You may remember from the 2008 Presidential Race that one reason cited for voting for McCain’s opposition was his age. Independents and Liberals alike commented that should Senator John McCain become president, at his age (72 at the time) and with his health problems, they had cause to be concerned that he might die in office, allowing Sarah Palin to become President. This gave many voters pause, for although she is cute and likeable, even conservatives were unsure she could handle the job of President. Concerns like these are nothing new. Leaders die of old age, are assassinated and resign. What is important is that when a vacancy is created in the Presidency, chaos does not reign supreme; that order is maintained. Of the forty-four Presidents who have served the office, eight have died, causing their Vice Presidents to succeed to the Presidency. This same procedure took place when Nixon resigned. These successions happened smoothly, for the most part. When the first occurrence of a President’s death created a vacancy, no one was clear what would happen, even though the Constitution stated in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 that
“In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”
When William Henry Harrison died of complications due to pneumonia on the 32nd day of his Presidency, a great controversy broke out over the word “devolve.” (Harrison was the country’s oldest President, at 67 years old, until Reagan, who was 69 when he took the Oath of Office.) The OED defines devolve as “To cause to pass down by inheritance or legal succession.” But, did that mean the Vice President was now President or only acting President until a new election? Harrison’s cabinet met with Tyler, and informed him he was simply the Acting President and would need approval from them before taking action. However, John Tyler insisted that he was the President. The cabinet backed down. Had they not, we might have experienced the same situation Egypt faces today. Tyler’s actions became known as the Tyler Precedent, and were followed until the 25th Amendment was ratified on February 10, 1967. Gerald Ford is the only Vice President who succeeded as President under the 25th Amendment, taking office in 1974 when Nixon resigned.
In each case, when the President was lost, the transition of power occurred smoothly. That is not what is happening in Egypt, despite their Constitution clearly delineating what happens when a President steps down. Chapter 5, Article 84 of Egypt’s Constitution states:
“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.”
When President Hosni Mubarak resigned, on Feb. 11, 2011, he handed over his authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, (consisting of the chief of military intelligence, the heads of each branch of service, the chief of the General Staff, and most of the military’s other top officers) instead of Vice President Omar Suleiman. As the country is now in the hands of the military, we are right to call for free and open elections, in the hope that the temporary government will again honor their Constitution. An alternative is for the Council to turn over their power to the Vice President who should have assumed the Presidency. Until a new President is elected, through a proclamation of vacancy from the People’s Assembly, and then a free election, Egypt and relations in the Middle East will remain unstable. We should encourage those in power in Egypt to honor their Constitution.