After ratifying a new constitution in January 2014, Egyptians have been told that their path to democracy is to begin with a presidential election. This top-down plan should raise serious concerns from supporters of democracy. It could be better to build the foundations of competitive democracy from the bottom up, starting with local elections.
Democracy is about voters having a choice among alternative candidates whom they can trust to exercise power responsibly. When such trusted leadership is lacking, democracy is disappointing and fragile. A presidential election can give prestige to its winner, but it does nothing to develop the broader supply of trusted alternative candidates on which the success of democracy will ultimately depend. This essential supply of trusted democratic leadership can develop best in responsible institutions of local government where successful local leaders can prove their qualifications to become strong competitive candidates for higher office. But the local elections that would foster the development of democratic local leadership have been consistently postponed in Egypt.
Egypt’s new constitution promises that locally elected councils will be given substantial responsibility for local administration in villages, cities, and governorates throughout the nation (see Articles 175-183). Near the end of the constitution, however, Article 242 allows national leaders to postpone the introduction of local democracy for up to five years.
This decision to postpone local elections in Egypt should not be surprising. The development of new competition from successful local leaders may be against the vested interests of incumbent national leaders. In a centralized unitary state where the national leader can appoint governors and mayors, these offices are among the most highly valued rewards that the national leader can offer to loyal supporters. Indeed, Egypt’s previous 2012 constitution also made promises of local democracy but similarly deferred them into the more distant future (see Articles 183-192 and 235 in the 2012 constitution).
The decision to postpone local elections since the 2011 revolution has made Egypt’s new democracy a winner-take-all competition. When elections are held for power at both national and local levels, many different factions can win a share of power in different districts, but only one candidate can win a national presidential election. It is much harder to build trust between different groups when they believe that only one of them can win power. So without local elections, Egypt’s new democracy has remained perilously vulnerable to fears of another autocracy, as evidenced by the mass demonstrations in 2013. The empowerment of local leadership throughout the country could have done much to build trust and reduce such fears.
Those who would encourage the leaders of Egypt to put their country on a surer path to democracy should raise questions about when the constitutional promises of democratic local government will be fulfilled. Parties and leaders who have demonstrated their ability to govern responsibly and democratically in local government could then provide the trusted leadership that is needed for strong democratic competition at the national level. Thus, early elections for responsible local councils would be a solid step toward effective democracy, which the people of Egypt have demanded.