Egypt is considered one of the most centralized countries in the world, ranking 114 out of 158 countries on decentralization and the closeness of government to the people, according to a study by the World Bank. Egypt does not have a local government, but rather a “local administration,” as per the Constitution and law. The name reflects its limited role.
While the government has been promising more decentralization for the past decade, only cosmetic measures have been taken to that avail. The Constitution states that “the state shall guarantee the support of administrative, fiscal and economic decentralization.” Nonetheless, the country’s local administration units lack real authority, as elected local councils don’t have the necessary powers to hold executive bodies accountable. Additionally, the hierarchical government structure bounds local units. The governorate, for example, can reject decisions of the local administration at the district, town and village levels. In turn, all local institutions are subject to central government supervision.
Egypt has been without local councils for the past five years, after they were dissolved by a court order following the January 25 uprising in 2011. New local elections are scheduled to take place in early 2017. Despite the local administration law prohibiting the dissolution of local councils in a comprehensive step, the administrative court’s ruling to suspend them stated that the fall of President Hosni Mubarak’s administration and that of its party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was an exceptional circumstance. The court perceived it as enough reason for their dissolution, given that the NDP mainly used these councils as a tool to strengthen their grip on power through nepotism and vote-rigging. With the spread of bribery, local councilors only worked for their personal interests rather than that of local citizens, resulting in crumbling public services, stated the court. For example, the NDP won 95 percent of local council seats during the last election in 2008, and 84 percent of the seats were walkovers, which, according to observers, is a sign of election fraud.
Since the dissolution of local councils in 2011, new elections have been delayed pending the election of a Parliament and the drafting of a new local administration law. However, the 2012 Parliament did not get to issue a new law before it was dissolved by a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling.
The Ministry of Local Development secretly drafted and submitted an amendment to the local administration law to be ratified by the State Council in 2014 in the absence of Parliament and without any public consultation, according to information leaked to local media. However, the State Council did not approve the proposed amendments, citing reasons that have to do with the changes not adhering to decentralization provisions in the Constitution. Ahmed Zaki Badr, the minister of local administration, announced in January that his ministry was working on a new draft law to be submitted to Parliament for ratification before local council elections take place at the start of 2017.
Even though local councils are elected by popular vote, minimal voter turnout and election fraud in the past have meant there was a lack of genuine representation of local citizens’ needs. There is no transparency or public participation in decision making at a local level. For example, residents of the residential Mohandiseen neighborhood in Giza woke up one day last year to find that they had to cross over a scaffold to access streets because a tunnel was being dug, without any prior notification from local authorities and with complete disregard to public safety. It was not until one week later that residents found out that a new metro line was going to run under their homes. The National Authority for Tunnels, which is responsible for implementing metro projects in Egypt, is a central authority that reports to the Ministry of Transportation. It acts according to plans put forth by the government without any engagement with citizens.
In Alexandria, 1,200 houses were demolished in 2014 by the Endowments Authority without prior warning to the families that owned them, and before a court had issued its ruling regarding their legal possession of these residences. The residents’ strikes and protests were ignored by the central government authority, as citizens stood helplessly watching bulldozers knock down their homes.
Another lingering battle is the one between nearly 1,500 families of Ramlet Bulaq, a poor neighborhood in downtown Cairo where the municipal authorities have been trying to evict residents from their homes in order to transform the area into an administrative and commercial hub. The governorate even rejected a proposal by a participatory planning initiative that worked with the community to put together an alternative regeneration plan to guarantee that residents wouldn’t be displaced from their area.
There isn’t any systematic participation of local citizens in any of the planning and implementation of projects in their neighborhoods. According to a pilot study carried out in 2011 by the Local Administration Reform Unit on local governance in Fayoum, local citizens ranked transparency and participation indicators lowest, with scores of 6.3 and 3.7 out of 100, respectively. The study, which included a survey of approximately 3,000 families representative of the governorate’s districts, stated that Fayoum’s inhabitants agreed that neither the local executive nor the local council engaged them in identifying local needs. They also mentioned that they have no access to data about development project plans and budgets, or the rules and regulations organizing the relationship between them and local actors. With the absence of elected local councils, the local executives only depend on their own observation and day-to-day dealings with people to identify problems and needs.
Participatory institutions are not unheard of in the developing world. They have been established in a number of developing countries, most notably in Brazil. More than 120 cities in Brazil have adopted Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the past two decades, where public meetings and debates are held throughout the year in each district for people to determine how public funds should be spent the following year. During these meetings, the local government presents the accounts of the previous year and an investment plan for the next one for community representatives to discuss. Public services to the poor have significantly improved in cities that adopted PB compared to those that didn’t, with an increase in spending on education and sanitation, and lower infant mortality rates.
Egypt has three local administrative levels: the governorate, the city (as well as marakez, or regions, for rural governorates), and city districts (or villages, in the case of rural governorates). Each of these local levels of administration has a deliberative Local Popular Council (LPC) directly elected by voters and a Local Executive Council (LEC), whose head is either appointed by the president of the state (in the case of the governor) or by the prime minister (in districts, towns, urban subdivisions and villages). Egypt can be considered closest to the mayor-council system of local government, with one major difference: The local executive branch in Egypt is appointed by the central government, rather than voted in by the public. This, however, begs the question: Can we have functional cities and villages without elected mayors?
Article 179 of Egypt’s 2014 Constitution stipulates the following: “The law regulates the conditions and manner of appointing or electing governors and heads of other local units, and defines their jurisdiction.” The article has thus opened the way for the election of governors and other local units heads, but the government has largely ignored this, and this is not expected to change in the current amendments the state is drafting.
Without decentralization and local democracy, it is not possible to have good quality, efficient services and local development tailored to each area and community’s needs. In Egypt, local authorities are not accountable to the public, and don’t even have the powers or resources to enact real change. The result is social inequality, poor services and corruption. If we want a better life and functional dwellings, this needs to change.