Neglect of local government is a source of instability in the Arab world
Specialists talk about the current current government structures as built on three main pillars: the state or the central government, economic markets and the local community. The three pillars work in parallel to achieve the goals of capitalism by creating a dynamic and coherent society interconnected with an innovative competitive market.
However, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram G. Rajan writes in “The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind” about markets and governments abandoning the community and how unprecedented developments threaten stability and disrupt the world order balance because of the neglect of communities while strengthening government and free markets.
Rajan said that, for many years, the focus was on central governments and markets and the interaction between them while the local environment and municipal authority was overlooked. That imbalance led to many negative consequences.
The best illustration can be found in Arab countries that experienced public protests and turmoil in the last decade. Whether in Egypt and Tunisia first or Libya, Yemen and Syria next and now in Algeria and Sudan, the signs of neglect of local aspects are apparent.
Local infrastructure is in a pitiful state, residents suffer from chronic shortages of food and other necessities and the rosy future promised by central governments is far from being attained, all of which fuels popular anger and discontent.
Shereen Fahmy, professor of international politics at the British University in Cairo, said developing local communities and governments was the last thing on the mind of the central government. Officials do not realise that the beginning of success starts with the elimination of the corruption at the local level of government.
She said that, after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, there were questions about the reasons for the popular anger against him, even though all economic indicators during his rule were positive. The answer, Fahmy said, was that “the economic improvement of the country was not reflected in the lives of citizens, who consequently took to the street to demand the fall of the ruling regime.”
“Analysts like to make a link between street protests and the increase in taxes, which seems reasonable, but they overlook other aspects, such as improving the local administration by enabling them financially and legally to have a direct hand in reforming citizens’ lives,” Fahmy said.
The development of communities and local governments is not a priority in some Arab countries and it has become obvious in the overwhelming priority given to the economic and governmental concerns. In recent years, the Egyptian government has developed ambitious development plans and enacted new laws to facilitate that development but neglected to enact laws that favour local communities or conduct local elections.
The situation is the same in Lebanon where citizens took to the street to protest that garbage had been allowed to pile up in the streets of Beirut, against widespread corruption and rising unemployment — all issues related to the failure of local administration.
The same features appeared in the protests in Sudan and Algeria, where the elimination of corruption at all levels of government and the overthrow of officials who made mistakes, starting with the head of state working down to the smallest local officials, were the top demands of demonstrators.
Not paying enough attention to the local communities not only fuelled citizen anger but also created a suitable environment for the unprecedented growth of extremism. Radical organisations exploit acute economic and social conditions to recruit followers.
Several studies focusing on contemporary Islamic movements showed that the rise of extremist groups in Egypt, for example, began in economically depressed neighbourhoods suffering from run-down infrastructure and administrative chaos.
The failure of local affairs departments in Arab communities constitutes a gap through which extremist organisations reach the minds of hard-working citizens who do not feel their living conditions are improving. In those conditions, individuals often say they must take matters into their own hands and go out on the street to bring about the necessary change.
Fahmy pointed out that, just as some Europeans support populist right-wing parties that promise change, extremist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have gained sympathy in some Arab countries, guided by the belief that their religious approach can substitute as an alternative political system.
The key to this conundrum seems to be in properly empowering local communities in Arab societies where administrative power lays in the hands of the central government and in correcting the imbalance.
The basic empowering tools for communities are decentralisation and enabling local society to take the right steps. This process includes providing local communities with the capacity to develop financial resources through the imposition of fees or taxes to finance local activities, rather than to rely on the central government budget, which often does not set aside enough resources for tangible development at the local level.
This implies that real power will have to be wrenched from the hands of central Arab governments and placed in those of the neighbourhood or district official so he or she can take independent decisions that would contribute to the development of that region. This thesis often clashes with concepts warning that a decentralised system undermines the structure of the state.
This process also clashes with the culture of absolute power of the central government and the reluctance to let go of it, even partially. This is why it is difficult to see a federal system or other fully decentralised government being implemented in any Arab country seeking a more efficient and fairer form of governance.