Tag Archives: institutions

Institutions and The Egyptian “Counterrevolution”

Egyptian protesters voicing their displeasure at court rulings that have stalled the country’s democratic transition.

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).

The Challenges of Building Democracy: Lessons from the Front Lines

Iraq has had free elections, but has it stalled on the road to democracy?

An interesting article in the New York Times this week features interviews with Iraqis who offer advice for Libyans on how to build a stable and prosperous country post-Qaddafi.  Based on their own bitter experience with corruption, sectarian violence, and political gridlock, they highlight mistakes to avoid in the transition from a repressive dictatorship to an accountable, representative government.

Not surprisingly, these Iraqis reiterated the now widely accepted lesson that the U.S. decision to pursue aggressive de-Baathification (removing members of Hussein’s Baathist regime from government positions) was counterproductive, stoking tensions and preventing capable officials from assuming key roles.  They urged Libyans not to repeat this mistake in dealing with former regime officials.

While this lesson might be dismissed as unoriginal and obvious, their views on democracy were rare in their candor and insight:  “The men said they had learned the hard way what they never understood living under decades of repression: that democracy is not just the absence of oppression, but that it also involves challenging concepts of tolerance, compromise and civic responsibility yet to take root in Iraq, or in Libya.”

Political scientists have distinguished between democratic institutions, which include checks on executive authority and free elections, and democratic norms, the more intangible values of tolerance and compromise that undergird these institutions but take much longer to develop a foothold in society.  What these weary Iraqis clearly recognize is that the institutions of democracy are nominally present but the norms are sorely lacking, which erodes the stability and legitimacy of those institutions.

The conclusions drawn by these ordinary Iraqis are sobering for the future of Iraqi democracy.  “The parliamentary system in Iraq has failed,” said Thaar Abdul Kadhum, 34, a contractor. “They should have a president who can make all the decisions, and not have all these blocs like we have now.”  Many Iraqis are tired of “the chaos of Iraqi-style democracy. Increasingly, they want a strong hand — elected by the people — to wield power.”  This raises the specter of illiberal democracy, a system that combines free elections with a lack of basic civil liberties and checks on governmental authority.  Democratic transitions often get “stuck” in this hybrid stage, as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela attest.  Can Iraq and Libya escape this fate?