As the eyes of the world focus on Egypt, Western news media appear to be following events the same way they would follow a US election — as a horse race. Who is up? Who is down? What to the experts say? What do the polls say?
An alternative approach is to look at what the Egyptian constitution requires. Fortunately, the Egyptian government has published an English language translation of the constitution. It’s a very long document, but on matters relevant to presidential succession, it seems to be quite clear.
Presidential succession is spelled out in Articles 82-84 of the Egyptian Constitution.
|Article 82||In case the President of the Republic, due to any temporary obstacle, is unable to carry out his functions, he shall delegate his powers to a Vice-President.|
|Article 83||In case of resignation, the President of the Republic shall address his letter of resignation to the People’s Assembly.|
Thus, the constitution provides President Mubarak two options. He could resign, as provided for in Article 83, or he could delegate his powers to the Vice-President, as provided for by Article 82. This latter provision is the one he has followed.
Skepticism concerning this procedure is understandable. Until last week, when Omar Suleiman was appointed, Egypt had no Vice-President. The office of Vice-President is established by Article 139, which empowers the President to appoint one or more of them, to define their functions, and to relieve them if he wishes.
|Article 139||The President of the Republic may appoint one or more Vice-Presidents define their jurisdiction and relieve them of their posts. The rules relating to the calling to account of the President of the Republic shall be applicable to the Vice-Presidents.|
But there is no requirement that there be a Vice-President, and his decision to appoint one is consistent with an orderly transfer of power. Had President Mubarak instead decided to resign, a specific set of events would have been set in motion, as provided for by Article 84, and these events likely would not have been orderly at all.
|Article 84||In case of the vacancy of the Presidential office or the permanent disability of the President of the Republic, the Speaker of the People’s Assembly shall temporarily assume the Presidency. In case the People’s Assembly is dissolved at such a time the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court shall take over the Presidency on condition that neither one shall nominate himself for the Presidency. The People’s Assembly shall then proclaim the vacancy of the office of President. The President of the Republic shall be chosen within a maximum period of sixty days form the date of the vacancy of the Presidential office.|
The Speaker of the People’s Assembly would have assumed the office of the Presidency, albeit only temporarily. The current Speaker is Ahmad Fathi Sorour, an academic, has been there since 1991. His longevity in office suggests that he has little independent political power and that his role is essentially ceremonial. This augurs against a capacity to authoritatively run the government.
A new president would have to be “chosen within a maximum period of sixty days form the date of the vacancy of the Presidential office.” How would that be done? The procedure is specified in Article 76.
|Article 76||The People’s Assembly shall nominate the President of the Republic. The nomination shall be referred to the people for a plebiscite. The nomination for the President of the Republic shall be made in the People’ Assembly upon the proposal of at least one third of its members. The candidate who obtains two thirds of the votes of the members of the People’s Assembly shall be referred to the people for a plebiscite. If he does not obtain the said majority the nomination process shall be repeated two days after the first vote. The candidate obtaining an absolute majority of the votes of the Assembly members shall be referred to the citizens for a plebiscite. The candidate shall be considered President of the Republic when he obtains an absolute majority of votes cast in the plebiscite. If the candidate does not obtain this majority, the Assembly shall propose the nomination of another candidate and the same procedure shall follow concerning his candidature and election.|
Thus, the procedure whereby the president is selected is not an election, as Western media routinely say. It is rather a plebiscite. The People’s Assembly chooses the president, and the people vote either to confirm or reject its choice. The people do not vote among competing candidates. A plebiscite to ratify the choice of the People’s Assembly is clearly not what the demonstrators in the street desire, though what they do want is admittedly not so clear.
If President Mubarak were to resign, the novelty of the situation and its extraordinary implications for Egyptian society mean the process used by the People’s Assembly would be intense, likely divisive, and potentially violent. Nonetheless, two scenarios seem the most plausible.
First, the People’s Assembly could choose another strongman. Egypt has known no other governmental pattern in its modern era. The United Kingdom and France installed the first modern government in 1914; the monarchy was overthrown by coup in 1952 and replaced with a nominal republic; and the first president of the republic was himself overthrown by coup in 1954. Gamel Abdel Nasser assumed power in 1956 and relinquished it only upon his death in 1970. He was succeeded by Vice-President Muhammad Anwar El Sadat, who held office until his assassination in 1981 by Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Hosni Mubarak became the President eight days after Sadat’s assassination and has held the office ever since. He is just the fourth president in over 50 years, and two of his predecessors did not last long in office. The first president spent 18 years under house arrest.
Alternatively, the process of selection could degenerate into anarchy, with no candidate able to collect the two-thirds vote needed to win. That scenario would make a coup more likely, which would yield the strongman outcome.
News reports last night mentioned in passing that President Mubarak had submitted (or intends to submit) proposed constitutional amendments to the People’s Assembly, and that he signed the necessary decree authorizing this prior to delegating his authorities to the Vice President. The constitution provides for amendments in Article 189.
|Article 189||The President of the Republic as well as the People’s Assembly may request the amendment of one or more of the articles of the Constitution. The articles to be amended and the reasons justifying such amendments shall be mentioned in the request for amendment. If the request emanates from the People’s Assembly, it should be signed by at least one third of the Assembly members. In all cases, the Assembly shall discuss the amendment in principle, and the decision in this respect shall be taken by the majority of its members. If the request is rejected, the amendment of the same particular articles may not be requested again before the expiration of one year from the date of such rejection. If the People’s Assembly approves an amendment, in principle, the articles requested to be amended shall be discussed two months after the date of the said approval. If the amendment is approved by two thirds of the members of the Assembly, it shall be referred to the people for a plebiscite. If it is approved by the people it shall be considered in force from the date of the announcement of the result of the plebiscite.|
The Western media has not discussed this very much, focusing as noted above on the horse-race aspects of the situation. But this may be where the most important action is going on. The existing constitution upholds a republic in name only. The array of changes needed to convert it into a genuine republic is long and likely to be contentious, for whoever controls the process of writing the rules substantially controls the outcome. To accomplish these changes within the bounds of the existing constitution, they don’t have much time.