Yuliya Tymoschenko, a former prime minister of Ukraine, wrote in Al Jazeera that Egyptians should learn from the disappointments that followed Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. She advises that democracy is not made by elections alone, and that a strong civil society is needed to protect a new democracy from being hijacked by elements of the old regime who only pretend to embrace democratic norms. But she also describes civil society as an intricate and mysterious entity that evolves over decades, if not centuries.

This advice is good, but it is also a call for social scientists to develop a deeper and more precise understanding of what is needed from civil society, if we are to understand the essential factors for successful democratic development. It is not enough to advise Egyptians or Ukrainians to go back and have a century or two like England around 1600 before they attempt to build a democracy. We must try to identify the essence of what is needed from civil society and how it can be most directly developed where it is lacking.

It may be instructive to consider an example from Maye Kassem’s discussion of civil society in her insightful book on Egyptian Politics. Kassem describes how opposition groups, in their efforts to acquire some autonomy from state domination under the Mubarak regime, cooperated to gain positions of leadership in professional organizations. This process was tolerated by the government until the Cairo earthquake of 1992. But then the Doctors’ and Engineers’ Syndicates, under leadership from the Muslim Brotherhood, provided conspicuously better assistance to earthquake victims than the official government relief agencies. In response, new laws were decreed to give the government greater control over such professional syndicates.

This story puts the focus on one essential factor that institutions of civil society can provide: an independent supply of people who have good reputations for providing public services. From the perspective of economic theory, we easily see how the supply of such reputations can be vital for democratic competition. Voters are unlikely to hold corrupt leaders accountable in democratic elections if they believe that alternative candidates would be as bad or worse. More generally, economists understand that market competition may fail to reduce suppliers’ profits when there are high barriers against new competitive entrants, and this insight can be applied to political competition (where political profit-taking is called corruption). Autonomous public-service organizations allow new leaders to develop the reputations that they need to compete for the voters’ trust, thus facilitating new competitive entry into the political arena.

So the key question to ask is: what is the best way for a newly democratic nation to increase its vital supply of individuals who have good reputations for using resources responsibly in public service? The obvious place to look is in subnational governments for provinces and cities, where independently elected political leaders could demonstrate their qualifications to compete for offices at higher levels. An elected mayor or governor who provides better public services than the established national leaders can become a strong competitive candidate for president or prime minister in the future.

Unfortunately Ukraine’s Constitution does not allow such opportunities for independent local leaders to prove themselves below the national level. In the governments of Ukraine’s provinces (oblasts) and major cities, executive authority is exercised by governors and mayors who are appointed and dismissed by the national President. Such centrally appointed officials have no incentive to serve the public better than the leader on whom their jobs depend. If Ms. Tymoschenko truly wants to build a stronger system of democratic competition in Ukraine, she might start by proposing a constitutional amendment to allow locally elected councils to choose their own governors and mayors.

If the new leadership in Egypt wants to maintain a political system in which national leaders are protected from serious competition from below, then they may be expected to craft a similar constitution that allows a President or Prime Minister to control state power at all levels. But even under old regime, Egypt’s Constitution promised (in Article 162) that popularly elected local councils would be gradually formed and given local governmental authority. If the leaders of the new regime are serious about promoting competitive democracy in Egypt, they could do well by fulfilling this promise and writing a new constitution that devolves a substantial share of power to separately elected provincial governments. Supporters of democracy in Egypt should watch carefully what they do on this dimension.

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