The severed branches of local government
by Aaron Jakes
Sometime in the middle of last March, while I was still living in Cairo, I was working at my desk when I heard a noisy argument outside my window. The street in Zamalek where I lived was home to about a dozen little shops, along with a small café and a cafeteria, and I had long since learned to tune out the shouts and clamors that punctuated the busy working day outside. So I didn’t take much notice of the altercation or the more subdued commotion that followed for the next couple hours. When I headed downstairs and into the street a bit later, I was immediately struck by the brightness of the afternoon sun and by a queasy feeling that something was out of place. The cause of these unexpected sensations, I quickly discovered, lay before me in a pile of logs, neatly stacked next to the curb. Those logs were all that remained of the trees that had formerly lined the entire block.
Two of the neighborhood shopkeepers were standing together across the street, so I wandered over to ask what had happened. Earlier that morning, they explained, a large branch had fallen from one of the trees, damaging the hood and windshield of a car parked on the street. When the car’s owner arrived a short while later, he flew into a rage and demanded compensation from the proprietors of the shops nearest to the car, alleging they were at fault for failing to care for the tree. They argued back and eventually resolved the dispute by paying him a token sum, but once the disgruntled car owner had driven off, they gathered a meeting of the other shopkeepers. The trees, my friends explained, were the property and responsibility of the Governorate of Cairo, but it had been years since the city government had sent anyone to clean or prune them. It had therefore fallen to the small commercial establishments on the street to fill the void of basic municipal services, even in this most affluent neighborhood of the city. The shop owners had loved the trees and enjoyed the canopy of shade they provided. But the day’s events had convinced them that the cost and liability of upkeep were more than they could bear. With some reluctance and an awareness that they were breaking the law, they cut them all down.
I have found myself thinking a great deal about those trees in the months leading up to this week’s referendum on the fiercely contested final draft of Egypt’s new constitution. Since the drafting began, debates have raged over the religious identity this document assigns to the state, over the privileged status it reserves for the military, over the rights it does and does not protect, and over the balance of powers it describes between the different branches of the national government. But despite the breadth and intensity of the struggle over both the text of the draft and the process by which it was written, all sides have overwhelmingly focused on the central state that governs the nation as a whole.
In this context, there has been very little discussion of the seemingly mundane articles dealing with provincial and local government. But as my colleague Mohamed Elshahed recently argued in a fiery posting on his blog Cairobserver, these articles fail to address in any adequate fashion the problems of urban and local governance that affect so many aspects of people’s everyday lives. The issues, of course, extend well beyond the erosion of basic services that led my neighbors to take matters into their own hands and chop down some trees on our block. Indeed, as Elshahed and others have argued, the highly centralized and profoundly undemocratic structures of governance below the national level have played a central role in driving forward a process of rapid, haphazard, and devastatingly uneven urbanization across the country. The corruption, incompetence, and institutionalized impunity of provincial governors and local officials, moreover, played a crucial role in the pillaging of public resources and the unplanned allocation of land in both urban and rural areas under the Mubarak regime.