By Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir
The Egyptian people must still yet overturn an overbearing force that has marginalized them for generations: top-down government control of budgets and local development. Egypt’s central government administration consumes the far majority of public resources, allocating just 15 percent for local administration spending, which is less than half of the average percent spent by developed countries. Three quarters of Egypt’s local spending goes toward wages and salaries, leaving just 6 percent of the remaining for local capital expenditures over which local officials have minimal discretion.
The centralized system in Egypt denies the people’s decision-making in prioritizing resources and projects in accordance with their needs. Centralization’s cumulative effects make it a main contributor to stratifying Egyptian society along economic, gender, regional, and sectarian lines.
Egypt can decentralize authority and catalyze democracy-building and human development by passing the long-delayed Local Administration Law. The draft law transfers power from non-elected governors to people’s representatives to the Local Popular Councils, to manage sub-national jurisdictions and public service delivery. Unfortunately, with Egypt’s parliament dissolved, the law’s passage appears impossible. However, when national institutions are soon in a position to make this law, they have already been humbled by the people, and that ought to create a conducive environment to negotiate through the passage of laws and the enactment of policies that decentralize power.
Egypt’s Supreme Military Council and leaders should not commit the same mistake as the ousted Mubarak regime and miss their opportunity to help usher-in this law. Morocco’s case provides the alternative lesson. King Mohammed VI has been regularly speaking about decentralization for more than two years, and has been constantly travelling the country particularly since 2005 to promote human development projects. The credibility he has built over the years in regard to his personal commitment to people’s participation and development is shaping in vital ways Morocco’s comparatively stable experience in the Arab Spring.
If the Local Administration Law and other frameworks for decentralization are not enacted in Egypt, then a second grassroots democratic resurgence could construct them from below. For people to proactively build an empowering society, community meetings in villages, towns, and city neighborhoods need to be organized so that local members identify, and then ultimately create and manage, development projects that improve their lives. Local development that is democratically-driven can make decentralization operational by translating into reality its essential features like building people’s critical skills and confidence, and forming new sub-national partnerships and democratic organizations that can federate and become the mortar and brick of the decentralized structure.
This kind of democratic resurgence unfolds in an evolutionary and accelerating way. Community-control of projects intended to benefit its members much more quickly and economically than centralized control responds to different priority human needs in different areas of the country.
Egypt’s successful revolutionary groups should find a way to come together again to jointly create a civil national unity organization dedicated to development and democracy that reverses top-down control. This nongovernment organization, with the networks of its founders, would: 1) establish agencies at each administrative jurisdiction, at the 29 governorates, districts, and local administrative units, and 2) forge horizontal and vertical private and public partnerships that assist community-driven development and build up a decentralized system.
Decentralization is advocated by a spectrum of political and social groups, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and could be a unifying position among them. People’s participation in decision-making to improve social conditions is an enduring global social and political principle that relates directly to the Islamic concepts of: shura (consultation in governing involving the whole community regarding all matters); ummah (a decentralized, integrated, and diverse worldwide Muslim community that furthers social justice by increasing unity and cooperation); baya (accountable leaders), and tawhidi (a society that recognizes the indivisibility of mankind).
The incredible courage of Egyptian youth brought on by their passionate belief in justice, and the ingenuity that they showed during the uprising, are qualities that have been attributed to the success of youth globally as facilitators of social change. Sub-national agencies in a national unity organization should include youth on their staffs as much as possible, especially in positions that involve interaction with local communities. The knowledge and skills acquired by members of a unity organization while they assist the difficult and transforming process of empowering people and communities are likely to be applied by them again in future endeavors, including politics.
Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is a sociologist specializing in global development. He is based in Casablanca, Morocco. He can be reached at [email protected]