Zakaria Azmi, ousted president Hosni Mubarak's long-time chief of staff, who is being held in jail pending investigations into illegal profiteering, once charged local councils with being “knee-deep in corruption”. Azmi's stinging criticism was voiced in parliament in the late 1990s after the tragic collapse of an apartment building in east Cairo's high-class district of Heliopolis.
The owners of the building were found guilty of offering bribes to engineers in the Heliopolis local council housing unit in order to build more floors in violation of construction orders.
The then housing minister, Ibrahim Soliman, who is also being held on corruption charges, indicated that “the owners wanted to add more floors to sell new flats at exorbitant prices, but at the expense of the safety of the building.”
In November 2002, and following the inauguration of a new parliamentary session, Azmi told stunned MPs, “I think that local councils are now not just knee-deep in corruption, but up to their necks in corruption.” Azmi was commenting on a parliamentary report taking the governorate of Cairo to task for failing to build a sewer system capable of preventing Cairo's streets from being flooded during heavy rains.
“This is in spite of the fact that the Cairo governorate ranks first in terms of receiving a high budgetary allocations,” said the report, emphasising that “rampant corruption in local councils has become a major obstacle to improving public services.”
In response to Azmi's remarks, many opposition newspapers wondered, how a leading official and one of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) heavyweight leaders cry foul about corruption in local councils while the regime of his boss was not doing anything to uproot this corruption? Pervasive corruption in local councils, they charged, was largely due to the fact that they were heavily dominated by the NDP.
After the regime of Hosni Mubarak was toppled on 11 February, pro-democracy movements who led the January 25 Revolution exerted pressure on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to dissolve local councils.
Leaders of these movements insisted that “local councils are Egypt's largest hotbeds of corruption and the only remaining bodies dominated by NDP officials.”
“The January 25 Revolution will never be complete without dissolving the existing corruption-laden municipalities and reforming the system as a whole,” said a statement issued by the Revolution Youth Coalition.
Calls for disbanding local councils gathered momentum when the government-organised “National Consensus” conference concluded its meetings last Thursday, arguing that “There is a pressing need to dissolve local councils because these are the NDP's greatest hotbeds of corruption.”
In the words of the conference's Electoral Systems Committee (ESC), headed by Al-Ahram analyst Amr Hashem Rabie, “Local councils must be dissolved at once and their NDP members should not be allowed to run in any upcoming municipal elections for at least five years.
The NDP members who swept the elections of local councils in 2008 ... [did so] by fraud and rigging practices.”
In the 2008 municipal elections, NDP candidates won almost 99 per cent of the seats of local councils unopposed.
A complete lack of judicial and civil society supervision of the elections, as well as police intervention, guaranteed that the NDP sweep local councils and that candidates of rival forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, fail to win a single seat.
In reform terms, ESC recommended that the age of those eligible to stand in municipal elections be lowered from 30 to 21, in order to inject new blood into local councils and encourage young people to participate in politics.
“Local councils are the nucleus and primary school of political life in Egypt and when young people are encouraged early to join these councils, this will be the first step towards joining parliament and becoming future political leaders,” the ESC said.
For its part, the ruling SCAF has argued that “it is quite difficult to dissolve local councils at once”. According to SCAF member Mamdouh Shahin, “existing local councils can be dissolved only by a judicial order.” Once dissolved, local administration law stipulates "elections for local councils should be held within 60 days.”
Shahin added: “It is quite difficult to oraganise any elections right now; this added to the fact that local councils will suffer from a kind of paralysis, negatively affecting services offered to citizens.”
Meanwhile, two lawsuits have been filed before the State Council asking that local councils be dissolved.
One of these, filed by chairman of the Peace Democratic Party, argue that “as the NDP was dissolved on 16 April, it has become a necessity that local councils, dominated by NDP officials, be also dissolved.” A verdict on these two lawsuits is expected in a matter of days.
In addition to the difficulty of dissolving local councils, many believe that reforming local councils would take too long. “It is not just enough to rid these councils of the NDP's dominance in order to say that they are free of corruption and are on the way of being reformed,” argued Rabie. As the ESC indicated, the law regulating local councils must be amended.
Mahmoud El-Sherif, a former minister of local administration, told Ahram Online that “the existing local administration law opens a door of hell for corruption in municipalities.”
“For example,” said El-Sherif, “several articles of this law give sweeping powers to provincial governors and this is bad, especially as elected local councils do not exert any supervisory role on the performance of these governors.”
On the other hand, El-Sherif added, the law gives government ministries an upper hand in governorates, especially in terms of licensing buildings and local projects, and public servies, which is bad because it goes against decentralisation and breeds corruption.
El-Sherif indicated that, “the Ministry of Education was empowered by the law to supervise the construction of local schools and directorates, and the result is that the cost of building a school rose from LE300,000 to LE1 million because education officials usually receive bribes in exchange for awarding certain contractors with construction orders.”
El-Sherif also believes the low salaries of local councillors plays a role in the proliferation of bribery and kickback practices.
Elected municipal councils form, along with what are known as “executive municipalities”, Egypt's local administration system. The elected local councillors' term of office is four years, but can be extended for a further year by the head of state.
The annual session of elected local councils must last for at least 10 months. It usually opens at the beginning of September and closes at the end of June.
The performance of elected local councils is regulated by the Local Administration Systems Law No 42 of 1979, which states that the role of elected local councils is to supervise executive municipalities and act as mini-parliaments in different provinces.
This takes the form of directing comments and inquiries to provincial governors and the staff of executive municipal units.
Members of elected local councils are also empowered to ask provincial governors for periodical progress reports and suggest plans on local public utilities.
A study conducted by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPS) emphasised, however, that elected local councils have always fallen short of achieving their supposed role.
This, the study said, was largely due to the NDP's hegemony over both elected local councils and executive municipalities.
“The fact that the NDP's members dominate the local administration system has greatly incapacitated the supervisory roles of elected local councils over executive municipalities." "As a result," the ACPS study added, "members of the elected councils either decline to attend sessions or pursue their personal interests. This leads to a serious proliferation of corrupt practices and a deterioration in public services."