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The inevitable struggle: local government in Egypt

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Local authorities are the incubators of the Egyptian dream

Ahmed Abou Hussein

 By Ahmed M. Abou Hussein

Local administration reform is a vital struggle that should top Egypt’s policy agenda for so many reasons. Currently, local administration is a hub for corruption. It is also the main pillar of the deep state. If reformed and decentralised, it can improve the state’s governance, democracy and the quality of public services.

Working on local administration reform has never been an easy job and the progress has always been slow. It is striking that not many revolutionaries care about this strategic issue with the exception of very few movements such as Ma7liat, a grassroots youth movement that aims for the reform of local government in Egypt. Even though, believe or not, it is the key factor for the Egyptian revolution to succeed. Hosni Mubarak’s regime members, the National Democratic Party (NDP) remnants, know it. The generals clinging to power to protect their interests know it. The Muslim Brotherhood knows it. And they are all preparing for it.

President Anwar El-Sadat had an ambitious vision for local government in Egypt. He sponsored the “local governance” law (before it got changed to become the “local administration” law) with the intention that each governorate would become more independent, to achieve better representation and public services. However, during Mubarak’s era this was regarded as a future menace. The autonomy of local offices meant less dependency on the central government, which means that Pharaoh could lose his grip on the state. It also would give the Egyptian people the chance to develop their local economy; have better education; more responsive healthcare and more improved public services. Decentralised governance equates to a better calibre of administrators, developed leaders and more aware communities, something that Mubarak’s regime fiercely fought.

As you are reading this article be assured that the generals, the Brotherhood and some of the elites are shaping the new local administration law that will govern Egyptians’ lives. What to expect? If there is no popular pressure, then expect very minimal reforms. The current law (number 43 for the year 1979) gives the president the right to appoint the governors directly and the rest indirectly. Unfortunately most local seats are occupied by ex-military, police or remnants of the old regime.

The appointment of General Ahmed Zaki Abdeen as the minister of local development, responsible for local administration affairs in Egypt, is quite troubling. It is not only because of his reputation as a believer in the “iron fist” method, but because of his military background. It was a strange decision, especially since the Brotherhood itself has very competent candidates to run this ministry like the renowned ex-MP Saber Abd El Sadeq.

What Should Egyptians Do?

Egypt is not in a normal political situation. Therefore, Egyptians need to pursue a more radical reform policy that limits the powers of the centralised authority and brings government closer to the Egyptian people.

Local government, like at the central level, has two major authorities that constitute their checks and balances, an executive authority and a monitoring/legislative authority. These two authorities must be separated and granted equal powers. They also need to be subject to elections. This includes the popular councils and the executives’ heads at all levels; governorate level, district level, village level, etc.

There are also three main components of decentralisation that local authorities require to be more independent from the central government. These are the political, fiscal and administrative powers. Political decentralisation can be granted by transparent elections at all local levels, which will provide more authority to local level officials, which in turn guarantees more autonomy from the central government. Fiscal decentralisation means allowing local government to raise, save and invest their own financial resources after giving the central government its shares. Local authorities must have the financial resources to conduct projects; to combat unemployment, develop education and health care to enhance Egyptians’ lives and to augment its public services. Essentially the power to make people’s lives better. Administrative decentralization is necessary to raise the calibre of the public sector and create competition. Each local authority will hire the best people it can afford, in order to provide better services to get re-elected.

Recep Erdoğan, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, and many others served in local government before becoming world renowned leaders. Local authorities are the incubators of the Egyptian dream and in order for this revolution to succeed decentralisation and local administrative reform must be embraced. This effort will be resisted by those who have a stake in the current system and they will call it an attempt to “divide” Egypt. It will also be resisted by those who believe in slow change rather than radical reform. However, all of that proves that this is an inevitable struggle that Egyptians must go through and endure before it gets settled by the Brotherhood, the old regime remnants, the generals and elitist academics whom an international consultant once described as a group of people “who would do anything to stop a son of a bawab (doorman in Arabic) from having equal rights as them.”

Ahmed M. Abou Hussein, MPPA, a policy analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @abouhussein7


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