Post-Revolutionary Institutional Reform in Egypt: Lessons From the Ukraine

Pro-reform protests in the Ukraine

 Most historians agree that the first wave of democratic transitions that swept Eastern Europe in the late 1980s – transforming Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – was  significantly more successful than the second wave that occurred in countries such as Ukraine, Serbia, and Georgia, proving yet again that the road to reform and democracy is long and uneven. While Egypt’s revolution has unique characteristics specific to the country’s demographic and institutional features, political parties and movements leading the transition should look to the key factors associated with successful revolutions in Eastern Europe, which point to the necessity of institutional reform, the anchor of any transition to democracy.

In countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, institutional reforms successfully replaced former corrupt leaders with those possessing demonstrated competence and integrity. Ukraine and Serbia, however, failed to undertake sufficient institutional reforms. In Ukraine, the Orange Revolution government did not do enough to purge or reform its Justice and Security Sector, leaving the security apparatus shackled with the legacy of corruption and lack of professionalism associated with its Soviet past. Corruption under President Viktor Yushchenko reached even higher levels than that seen under his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, initiating a regression backward toward authoritarianism.

The parallels with Egypt are telling. Thus far, no state institution – already weakened by 30 years of autocratic rule under Hosni Mubarak – has seen significant reforms. Despite the change in cabinet ministries, the old regime still prevails. In all the violent events witnessed in Egypt, from the brutal deaths of protesters at “Maspero” to the recent rioting at a soccer stadium in Port Said, we encounter recurring characters: unprofessional police forces, pro-regime state media, and an irresponsible ruling military council. With every incident, Egyptians are becoming increasingly aware of a discouraging truth: There is no rule of law, and a successful transition greatly depends on its restoration.

The Orange Revolutionaries bear some responsibility for the Ukraine’s authoritarian backsliding due to internal divisions that undermined the prospects for institutional reform. Two pitfalls particularly relevant to Egypt include:

1. Weak state/executive power: The key to successful reform lies in building state institutions that are not so strong as to interfere with citizens’ political and economic freedoms but strong enough to effectively enforce the rule of law. In the Ukraine, constitutional reforms enacted in 2005 – just after the Orange Revolution – created a hybrid parliamentary-presidential-cabinet system. While constitutional amendments were introduced in an effort to promote executive accountability and rebalance its role with that of other state institutions, the Venice Commission concluded that these amendments could not achieve a balanced and functional system of government. Overlapping jurisdiction and the limitations on the president’s powers vis-a-vis parliamentary oversight handicapped the decision-making process. The executive branch found itself unable to initiate reforms when subject to negotiation with the representatives of conflicting parliamentary groups.

Successful democratic transitions in Eastern Europe mostly adopted the parliamentary system that empowered the legislative branch enough to allow for decisive and effective decision-making. Those countries, unlike the Ukraine and Egypt, had a strong, professional institutional infrastructure. The problems lie only in changing the underlying communist ideology, as opposed to operational or procedural aspects of those institutions. Hence, the reform process faced fewer obstacles. With Egypt’s weak institutions, a successful transition through a parliamentary process is less likely.

Egypt now faces a critical milestone in which it must determine its political regime in the new constitution. Egypt needs a strong executive branch, as in the case of the presidential or semi-presidential system. Egypt’s paradigm closely resembles the Ukraine in its need to enact quick reforms in state institutions, a process that cannot afford the delays and hurdles of protracted negotiations between parliamentary blocs.

2.  Weak reformist legislation:

Another Eastern European mistake that Egypt would do best to avoid is a lack of reformist legislation. At least partially due to the conflict between the parliamentary blocs, the Ukrainian parliament could not produce the far-reaching legislation needed for a successful transition. Some so-called “reformist” laws simply perpetuated the authoritarian Soviet culture typical of the old regime. For Egypt, the parliament represents the only legitimate and elected actor that can pave the way for a successful transition to democracy. To achieve genuine reform, it must immediately reform two key state institutions: 1. The Ministry of Justice, in such a way that would guarantee judicial independence, and 2. The Ministry of Information, through issuing rapid laws for the reform of those institutions.

Parliament must also rescind those laws that tolerate human rights violations while also focusing on anti-corruption legislation. Ensuring Trade Union freedoms and maintaining contact with youth/revolutionary movements and civil society actors should also remain top priorities. Otherwise, parliament will be isolated from the revolutions’ main actors and thus out of touch with their primary demands.


Nadine Abdalla is a Research Fellow at the Arab Forum for Alternative Studies (AFA) in Cairo and Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) in Grenoble, France. Her research interests include labor movements in the post-Mubarak era and democratic transitions in comparative perspective, with a focus on Egypt and Eastern Europe. She can be reached at 
Photo Credit: Global Post


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