In 2013, a group of youth celebrated the opening of a kiosk for subsidized bread in an area called ‘Izbit Awlād ‘Allām. This group – called “Maḥaliyyāt Al-Duqqī w Al-‘Aqūza” (MDA) –suggested they were merely facilitators of this achievement and insisted that credit was primarily due to the area’s residents. Many development projects focus on increasing citizens’ sense of civic engagement and fostering their voluntary spirit as a way to address a community’s needs in the absence of government services. Since so many of these projects fail, how did a group of youth who are not professional development specialists succeed in fostering community-led change? While some voices have suggested it is the responsibility of citizens to develop their own communities, MDA believes that citizen responsibility lies in compelling the government to fulfill its duties. According to this paradigm, the issue is not that citizens need to learn to help themselves – as some development theories claim – but rather that they need to learn how to effectively hold governmental agencies accountable to fulfill their rights as citizens. In addressing this issue, the MDA initiative was born.
MDA consists mainly of young men and women in their 20s and early 30s with no connection to any political parties or movements. Rather they are only connected by a desire to make a difference in their societies; each member’s own political affiliations or biases are considered a personal matter. While apolitical youth-based NGOs have become increasingly common in the civil society sphere over the past decade (e.g. ‘Alashānik ya Balady, Nahdit Al Maḥrūsa), the number of youth-led informal initiatives spiked in the immediate aftermath of the Egyptian revolution on January 25th 2011. Suddenly social media platforms were flooded with new pages presenting ideas for initiatives and calling for people to join. Many of those who responded with enthusiasm had no prior experience in development or civil society engagement. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives had tapered out by the end of the year and only a few managed to sustain the initial enthusiasm. Some that are still operational today include MDA, Oreed, Silmiyya, Man Aḥyāha, Līk Dor, Manteʾty, and the Freedom Bus. Neighborhood popular committees are another form of informal initiatives that emerged in the wake of the revolution, created during the 18 days between January 25th and February 11th to protect their neighborhoods during the security vacuum. Most of them had dissolved by the end of 2011, but a few are still operational today such as Shubra Hilm Bukra, and the Popular Committee of Mīt ‘Uqba.
Most MDA members have at least a university education and some have higher education. They are from different disciplines including engineering, agricultural studies, social sciences, and business. Socioeconomically, the members are mostly from middle class backgrounds. They are largely residents of the Al-Duqqī district but some of them are from other parts of Cairo and al-Gīza and decided to join the initiative because they admired the idea and approach.
MDA was initially part of an umbrella group called Maḥaliyyāt, founded in early 2012 as a national initiative focusing on political awareness at the local level. The initial goal of Maḥaliyyāt was to expand across Egypt raising awareness about local government, elections, and other issues of politics and governance. Their Facebook page outlines the purpose of Maḥaliyyāt: i) Drafting laws and regulations that foster decentralization and enable local popular councils to monitor executive agencies effectively and then propose those laws to parliament; ii) Strengthen popular awareness of the importance of local popular councils; iii) Prepare youth to participate in local popular council elections; and iv) Conduct regular community surveys to enhance the understanding of voters’ actual needs and monitor and evaluate the local popular councils.1
Publicized through social media, soon people began to join and form groups, each of which was responsible for a specific locality. One such group was the MDA group, which covered the Al-Duqqī and Al-‘Aqūza districts in Al-Gīza governorate. MDA, at the time, consisted of around four to five youth from the area and they began trying to raise local political awareness through campaigns and seminars.
By the end of 2012, MDA decided to separate from the central Maḥaliyyāt after the larger umbrella group had largely dissolved and carry on with its activities by itself. They conducted surveys asking residents about the problems in their areas and also participated in (and led) training sessions on citizen empowerment, popular government watchdogging, and participatory research techniques. Through one of these workshops they met members of the Popular Commiittee of Mīt ‘Uqba (PCMU).2 Through community activism, the PCMU had succeeded in increasing the responsiveness of the local district authorities to channel available municipal resources into community-designated priorities. This was very interesting for the MDA members whose priorities had focused on political awareness, but they did not expect to engage with the local government. Learning about the Mīt ‘Uqba experience opened their eyes to the possibility of working with local officials and the positive relationship between residents and local government which could result—something relatively rare in the Egyptian political experience.
Based on these interactions, the MDA members revised their model. They abandoned the initial focus on political awareness and adopted PCMU’s model of citizen empowerment and engagement with local authorities. The core of their approach became empowerment from the start, meaning that they only targeted neighborhoods where there already was a nucleus of residents already wanting to work on improving the community, because it was this nucleus that would carry out the work from the very beginning. They believed that the sustainability of local programs depended on the community’s willingness to dedicate their time and resources to the initiative from the very beginning. They insisted that an approach where outsiders try to fix community problems in the hopes that residents would later follow suit, would not work. From the very beginning all of the programmatic work was carried out by residents and MDA only supported and facilitated the community’s initiative.
MDA’s approach is based on identifying the initial nucleus of active residents and then helping them organize into a popular committee similar to the PCMU. By providing them with the tools, know-how, and technical support to engage the local administration and demand community change, they become agents of change in their communities. MDA aims to implement this model in several neighborhoods in Al-Duqqī and Al-‘Aqūza and to eventually expand to other areas in Cairo and al-Gīza. This process and experience is recorded by MDA’s documentation unit to further develop it into a manual of local empowerment that could be used to train similar initiatives anywhere in Cairo.
MDA’s first real experience in implementing their model took place in an area called ‘Izbit Awlād ‘Allām. ‘Izbit Awlād ‘Allām is an area in Al-Duqqī district that lies close to the Shooting Club and Muṣaddaq Street. Although referred to as a “manṭiqa ‘ashwa’iyya” (informal area/slum) by the former head of the Al-Duqqī district, the area is over 100 years old and “is included in official maps from the early 1900s” (Tadamun, 2014). The area suffers from many issues related to infrastructure and services, including a shortage of butane gas, deteriorated water/wastewater networks, poor lighting, inadequate local healthcare options, and limited access to, and supply of, subsidized bread. Although many residents complain about this, there had been no attempts for residents to mobilize collectively and seek change from the local government.
Once MDA finished revising their model, they began searching for the first neighborhood to launch their approach. They divided the broader Al-Duqqī and Al-‘Aqūza area into ten sub-areas.3 To choose among the sub-areas they prioritized marginalized areas, preferably where they could find contacts. They also preferred to work in smaller areas and areas with more of a rural “sha’bi” (popular) culture where residents had strong social ties to each other.
By drawing on personal networks and connections, MDA members were introduced to an Izbit Awlād ‘Allām resident who was very enthusiastic and agreed to set up a meeting between MDA and several residents of the neighborhood.
MDA members felt that Awlād ‘Allām fit their criteria and thus proceeded to speak with residents about conducting a needs assessment to understand the area’s problems. Through the few initial meetings, the MDA found enough interested people to form the required initial active nucleus. They conducted a neighborhood Participatory Rapid Appraisal (PRA) to identify needs, prioritize problems, and define a work-plan and then organized the active residents into a Popular Committee of Awlād ‘Allām (PCAA). This committee ensures that residents speak on behalf of their community structure rather than as individuals.
The results of the PRA highlighted five priority issues for residents: i) access to natural gas; ii) access to subsidized bread; iii) access to healthcare; iv) access to butane gas cylinders; and v) improved sanitation. They organized the first meeting with the district head of al-Gīza City. To set up this meeting MDA made use of the priori positive relationship it had with the Popular Committee of Mīt ‘Uqba (PCMU) by asking for their assistance in contacting him.
Cooperation in Egypt between local government and citizens often depends on a particular official and his or her personal willingness to interact with citizens. There are no transparent rules about whether the responsibilities of local authorities entail ensuring they are regularly accessible to citizens. Thus, one cannot know what to expect. MDA was lucky that the al-Gīza City head was quite cooperative, encouraged by the good relationship he had with the PCMU. Eventually, MDA and the Popular Committee of Awlād ‘Allām (PCAA) also managed to arrange meetings with the head of Al-Duqqī district, and – using the results of the PRA as their guide – began working with the local officials to address the residents’ concerns.
Their first priority was improving the distribution of butane gas cylinders. Residents complained that the Butagasco Company serviced their area only once every two weeks and did not sell enough cylinders to cover the needs of the 500 families in Awlād ‘Allām. They also sold the cylinders for a higher price than officially allowed due to the involvement of unofficial middlemen. When any of the residents needed a cylinder within the two-week gap they had to purchase it from the black market at six times the official price. They reported this problem to the al-Gīza City district head who put them in touch with the head of the al-Gīza Governorate Directorate of Supply. After some back and forth negotiations between MDA, PCAA, the Directorate of Supply, and the Butagasco Company, an agreement was reached for the bi-weekly supply to be sold at the official price and to increase distribution to 225 cylinders. Furthermore, the distribution process would be supervised by the PCAA so that they could report any violations back to the head of al-Gīza City.
The MDA then tackled the issue of subsidized bread. In order to access subsidized bread (which is only sold at specific government-sponsored bakeries/kiosks) the residents of Awlād ‘Allām had to rely on a bakery outside their neighborhood. Since that bakery supplied more than one neighborhood, lines were always long and supplies often ran out before everyone was served. The residents demanded a separate facility in Awlād ‘Allām.4 The MDA worked with the PCAA to pressure the Ministry of Supply (MoS) and the bread distribution company to dedicate a subsidized allotment and distribution kiosk for Awlād ‘Allām. They began by approaching the Ministry of Supply and were told that the only thing the Ministry could do was to allocate a share to Izbit Awlād ‘Allām, but the establishment of a kiosk was under the authority of the distribution company – a public company called Al-Miṣriyyīn, owned by the Armed Forces. They met with many officials within the company, until they managed to arrange a meeting with the company’s CEO. The CEO was cooperative and welcoming of the idea and even intervened when some lower-level company staff initially resisted establishing the kiosk claiming that they were too afraid to enter Izbit Awlād ‘Allām because they believed it was unsafe and full of criminals. After a few months of negotiation with the various parties, the kiosk was finally built and opened for business.
After achieving this goal, they shifted their attention to another request highlighted by residents which is that the road at the main entrance to Awlād ‘Allām was unpaved. Many residents wished to pave the road not only to facilitate access but also to beautify the area’s main window onto the rest of Al-Duqqī. They set up meetings with the District Head at the time, ‘Azza Al-Sharīf, and fortunately the al-Gīza governorate’s plan for 2013 included a budget for roads-paving. Thus, Al-Sharīf agreed to pave the main entrance road using interlocking blocks and subsequently paved five other streets by late 2013.
The MDA then turned their attention to the need for a community health center. They began by surveying the current healthcare options of the residents. They found that residents used three venues for healthcare: one was a small health unit providing very basic services, the other was a larger health unit attached to a nearby mosque offering a wider range of services, but at a price too high for most residents. The third option was a nearby hospital which offered the most comprehensive services, but only for those who had health insurance. Given that all available options were insufficient, the PCAA strategized about transforming an old abandoned building into a healthcare center. They managed to obtain the agreement of the owners of the abandoned building and also managed to find a donor interested in providing the startup capital. Unfortunately, due to some unforeseen difficulties (discussed under the “Obstacles” section below) the healthcare center has not yet opened its doors for business. But the PCAA is continuing to work towards achieving this goal and the members are fairly confident they will succeed.
Finally, the MDA is also working with the PCAA to resolve the issue of housing ownership and land tenure. The land in Awlād ‘Allām falls under the authority of the Ministry of Awqāf and was originally managed through a type of legal tenure called ḥikr. However, ḥikr tenure is no longer legally recognized, thus placing the residents of Awlād ‘Allām in a legal grey area.5 Some residents have been trying to legalize their situation through informal negotiations with the Egyptian Awqāf Agency (the entity currently in charge of managing Awqāf lands), but the negotiations have stalled due to disagreements over the market price of the land. The MDA is trying to work with the PCAA and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (a human rights NGO) to reach a compromise that provides the residents with some form of legal tenure.
MDA judges its short-term achievements in relation to community-articulated needs in Awlād ‘Allām. MDA believes they have had many successes and are especially proud of the role played by the nascent PCAA. But it is perhaps their long-term impact that is most interesting, since the PCAA still continues to be active in addressing various issues in Awlād ‘Allām. They are well-known throughout the community and their efforts are becoming recognized more and more by the residents. All of the community improvement activities now taking place in Awlād ‘Allām are through the PCAA initiative with support from MDA. Once they felt that the PCAA was able to stand on its own two feet, they decided to expand to another neighborhood.
Through their personal connections, they were introduced to a resident of an area called Dāyir al-Naḥya. Dāyir al-Naḥya was in need of significant development, but the MDA members did not feel there were enough interested and genuinely enthusiastic residents willing to participate in establishing the popular committee. MDA members felt that to proceed without an initial nucleus of active residents would be to contradict their approach, and thus decided to select another area.
They were then put in touch with a resident of an Al-‘Aqūza informal area called Al-Hutiyya. They found the active nucleus they needed and thus are currently implementing their model there. Together with the active residents, MDA formed a local committee that has now met with officials from the Al-‘Aqūza municipality to discuss the issue of street-paving. The officials are claiming there are no funds in their budget to pave roads in Al-‘Aqūza. In response, MDA is setting up a joint meeting between the Al-Hutiyya and Mīt ‘Uqba (also part of the Al-‘Aqūza district) committees to discuss how to collectively pressure local officials to include street-paving in the 2015-2016 budget. Facilitating the formation of networks and collaboration between the different popular committees is an integral part of MDA’s approach. They have also been arranging meetings between Al-Hutiyya’s committee and the PCAA to exchange experience.
As per MDA’s organizational structure (discussed further under the “Organization” section below), MDA charges one member with tracking each popular committee that MDA helps establish. This responsibility entails maintaining contact with the committee (through regular phone calls to committee members and regular visits to the area), reporting back to MDA on the status and activities of the committee, and supporting the committee when needed – usually in the form of helping them set up meetings with government officials or NGOs.
Fostering community-led change is a difficult and complicated task, and naturally MDA faces challenges in doing their work. One major challenge is that as outsiders, there is always some initial difficulty in understanding each area’s internal power dynamics. For example, during their work in Awlād ‘Allām, MDA discovered ongoing tension between owners and renters in the community and that renters had been excluded from the PCAA.6 Since this discovery, they have been trying to deal with the question of whether they should push the PCAA to include renters and risk disintegration in the teamwork spirit.
This tension relates to the broader issue of the PCAA’s relationship with the rest of the community. For the most part residents have reacted positively to the activities of the PCAA, especially when noting the achievements they have made in solving the community problems. However, there have been a few instances where some residents tried to start a fight or cause trouble during PCAA meetings or events. The MDA believes it is necessary to determine whether such situations are a result of individual troublemakers in the community or if there is hostility towards the PCAA in general. They decided to address this through more regular surveys and focus groups with non-PCAA residents to gauge their attitudes towards the popular committee.
Another common challenge the MDA almost always faces is the numerous bureaucratic hurdles associated with dealing with government agencies. For example, when trying to establish the health center, even after they managed to find out who had authority over the abandoned building, and they obtained necessary permissions from the Ministry of Health, the electricity company refused to provide electricity for the building and will not even provide an explanation for their obstructionist refusal.
The MDA also faces a challenge regarding the lack of technical expertise. This concerns members of the MDA themselves, as well as government engineers who are meant to oversee the implementation of technical tasks. For example, a few months after it had helped pave the main road in Awlād ‘Allām, it became clear that the interlocking blocks were having some unforeseen impact on the wastewater manholes. The paving process should have entailed an analysis of the new street level’s effect on wastewater networks and its manhole covers. The manhole covers were raised without proper prior examination and due to the deteriorated condition of the manholes some of them started cracking and wastewater spilled onto the streets and even flooded some homes. When they asked the municipality to fix this issue the PCAA was told there were no remaining funds. This is a problem the PCAA is still trying to find a solution to today, with support from the MDA.
Another issue is the current political instability and volatility in Egypt that has led to consecutive reshuffles among government officials. For example, the head of the Al-Duqqī district was changed twice since MDA became active. This is problematic because, as mentioned earlier, citizen-government engagement is largely reliant on the positive, personal relationships built between specific residents and individual officials. With more transparent rules about the responsibility of local officials to open their doors to the public, citizens wouldn’t have to rely on individual whims. Unfortunately this is not currently the case and having to continuously rebuild those relationships from scratch can be an arduous and inefficient process.
Finally, a recent issue is the climate of mistrust for civic activity that emerged during the past year, in the wake of media propagation of nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments. Many communities have also recently been seeing a reemergence of some figures affiliated with the pre-revolution political regime that seem to be trying to capitalize on the successes of civic groups for their own political gain.
MDA’s activities thus far have not required significant financial resources. All of their activities are supported through in-kind donations or self-financing. The training workshops they participate in are usually offered free of charge by NGOs targeting youth-based initiatives. When they conduct training sessions for local popular committees it has been quite easy to find someone to donate a venue and refreshments, or the members cover the costs. The same also applies to internal meetings which are usually conducted in a donated venue or a coffee shop. Networking with other initiatives such as Oreed, Silmiyya, Man Aḥyāha, and others has greatly aided this process as it links them to individuals or NGOs interested in supporting such initiatives through providing venues, refreshments, or training sessions/workshops.
As mentioned above, MDA was initially part of the umbrella group Maḥaliyyāt, but today functions as an independent initiative consisting of around 13 members. It continues to run informally and has not registered as an official entity.
MDA’s organizational structure consists of a General Coordinator for each or their targeted areas, a group of Support Committees (media, human resources, documentation, and campaigns) and a group of Service Committees (training, sanitation and street paving, waste collection and street lighting, bread, healthcare, natural gas, and housing), all of which are overseen by the head of the executive office. MDA’s internal plan is for the head of the executive office to be elected by the MDA members, but they have not yet held any elections. Initially, they operated without an executive leader, but then later elected one who has headed the organization since those first elections. Currently, they are revisiting the scope, objectives, and internal bylaws of the initiative, and are planning to work out their elections process soon.
MDA is an initiative entirely dependent on volunteers, including their leadership positions. While so far this has not posed any obstacles to their work, it does run the risk of members suddenly leaving without warning. To ensure the sustainability of their work, they have tried to create a networked structure such that there would be Maḥaliyyāt groups all around the country. Given that the original Maḥaliyyāt umbrella network is no longer functioning, MDA’s strategy has been to replicate their Awlād ‘Allām model in different areas.
By setting up area-based popular committees formed by residents, community improvement activities will carry on after the MDA gradually decreases its support. However, because the popular committees are not established under the name of the Maḥaliyyāt initiative, but rather under the name of local areas, there is still no visible expansion of Maḥaliyyāt. In parallel, MDA is also trying to expand its knowledge of the al-Gīza area and its issues by conducting surveys and community events in neighborhoods they haven’t yet started working in. For example, in March 2014 they held an event called Iktib Bukra [Write Tomorrow] in the areas of Mīt ‘Uqba and Ard Al-Liwa to ask residents to delineate community problems and proposed solutions.
Maḥaliyyāt Al-Duqqī w Al-‘Aqūza, as their Facebook page says, aims to “create popular groups that work on solving the problems of their areas, and activate popular watchdogging over local government.” This initiative can offer valuable lessons and best practices to future initiatives targeting community development through constructive citizen-government engagement. If similar initiatives expand in local communities and are successful in establishing cooperative working relationships with local administrations, they can increase mediums for citizen participation in local politics and local elections. One member suggested that his ultimate dream was for local authorities to focus on community needs and respond to them quickly, without waiting for residents to complain and make demands. If authorities failed to do so, residents should have the power to hold them accountable. Citizen engagement in local politics holds local administration accountable for their decisions, protecting the public interest – as prioritized by the public itself. Initiatives that develop citizen-government engagement at the local level – especially when claiming their right to access information – will continue to be a crucial vehicle for addressing urban issues in our cities.
1.MDA shared these goals in the past but drifted away from them after revising their vision and mission. These days they are revisiting these initial goals and plan to have internal discussions about them, particularly the goal to take part in the local council elections.
4.Egypt’s bread subsidy and distribution system has long suffered from many problems as briefly described by one article: “Disparaging the quality of aish baladi seems to be something of a national pastime. In the low-income areas where people depend most heavily on food subsidies, one commonly hears complaints that lines at bread shops are long and supplies tend to run out. People say they are also unable to buy as much flour at ration shops as they once did. Bread and flour shortages occur, allegedly, because significant portions of the heavily subsidized wheat and flour that should be used for making five-piaster bread are instead being sold by millers and bakers on the open market at a healthy profit.” In 2014, the bread subsidy system was reformed. More information about the current system can be found here.
6.This tension is related to an ongoing government dispute over Awlād ‘Allām’s land which has prevented residents from formally documenting their ownership and being able to sell/rent at market price. The informal status has decreased the value of the area, and owners are worried that when they are finally able to legalize their situation, the current renters will be reluctant to give up the low rates they are paying now, and will cause them problems. Similarly, renters are worried about the impact tenure legalization will have on them.
Featured Photo from: Maḥaliyyāt Al-Duqqī w Al-‘Aqūza
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