Local Governments Help Build Egyptian Democracy

The Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) of Egypt ruled last week that municipal councils would be dissolved and new elections held later this year. As a result, some 52,000 seats in local government will be filled during the next election cycle tentatively scheduled the end of August. Although the 60 day timetable for elections may seem to quick to mount legitimate elections, the move by the SAC is a historic ruling nonetheless. The dissolution of the councils is a major blow to the old Mubarak guard, and the local council elections represent the best chance for Egypt’s democratic reformers to make significant and legitimate gains in government.

While the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from power was the highlight of the Arab Spring in Egypt, protesters also made the dissolution of municipal councils a high priority. Regime change and high-level government shake-ups draw headlines and improve moral, but they do not go far in assisting Egypt’s long-term democratic development. Aiming high does not resolve the fundamental deficiencies of the Egyptian governance, namely poor government institutions, weak civil society, overbearing bureaucracies, and rampant corruption.

“Aiming local,” reforming Egypt’s government with a bottom-up approach, will go much further in the advancement of democratic institution and societal pathologies. Egypt’s reformers seem to understand this concept, and now is a crucial opportunity for democracy to deepen its roots in the most populous Arab country.

Targeting local government has several key advantages over high-level reform. First, it allows Egypt’s reformers to make immediate and tangible gains in government. After the 2008 elections, 99% of local council seats were held by members of the allies of Mubarak. Now for the first time, multiple parties stand to win in elections. Parties that can make their presence felt at the local level will be taken more seriously at higher levels of government, improving their chances at winning elections at the national level.

Second, local council government allows politicians, especially untested politicians, to build skills and experience. At the local level, politicians are much more in tune with their constituencies. They can shake hands with business owners, visit local schools, and make their presence felt in the community. Unlike national issues, which are easy to speak to and buried in theory, local issues such as building a school and improving access to water infrastructure are provable. Good leaders can get things done, and they are rewarded for doing so.

Third, a prominent presence in the national council gives new politicians of all parties the chance to establish a strong base of support. Once names become familiar to the public, they are more easily recognizable. One fault of the Mubarak system was that few office holders belonged to other parties, and even those seats were at the mercy of the regime. Therefore big-name opposition was limited to a number of high-profile dissidents like Ayman Nour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

But reforming local government will not be easy. The new municipal elections are controversial, even among some sympathizers of the reform movement. Houda Mansour, a professor of local administration at Cairo University is one such detractor. “I doubt we will be ready for elections in 60 days,” he warned in an interview with The Daily News Egypt. He fears that the quick turnaround elections provide insufficient time to mount legitimate campaigns.

Despite concerns, democratic reformers should focus on this unprecedented opportunity for change. This process of establishing power at the local level, learning, and growing adds momentum to a grass roots movement. Egypt’s reformers and those sympathetic to their cause would be wise to focus significant time and resources at the local level. They will be well rewarded.

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