EGYPT: Proposals for change: a national security council and proportional representation

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[Editor’s note: Analysts of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are included among contributors to Babylon & Beyond. Carnegie is renowned for its political, economic and social analysis of the Middle East. The views represented are the author’s own.]

The Egyptian protesters and opposition have proposed a set of demands and reforms to resolve the current crisis and create a new political order: the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, his family and close associates; the cancellation of the state of emergency; the formation of a coalition government; amendment of the constitution; dissolution of the parliament and Shura council; and the organization of fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.

These are necessary steps in building a new, democratic Egypt.

But two additional ideas might be useful in engineering Egypt’s future: the creation of a national security council and a proportional representation system in parliament.

The first relates to the relationship between the armed forces and the civilian political system, and it comes from the experience of Turkey. The Egyptian army is learning what other armies around the world -- including Turkey’s -- grew to understand in previous decades: It is in their own best interest to step back from the difficult and corrupting challenges of day-to-day politics and maintain a leading role in security and strategic matters, but otherwise encourage and ensure the creation of a civilian political space where the population can elect parliaments and governments and hold them accountable.


In Turkey, a national security council was created in the 1960s and included the army chiefs of staff as well as the civilian president and key members of the civilian council of ministers. The council maintained the army’s influence in setting national security policy. Although it was occasionally abused, it was a key institution in negotiating the difficult transition from military to civilian rule. And as Turkey’s democratic transition has matured, the council has acquired a civilian majority and now a civilian head.

Egypt, in its transition, needs a similar institution.

This institution would not only reassure the military that it had an important stake in an emerging democratic order, it would organize the military’s important role in providing stability in this precarious period. It would reassure those -- inside Egypt and internationally -- who are afraid the transition might lead to chaos or be hijacked by radical forces.

The second idea relates to proportional representation. One of the main fears of groups inside and outside Egypt is that free and fair elections will be swept by the Muslim Brotherhood. This will be the case if the electoral system remains as it is today: a majoritarian system.

The Brotherhood is indeed the most powerful opposition movement, and far outstrips other opposition parties in terms of organization and ability to mobilize resources and votes. In a majoritarian system, it can beat other parties in the bulk of the districts, even if it does not have an outright majority in society.

In such a situation, a proportional representation electoral system is a necessity. With this system in place, the Muslim Brotherhood will get its fair and exact share of representation in parliament -- probably well short of a majority -- but other parties and movements will be fully represented as well.

And it’s even possible that the religious vote will splinter. Proportional representation is also appropriate because it encourages new parties, ensures the representation of all trends -- many of which have not yet even established parties -- in the new parliament and creates a very pluralistic political reality.

As Egypt charts a new course for itself, it is important for reformers inside the country and friends of Egypt in the Arab and international community to get the institutional formulas right -- this will help achieve a smooth and effective transition from authoritarianism to pluralistic participatory democracy.


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-- Paul Salem in Beirut