This week’s events in Egypt indicate that a counterrevolution is under way by the ruling military authorities (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF). A court appointed by former president Hosni Mubarak ruled that Egypt’s democratically elected parliament must be disbanded, effectively giving legislative power to the SCAF. The court also ruled that the Mubarak regime’s final prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, could remain a candidate in the presidential election currently taking place. The SCAF is also preparing a new constitutional “annex” that will define the powers of the incoming president and will set further guidelines on the composition of the assembly that will draft a new constitution. For analysis of the implications of these events for Egypt’s transition to democracy, see here and here.
From a political science standpoint, these events provide a stark reminder of the importance of institutions in determining political outcomes. Institutions are usually defined as including both the formal structures/processes and the informal rules and procedures that govern behavior. In the case of Egypt, the SCAF knows that in order to preserve its power it must control the process of institution-building and not allow the creation of institutions that will severely limit or eliminate its influence (hence its insistence on micro-managing the selection of the assembly that will draft the new constitution). The SCAF could continue to exercise power informally despite what the new constitution says–as has happened in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example–but relying on informal institutions in defiance of the formal ones will be politically difficult in a country gripped by revolutionary fervor and the notion that power must devolve to the people.
Institutions are worth fighting over because they play a major role in determining who wins specific political battles. They determine the rules of the game, the cast of legitimate players, and the “victory conditions.” For example, executives in presidential systems (like France and the U.S.) are less constrained in certain ways by their legislatures than are prime ministers in parliamentary systems. And as comparative politics scholars have noted, certain voting rules (proportional representation systems) allow small parties a chance to be represented, while other rules (“first-past-the-post”) tend to produce two large, powerful parties while stifling minority parties.
What do you think? Will SCAF succeed in its attempted counterrevolution by creating favorable institutions? Or are these measures the last grasping efforts of a dying regime that will inevitably fall to an empowered public that will create new institutions of its own? (Take the poll below to voice your opinion on the future of democracy in Egypt).