Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Egypt’s “Leaderless Revolution” and Presidentialism: A Toxic Combination

Bruce Ackerman

American- or French-style presidentialism flows organically from a revolutionary context in which the leader of a national liberal movement – Washington or Bolivar, De Gaulle or Walesa – has emerged during a lengthy period of struggle against an authoritarian regime. By the time the movement has gained power, the leader’s selection as president seems the obvious choice to symbolize the achievement of the People over its oppressors. The key question is whether the leader is willing to "constitutionalize his charisma," and use his reservoir of popular support to stabilize the constitutional regime. If not, a charismatic dictatorship is the likely outcome.

But this dynamic is beside the point when it comes to a “leaderless” revolution of the Egyptian type, where the authoritarian regime successfully represses the opposition, and then suddenly collapses without providing the movement with time for its own leadership to emerge. Under this scenario, a parliamentary system provides a far more promising constitutional transition to democracy than its presidential counterpart. The presidential form requires the revolutionaries to anoint a single leader prematurely -- thereby preempting a desirable period of democratic contestation, in which rival leaders compete for power. In contrast, a parliamentary system allows a number of political parties to project a number of different leaders onto the stage under conditions of relative equality, allowing them to present a set of competing options in a series of coalition governments.

The case for parliamentarianism is especially compelling in Egypt, since the Mubarak regime was selectively repressive – crushing secular dissent but allowing the Moslem Brotherhood to survive as the only organized opposition group. I develop my argument further in an essay I've just published in Foreign Policy magazine.

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