Egypt’s Draft Constitutional Amendments (Part I)

The process of creating Egypt’s 2012 constitution was accompanied by considerable debate—from the formation of the constituent assembly tasked with drafting it to its ratification last December. Up until his ouster, the constitution was one of the major crises facing former President Mohamed Morsi’s regime, so it comes as no surprise that it is a priority for the masses that took to the streets on June 30. Demands for a new constitution were second only to the demand for early presidential elections, which have yet to be held.

While the ten-member legal expert committee summarized a number of articles in the constitution, repealing many and amending others, the content of the draft amendments raises a number of questions on several constitutional matters of critical importance. Foremost among these issues is the system of government, which includes the executive and legislative branches, and the relationship between them.

Within the draft constitutional amendments, a number of changes have been made to Egypt’s system of government, yet the essence and reality of the political system has not changed. One of the most significant reasons Egypt’s political system has failed over the past decades (particularly since the July 1952 revolution) is the adoption of a mixed system of government, which combines aspects of both a presidential system and a parliamentary system. In this system, the executive branch is made up of two components: the first being the president, and the second being the prime minister. Executive responsibilities are divided between them to varying degrees, but the president is the supreme head of the country. The greatest disadvantage to this system is that the president has vast powers, without being politically accountable to any authority. Meanwhile, the prime minister is politically accountable to the parliament, despite the fact that the prime minister is in fact an employee appointed by the president himself, and nothing more.

Within a mixed system, another problem is the very selection of the prime minister. It is a complicated process, which demands a great deal of time and political effort. According to Article 121 of the draft amendments (which is the same as Article 139 of the 2012 Constitution, without any change in its content): “The prime minister is chosen by the president. The prime minister and the cabinet he forms must obtain the parliament’s confidence within thirty days. If he does not obtain parliamentary confidence, the president chooses a prime minister from the party that holds the majority of seats in the People’s Assembly. If this cabinet does not obtain parliamentary confidence, the People’s Assembly itself chooses a prime minister. If he does not obtain parliamentary confidence, the president shall dissolve the People’s Assembly and call for new parliamentary elections.”

This article raises a number of surprising points – first, is the position of prime minister truly so important as to merit so much time and political deliberation? After all, it is the president who – in accordance with Article 114 of the draft – is the “supreme head of the country” and head of the executive branch. Furthermore, the prime minister is unable to circumvent the supreme head of the country. Secondly, why give the president the right to choose the prime minister first, if the system has some characteristics of a parliamentary system – which directly selects the prime minister from the party that has won a parliamentary majority. Finally, the president is given the right to dissolve parliament if the latter doesn’t grant parliamentary confidence to any of the three prime ministers that have been selected. There is simply no justification for dissolving a popularly-elected parliament over a dispute in selecting a prime minister who has no actual power to begin with. Egyptian politics shouldn’t undergo all this political maneuvering and conflict just to name a prime minister. It would be perfectly acceptable if a  pure parliamentary system were adopted, where the prime minister is the first man of the state, and the essential and important issue of forming a cabinet would take place after parliamentary elections.

In regard to the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch (the parliament), the president holds vast powers over parliament – the most important of which by far is the power to dissolve parliament. In addition to Article 114, Article 112 (formerly Article 127 in the 2012 constitution) reinforces this right, stating: “The president is only allowed to dissolve the People’s Assembly when necessary, with a justified decision, and after a popular referendum.”

Some might say that there are strong safeguards and stringent conditions for dissolving the People’s Assembly, yet the text of the article is clear. Safeguards and conditions do not affect the root of the problem – the fact that there is fundamentally no justification for the president to dissolve parliament. As Egyptian political conditions and historical precedent has clearly demonstrated, the president has vast influence within the Egyptian state, and if he makes a decision – no matter what it is – it will be implemented. It is unlikely that anyone would contradict him, regardless of the text’s mention of conditions for the dissolution of parliament.

In summary, a mixed parliamentary system concentrates executive power in the hands of the president while the prime minister is working as a “bulwark” for him. Similarly, the president can dissolve the People’s Assembly if a dispute arises between him and the members of parliament. Herein lies the essence of the problem: the system allows the president not only to hold unparalleled executive powers, but to snatch up powers of the legislative branch whenever he disagrees with the parliament.

The ideal political system for Egypt is a pure presidential system, whereby the president is directly elected by the people, and is fully responsible for the executive branch. He would appoint the ministers, without the presence of a prime minister acting as a ‘false front’ of the executive branch. In exchange for these executive powers the president would embody, there is a parliament that works with the president to govern the country. Thus in addition to its regular legislative role, parliament acts as an active authority, participating in governing the country alongside the president. By monitoring and checking the president’s decisions, it would limit his actions and prevent him from overstepping boundaries in his use of power. Naturally, not giving the president the power to dissolve parliament would be a foundation of the system. The parliament is a symbol of popular sovereignty, and it – not the president – should be the highest power in government.

Yussef Auf is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His work focuses on Egyptian constitutional issues, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.

Image: Photo: Egypt Presidency