The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 21, 2011

Improving local governance in Egypt

March 21, 2011

Free and fair elections in Egypt, when they are held, will help legitimate a new regime. But elections alone won’t reform huge ossified ministries that pervade every corner of Egyptian life. While old Ministers are gone, the generals now in charge aren’t necessarily prepared to start reforming bureaucratic life.  The regime of state-owned and state-connected companies that make up Egypt’s formal private sector operate in league with top-down ministries beholden not to citizens but to the status quo.  Such bankrupt public administration helped spark the revolution and acts as a drag on any new democracy. And there is no court-supervised restructuring process for this sort of bankruptcy.

Yet, needed pluralism can be jump-started if Egypt empowers local governance entrepreneurs. Such fundamental issues as elections, civilian-military relationships, and food prices will rightly preoccupy new national leaders.  But changes at the top don’t transform the way the bureaucracy responds to citizens’ everyday needs.  Will streets be safer and cleaner? Will building permits be issued more quickly? Roads contracts issued more transparently?  Courts become more efficient or market inspectors less predatory? Experience elsewhere doesn’t point to examples of such rapid change of deeply ingrained government culture. So we can expect, amid only slow improvements, post-Mubarek disappointment for many hoping for an immediate democracy dividend.

Egypt needs an army of policy and administrative entrepreneurs, but under Mubarek, innovators weren’t rewarded. Indeed, some were jailed! To give social entrepreneurs the political space they need, the country would do well to devolve some responsibility and resources to provincial or local governments ASAP and to introduce some highly visible performance measures.  A quickly launched demonstration program need be neither complicated nor lengthy.  Egypt, and well-wishing partners outside, could target some concrete accomplishments—such as trash pickup or school repair, road maintenance or street lighting—that would open the doors for many potential leaders.  Quick wins on this front can buy time for longer term achievements—important since job creation will take time and suspicion of military over-bearing will ebb only slowly, election by election. 

Perhaps sensing rumblings of change, the Mubarek regime had plans to move toward devolved governance. But too late for that! As my colleague Jamie Boex suggests, giving local district-level councils immediate access to unconditional grants makes sense while gradually ceding local leaders' power over the central ministries’ branch offices.  True, these elected councils are currently stacked with members of the former ruling party (NDP), but most likely their loyalty was as brittle as the now-fallen regime’s—especially with the prospect of local elections looming.   As for any fear that devolution might lead regions to break away, national identity is strong across Egypt’s map.

Handing local leaders real resources and responsibility would almost immediately make local branches of the bureaucracy more accountable to local customers. It would give emerging public entrepreneurs tools and visibility.  International donors could provide resources and expertise alongside local think tanks that can work with local citizens on independent performance measurement.  A good starting point would build on the idea motivating local performance “observatories” like those another colleague, Ritu Nayyar-Stone, worked on in Egypt last year to measure local service delivery.

Putting local officials and their citizens in the driver’s seat quickly can empower new democrats throughout Egypt.  Sure, a few local governments may stumble, but that’s the cost of the political experiments known as democracy. Many others, maybe most others, will flourish.

Photo by Ben Curtis/ AP

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