Are municipalities final hope for revolution?
It may not be sexy or glamorous but that maybe why it’s so vital, municipalities may be the last hope for success for this revolution after parliament was usurped by Islamists and Mubarak-era faces with very few young faces.
At least that is the thinking of the people behind a new initiative called Ma7liat (Municipalities), who feel that this is the last solution to ingratiate Egyptian youth – especially those who participated in the revolution – in the political process.
“There was a political decision for there to be no change after the revolution,” says the founder of the initiative Mostafa Shouman, “if revolutions don’t change anything they do create opportunities for change. Municipalities are politics at its most basic, basic services at street level, so we want to introduce the youth to that and then they can go on to parliament.”
Municipal councils are the local micro units of government, concerned with the services required in districts and neighborhoods, roads, utilities, waste disposal and so on. Under the previous regime, they too were appropriated by the defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) and were used as a method of patronage for retired military and police officers.
According to 2008 figures provided by the new initiative, only 500 seats from a total of 52,000 were held by people not members of the NDP, and almost 75% of the municipal seats were held by retired military and police officers. Of course by law members must be elected but through a combination of fraud and ensuring no one else was running, the NDP was able to take complete control.
Local councils were also beneficial to the NDP in the parliamentary elections according to political science professor Mostafa Kamel El-Sayed, who said that the party relied on local council support in grassroots campaigning for NDP candidates in parliamentary elections.
Additionally, out of the LE 4.4 billion Cairo budget for municipal authorities, LE 3 billion was spent on salaries, privileges and incentives, bearing in mind that municipal employees were very lowly paid.
According to El-Sayed, “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.”
That’s why first on the agenda is an attempt to change the law that governs the legislative and administrative powers of municipal councils, which are governed by Law 47/1979. This is timely as municipal elections should have been scheduled for 2012, although municipal councils had been dissolved by military decree after the revolution. However, Mohamed Attiya, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs announced last February that local council elections were slated for July or August at the latest.
The current law is objectionable for a number of reasons. For example, under the current law the councils cannot address the executive branch of government directly with any complaints or queries, but must go through the governor’s office. There are other objections that Ma7liat aims to bring an end to with a new proposal.
That is why the initiative is working in conjunction with the group of scholars known as Beit El-Hekma (House of Wisdom) – who are working on a number of bills besides this one – to drum up a new law that will allow for more transparency in the electoral process and aim to put an end to the corruption and patronage that has always riddled local elections. The initiative is liaising with the Ministry of Local Development regarding the bill.
There are 12 amendments in the proposed bill, but chief among them is allow for oversight by the municipal councils on the executive branch of government operating at the local level, and adversely, repealing the power of the executive branch to dissolve elected local councils, as well as cancelling the authority of the Prime Minister, the relevant ministers and the governor to object to local council decisions.
Additionally, the new bill looks to increase the wages of employees of local councils and ensuring that their meetings are held publicly. The new bill wants elections to be via the ballot box through direct voting and gives local councils power to distribute their budget as they see fit.
El-Sayed says, “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.”
An added offset of this he continues is that it 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. No party will rule forever so it’s good for them to operate at this level.”
However, local councils are also in the sights of more popular parties such as the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood, who aim to continue their success in the parliamentary elections in local ones and also bring their youth members onside.
FJP MP Helmi El-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 cadres.
The FJP is not just concerned with the elections, but also with the efforts to amend the municipalities law. FJP MP Saber Abdel-Sadek who chairs the local council committee said 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 elections may take place before the new law is ready and thus be held under the guidelines of the current one.
In essence, the aim is decentralization of local government, granting it as much powers as possible on the micro level and therefore move the country away from the iron centralized fist of the Mubarak era that caused much deterioration in public life.
The new bill is not the only aim of Ma7liat, merely the first step of the way. Besides spreading awareness of the importance of municipal councils, the initiative is hoping to prepare 5000 young candidates to run in the elections when they take place (which must be this year).
And finally, the initiative also aims to set up what it calls “Al Tahrir Center” which will be an oversight body on the performance of local councils, gauging performance against local demands and issuing reports on the different municipalities.
Such emphasis on municipalities is imperative, Shouman feels, as he likens it to a final stand on what he calls the “revolutionary path.”
“If there is no success in the municipal elections, then consider the revolution dead,” he says matter of factly.