Comparative Decentralization Policy Trajectories in Egypt and Tunisia

  • Charles Wharton Kaye-EssienEmail author
Living reference work entry



The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been known to have some of the longest regimes of centrally controlled governments. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, citizens and political pundits alike expected this centralized political system to open up and create spaces for local government action. Seven years have passed, governments have changed, yet local governments remain incapacitated. Some commentators have pointed to this excessive centralization as a relic of the region’s historical connections to the Ottoman (e.g., Coşgel and Miceli 2005; Tosun and Yilmaz 2008) and European rules (e.g., Hanna 1995). Others like Nefissa (2009) see the problem as part of a complex trend toward informal and apolitical decentralization.

To gain a deeper understanding of why local governments in MENA countries are still weak in the post “Arab Spring” era, it is expedient to unpack decentralization policy initiatives in the region taking into consideration the sequencing of such initiatives, the actors involved, and the competing interests at play. Drawing on recent discussions of sequential decentralization (e.g., Falleti 2005; Awortwi 2011), this paper argues from a comparative case of Egypt and Tunisia that the current incapacitation of local administrations in the MENA region is the result of deliberate ill-conceived decentralization policy sequences pursued by central governments. In addition to examining the nature and extent of decentralization at different conjectures and tracing the effects of earlier reforms on later ones, this paper helps explain how institutions, personal interests, and political environmental factors influence the intergovernmental balance of power.

The choice of Egypt and Tunisia was informed by two factors. First, they both have a history of strong central government control. Second, from the late 1950s up to the post 2011 revolution era, both Egypt and Tunisia underwent some forms of decentralization. In the case of Egypt, the process was political, administrative, and fiscal decentralization. Tunisia on the other hand pursued administrative, political, and fiscal decentralization reforms. In both countries, decentralization was pursued under the guise of strengthening subnational units.

Decentralization as Policy Sequencing

Decentralization is a multidimensional process (Montero and Samuels 2004) that involves the transfer of “planning, decision-making, or administrative authority to the state’s field organizations, local administrative units, semi-autonomous and parastatal organizations, local governments or NGOs” (Rondinelli et al. 1984, p. 9). The essence of decentralization, as the literature suggests, is to empower subnational institutions administratively, politically, and/or fiscally (e.g., Ezcurra and Rodríguez-Pose 2011; Vo 2010; Bardhan 2004; Oates 1993).

Administrative decentralization ensures the deconcentration of planning and management responsibilities from the central government and its agencies to subregional units, while political/democratic decentralization transfers political and democratic authority to lower-level governments by granting them the power and autonomy to determine their own form of government, representation, policies, and services. Fiscal decentralization transfers responsibility for financial planning, revenue generation, and public spending from the central government to subnational governments and grants them the authority to collect taxes and spend revenues.

In a comparative study of decentralization policies in Argentina and Columbia, Falleti (2005) unpacked the three forms of decentralization from a path dependency perspective in order to understand the balance of power between central and local governments. Falleti (2005) demonstrated that governments pursue decentralization policies in six different sequential paths. Two of these paths – the central government’s path and the local government’s path – are relevant to this paper and are discussed in the next section.

The Central Government’s Decentralization Path

According to Falleti (2005), given the three modes of decentralization, the central government will always prefer to decentralize administratively. This is because administrative decentralization allows the central government to transfer authority without necessarily shifting the balance of power. If bureaucratic functions are transferred to subnational governments without adequate resources, the latter will become more dependent on the central government for funding and less resistant to central government control. If the process of decentralization continues, the central government will have the full control over the timing, pace, and contents of the next stages of the reform process. Ultimately, the path that will be generated is administrative decentralization (A) → fiscal decentralization (F) → political decentralization (P).

The Subnational Government’s Decentralization Path

Where the interests of local governments actors dominate at the inception of decentralization reforms, political decentralization is likely to be first to occur. With political autonomy comes financial responsibility. Thus, the second round of decentralization would result in local governments bargaining for financial autonomy and access to state agencies at the local level. In the end, the path that will be generated – P → F → A – will likely produce more significant change to the intergovernmental balance of power because in addition to autonomy, local governments will have funds to support administrative decentralization.

Other Paths to Decentralization

Depending on the exogenous factors at play (fiscal crises, strong local political activism, etc.), alternative sequences – A P F, P A F, F → A → P, or F → P → A – may develop. The A P F scenario takes place when central government interests are more dominant at the inception of the sequence but subsequently faces strong push back from local political action. The P A F scenario on the other hand takes place when local government interests are more dominant at the inception of the sequence, but due to fiscal pressures or other national crisis, the central government intervenes in the second stage of the decentralization process.

If neither the central government nor subnational interests prevail during the onset of the decentralization process, either the status quo will prevail or the central government and local actors will settle for the second most preferred option, which is fiscal decentralization. If parties settle to begin with fiscal decentralization, the subsequent sequence will still depend on the relative power balance between the central government and subnational politicians. If the central government interest prevails at the second stage of reforms, administrative decentralization should follow, with political decentralization happening last (F → A → P). On the one hand, if subnational interests prevail, political decentralization should be next, with administrative decentralization taking place last (F → P → A).

Tracing the Sequential Path of Decentralization in Egypt

The process of decentralization in Egypt started with some level of political autonomy. Following the unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence by the British in 1922, and the subsequent drafting of the 1923 Constitution, municipalities, towns, and villages were mandated to elect their council members. Nonetheless, this move was not necessary conceived as a means of promoting local engagement, but to consolidate the central government’s place in local affairs. This view is evidenced by the fact that a caveat in Article 133 mandated the inclusion of nonelected council members in so-called “exceptional” cases. Besides, the Wafdist leadership sought to use local elections as a means to appease village leaders who had supported the resistance against British occupation. The first round of decentralization policies in Egypt therefore fell short of providing any meaningful autonomy to local governments as subnational councils lacked the power to plan and manage their own affairs. Although political decentralization was initiated at the very onset direct rule in Egypt, the central government’s interests prevailed and undermined any meaningful local engagement in the first round of decentralization reform.

The second round of local administration reforms was mainly administrative. Following the 1952 revolution, the Nasser government sought to deconcentrate administrative functions to subregional levels. He at the very least, recognized the role of subnational administrative units by labelling them local government bodies in Chapter 4 of the 1953 Constitution. The mandates of elected local councils were also increased to include the ability to establish and manage economically and socially. Beside these administrative reforms, the government initiated some form of fiscal decentralization by granting local councils the responsibilities to raise taxes and fees within their respective boundaries. Each council was also accorded the responsibility to propose and publish a comprehensive annual budget for its income and expenses based on central government guidelines. However, the central government could either exclude or include budget items at its discretion. With the creation of the 1971 Constitution under Sadat, the term “local government” was replaced with “local administration,” signaling the central government’s intention to entrench its position in local affairs. The Sadat period also saw the spatial divisions of Egypt into the governorates, cities, and villages we find today.

The most significant change during the third round of local administration reforms was the enactment of Local Administration Law 314 of 1982 which helped to streamline subnational responsibilities. However, the Mubarak government’s action to change the title of Law 43 from “On Local Government” to “On Local Administration” undermined this effort. Beside the title change, the amendment also took away the powers of elected local councilors to hold appointed executives accountable. Following the 2011 revolution and ousting of Mubarak, many expected a more supportive approach toward local administration. However, after a 2014 Constitutional change and a series of promises to hold local elections, local governments remain as incapacitated as ever. Evidently, Egypt’s sequence of political, administrative, and fiscal reforms resulted in very minimal change in the relative power of governors, local councilors, and mayors. Governors and mayors are still appointed, and majority share of local government budgets are still funded by the central government. In effect, the decentralization policies pursued and the sequence in which the reforms took benefitted the central government rather than improve the internmental balance of power in Egypt.

The Sequential Path to Decentralization in Tunisia

The first formal decentralization reform in post-independence Tunisia was administrative decentralization. Upon assuming office in June of 1956, the government of Habib Bourguiba abolished the native quaidats and reterritorialized the Tunisia into 14 governorates. With the backing of Tunisia’s 1959 Constitution, different layers of subnational government (including municipalities, delegations, and sectors) were officially created. The sector (secteur), in particular, was created as a replacement for the shaykhat, a former village-level administrative unit that had existed along tribal lines. By replacing the shaykhat (headed by community elders) with secteurs (headed by Neo Destour Party faithfuls), the central government managed to change the state-local power dynamics from a citizen orientation to central government control.

While governorates had the mandate to prepare budgets and impose certain taxes, they still relied heavily on the central government for financial support. Other lower-level administrative units including delegations, municipalities (apart from Tunis), and sectors did not have real revenues or fiscal capacities which resulted in overreliance on the central government. By imposing administrative decentralization on subnational governments, the central government managed to consolidate its interests in the first round of decentralization.

A certain level of political decentralization came next in the first round of decentralization reforms. In the spring of 1957, local elections were organized for 94 town councils, 30 of which were newly created (Moore 1965). Subsequent elections for town councils took place in 1960 and 1963. Political decentralization did not however come with autonomy as heads of the governorates, delegations, municipalities, and sectors were still appointed by the ruling political party. While Bourguiba is often credited with strengthening secular ideals in Tunisia, he is equally criticized for stifling political pluralism. In his era, many opposing party leaders were arrested, and their parties disbanded. Political autonomy at the local level was almost nonexistent because local administrative units were seen as enclaves of anti-secularism. In a way, the Bourguiba government only sought political decentralization as a means of changing public perception on his government.

Fiscal decentralization was the last in the first round of decentralization reforms. Between 1975 and 1978, a series of reforms were executed by the central government in order to improve the financial capacities of communes (now municipalities). Reforms included changes to their local taxation powers, size of grants, and loans. As a result, there were some modest increases in revenues and a more significant increase in central government grants especially to smaller and more rural communes that were very dependent on the central government. In theory, these reforms should have given more political latitude to elected communal councils. Nonetheless, local governments remained severely constrained by central government authorities. In the end, the results of the reforms were partial and halting as the balance of power continued to benefit the central government. Failures of these reforms lingered until the second round of fiscal decentralization in the mid-1990s.

Under Ben Ali in 1987, Tunisia continued to remain a highly centralized state with weak subnational administrations. Decision-making remained highly centralized, and municipalities played a relatively minor role in local development. Their share of total public spending only amounted to 4%. Municipalities also had limited functional responsibilities. Local authorities did not have any autonomous fiscal control, as they were sidelined in taxation processes. Half of the financial assistance from the central government was transferred from the common fund for local authorities in the form of an operations allowance. The other half came from the loan and support fund for local authorities.

Following the Jasmine Revolution and the subsequent overthrow of President Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has taken new positive steps toward administrative, political, and fiscal decentralization. These renewed steps were mooted in part by the signing of a new Constitution in 2014 that fully recognizes the role of local governance. Another important step was the creation of a standalone Ministry of Local Affairs in mid-2016. Chapter 7 of the 2014 Constitution recognized decentralization as the essential starting point for more efficient and accessible administration to the citizens. The government has also signaled its intent to place municipalities at the heart of urban development by making them more active players in the planning, implementation, and delivery of municipal infrastructure and services. This meant that local governments are being prepared toward having their own legal personality and autonomy in addition to administrative and financial competence (Mediterranean Commission 2015). The second round of political decentralization also involved a widespread recognition that elected municipal councils and mayors must be more than passive spectators in urban development. As of the writing of this paper, Tunisia had held its first post revolution municipal elections.


By unpacking and exploring the administrative, political, and fiscal components of decentralization in Egypt and Tunisia, this paper has provided empirical support to previous findings (Falleti 2005; Awortwi 2011) that the sequence in which decentralization reforms take place and the degree of change in intergovernmental balance of power are largely dependent on influence of the central government. It shows that in the MENA region, the sequence of decentralization is always initiated by the central government, subjecting the entire process to manipulations. In the case of Egypt, the study shows that political decentralization was pursued as the first in the series of decentralization reforms undertaken after independence in 1922. Political decentralization began not necessarily out of government interest, but as a means to reward local leaders who had supported the nation’s struggle for independence.

In the case of Tunisia, administrative decentralization which is the central government’s preferred form of decentralization occurred first, setting up strong central government control and creating very little local autonomy. Just like the case of Egypt, political decentralization in Tunisia did not occur because local interests prevailed in the second stage. It did because the central government used political decentralization as a platform to establish several networks of party branches in order to consolidate its foothold at the local level. The initial path that was created subordinated local governments and created a path for elites like Ben Ali (who succeeded Bourguiba) – a path they did not have any intention to break.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (GAPP)The American University in CairoCairoEgypt