Local councils provide basic services, and hope for revolutionaries

Most of Egypt’s political attention is focused on the coming presidential election and the battle over who will write the country’s next constitution. But off of the front pages, another major battle is brewing that will be critical in deciding how Egypt develops since the 25 January uprising.

Municipal councils are the micro units of government, concerned with roads, utilities, waste disposal and other basic services in districts and neighborhoods.

For many people, these day-to-day local government responsibilities are more important than what is written in the constitution. Under the Mubarak regime, appointments to municipal councils were used as form of patronage for loyal figures like retiring military and police officers.

Municipal elections are expected to take place this summer, though an official date has not yet been set. Those elections could present an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to strengthen their grip on power, but some activists hope that municipal elections may allow the revolutionary forces that took a beating in parliamentary elections to fare better, and at the same time help bring those who participated in the revolution into the political process.

“There was a political decision for there to be no change after the revolution,” says Mostafa Shouman, who founded the initiative Ma7liat, which means municipalities. “If revolutions don’t change anything they do create opportunities for change. Municipalities are politics at its most basic, basic services at the street level, so we want to introduce the youth to that and then they can go on to Parliament.”

Municipal government could act as a training ground for new politicians. According to 2008 figures provided by the initiative, only 500 municipal seats countrywide, out of a total of 52,000, were not held by members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. And almost 75 percent of those were held by retired military and police officers. By law, these municipal office-holders must be elected, but through a combination of fraud and ensuring no competition, the NDP was able to maintain near-complete control.

Local councils were also beneficial to the NDP in parliamentary elections, according to American University in Cairo and Cairo University political science professor Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed. Sayed said the former ruling party relied on local councils to support grassroots campaigns for NDP candidates in the legislative elections.

Additionally, out of Cairo’s annual LE4.4 billion budget for municipal authorities, LE3 billion was spent on salaries, including higher compensation and perks for the upper ranks, according to Shouman. However, municipal employees were paid relatively low salaries.

Sayed said “there were plans before the revolution to increase the powers of local councils, but they weren’t adopted as they threatened the central power of the ministries and meant subjecting local officials to some sort of accountability.”

Advocates of an improved municipal government system hope that the first item on the agenda will be to change Law 47/1979, which currently governs the councils’ legislative and administrative powers. They believe it is important to amend the law before municipal elections take place. Municipal councils were dissolved by military decree following the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, and Local Development Minister Mohamed Ahmed Attiya announced last February that new elections would be held in July or August at the latest.

Under the current law, the councils cannot directly bring complaints or queries to the executive branch of government, but must go through the governor’s office.

Ma7liat is working with a group of experts to write a new law that will allow for more transparency in the municipal electoral process and aim to put an end to the corruption and patronage that has always riddled local elections. The initiative is also liaising with the Local Development Ministry to help design the bill.

The bill wants to grant as much power as possible to micro-level government and thus move the country away from the centralized, iron-fisted rule of the Mubarak era.

Of the 12 amendments in the bill, chief among them are to have municipal bodies oversee the executive branch of government operating at the local level; repealing the power of the executive branch to dissolve elected local councils; and canceling the authority of the prime minister, relevant cabinet ministers and the governor to object to local council decisions.

The new bill also seeks to increase the wages of local council employees and ensure that their meetings are held publicly. Other stipulations are that elections be held with direct voting and that local councils have the power to distribute their budget as they see fit.

“The plans and draft laws are there, and it is now time to adopt them and give more powers to local councils, especially in financial matters,” said Sayed, who also believes this will give political parties “more experience in government at the local level and will allow people more interaction with political parties because they are addressing local concerns.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has also set its sights on municipal elections, in which the party hopes to repeat its success in the parliamentary elections and bring its younger members into the political fold.

FJP MP Helmy al-Gazzar said earlier this month that local council elections will be filled with younger Brotherhood members, aiming to “build a broad service base to support the Parliament.” This was in response to criticism that the FJP had fielded older candidates in the parliamentary elections, sidelining its younger members.

The FJP is not just concerned with the elections, but also with efforts to amend the law on municipal councils. FJP MP Saber Abdel Sadek, who chairs the People’s Assembly Local Government and Public Organizations Committee, said in early March that the new law was expected within months and that the committee was working with the ministry on drafting it. However, he noted that municipal elections could take place before the new law was implemented.

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