Rules for Transition

Almost a year after the Arab rebellion was set in motion, the curtain is rising on Act Two of the drama that is transforming the region.

In Tunisia, a big step was taken by holding credible elections. In Egypt, elections should start on Monday, but the country lacks the consensus to follow Tunisia in moving smoothly to the next stage.

While Western audiences are gripped by the performance of Islamic parties, in Egypt it is the technical details of constitutional and electoral arrangements that hold the key to how the drama unfolds.

The script of Tunisia’s transition was crafted back in spring when the country’s interim authorities adopted an electoral system. Initially they were inclined to use a majoritarian system, which would have given a significant bonus in seats for the parties winning most votes.

After much deliberation, however, they threw out previous experience and adopted a proportional system, allowing relatively small, new parties to gain seats while making sure that all regions in the country were represented. By being inclusive, the new system has proved to be appropriate for a post-revolutionary transition.

In Egypt, the electoral system has also been amended by the ruling military council under public pressure. As a result, the upcoming elections stand a better chance of producing more proportional results.

What is worrisome is that the gains in inclusivity may be undone if the allocation formula for translating votes into seats is used in the way that some Egyptian officials seem to understand it. Relative majorities of votes could turn into massive landslides in seats.

The elections in Egypt are supposed to be followed by constitutional reforms, but the sequencing and content of the reforms created tensions which contributed to the current popular discontent.

All sides in the political maneuvering have their own concerns. The military does not want to lose the preeminent position it has enjoyed in Egypt since Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in a military coup. Liberal groups fear continued army control, but they are also scared of being steamrolled in elections by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, is anxious about anything that smacks of an attempt to undermine the political power that would come with electoral victory. After decades of repression, they believe they have political momentum, and do not want to lose it.

These mutual fears do not bode well for building a new country. South Africa showed how such fears could be managed. The rules of its complicated transition from apartheid to democracy were agreed upon in talks between the main parties long before elections were held. A major element was a process that eschewed a winner-takes-all approach.

In particular, the skillful use of supermajorities — approval of a new constitution required a two-thirds majority in the constituent assembly — fostered consensus throughout the constitutional reform.

In Egypt, the current plan calls for elected members of parliament to elect a constituent assembly with a simple majority, with the palpable risk that the assembly will represent only a limited political strand, and not the colorful pluralism of Tahrir Square.

Yet the idea of increasing the majority needed to choose a constituent assembly has been little discussed. Some liberals would prefer an assembly in which professional groups are represented. But this so inflamed the Muslim Brotherhood that they held a large demonstration last Friday, and that in turn contributed to the current wave of protests. The Brotherhood sees any alternative to the current plan as an attempt to thwart their ambitions before the elections even start.

A super-majority requirement is, however, no dirty trick. It is a widely used concept in constitution-making, which helps create broad support for a new constitution. Yes, super-majorities can enable a minority to slow the process, or veto a proposal. But the outcome is confidence in the rules.

Tunisia’s path to elections was difficult, but negotiations among the disparate political groups brought the needed stability. By contrast, the military council in Egypt has done little consulting and changed course only in response to demonstrations.

Egypt needs transitional consultation and decision-making procedures that create trust and consensus. The lessons of Egypt’s travails and Tunisia’s success should not be lost on the rest of the region: Inclusion is the antidote to the inherent fragility of any transition.

By Michael Meyer-Resende, the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO promoting political participation.

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