Nahda (Renaissance) Dam,” demonstrating a lack of strategic planning on one of Egypt’s most significant issues.
Moreover, rather than consulting experts in international water law and water technicians, and without considering the complexity and technicality of the issue, on June 2, Morsi called on opposition figures to participate in a national dialogue to discuss the issue.
President Morsi’s unsuccessful attempts to address problems with the Ethiopian dam project reinforce concerns about executive deficiencies. In appointing unqualified officials, and engaging in poor decision-making, the Morsi government has increased political turmoil, and failed to stabilize the Egyptian political scene.
A new formula must be developed to reinforce Egyptian state institutions and ensure that Egypt’s democratic transition is not undermined by structural deficiencies. Such a formula would include the following:
- Parliamentary elections held as soon as possible, so that a complete parliamentary body can perform its proper legislative functions.
- The establishment of an electoral system that ensures the representation of the whole political spectrum.
- President Morsi take care to avoid confrontations with the judiciary, and support its independence.
- President Morsi must also be sure to fill official posts with competent individuals, rather than people in whom he has personal confidence.
The presidency should also establish a strategic policy institute in which qualified senior researchers and experts provide informed and reliable policy recommendations and alternatives for decision-makers within the executive branch, to help address crises in the presidential institution.
To ensure the building of strong, effective, and democratic political institutions, an agreement must be reached with a bride swath of the political spectrum on the priorities of the national agenda during this period of the Egyptian transition that includes the recommendations listed above. It is only through building such institutions that Egypt’s on-going political and economic crises can be solved.