While the success of Tunisia’s participatory budgeting programs may seem a distant reality for Egypt, this sort of collective agency at the local level finds precedent in the activities of Popular Committees, citizen groups that formed at the beginning of Egypt’s revolution to provide services for their neighborhoods. Moreover, new electoral quotas for Local Popular Councils (LPCs) in Egypt’s upcoming municipal elections offer the potential for a new kind of LPC, perhaps one that is more inclined to experiment with novel methods of citizen participation in local governance.
This article will focus on the participatory budgeting experiment in La Marsa, the first municipality in Tunisia to institute such a program following the revolution in 2011. Since other Tunisian municipalities share the same set of central laws and regulations as La Marsa, it is fair to assume that the same issues discussed in this article were raised in one form or another in other areas (Schugurensky 2015, Day 2015).
Participatory budgeting (PB), as a method of participatory governance, refers to a process of collaboration between civil society and local government to allocate municipal funds. While specific PB procedures vary case by case, the practice takes as its starting point the notion that representative democracy alone is insufficient to improve the quality of state performance, educate and engage citizens, and properly allocate scarce public resources (Wempler and McNulty 2011). It traces its roots to Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, as the country experienced a political opening and democratization after authoritarian military rule. Brazilian political parties benefited from the grassroots energy of PB and the formation of new political actors who emerged out of the PB experiment. By 2012, PB was practiced in over 2,778 municipalities worldwide, from New York City to Buenos Aires to London (Abadilla 2014, TADAMUN 2013).
The observed benefits of PB are manifold. PB, many argue, enhances transparency and accountability in the use of public funds as citizens themselves become more knowledgeable of their government and deliberate over tough budget choices, government projects, and financial limitations. As a result, the municipalities’ informed decisions often led to more equitable spending and needs-based community development. This kind of cross-class, diverse collaboration has also been seen to absorb and direct some of the politicization and activism that had culminated in democratization and regime change itself. Municipal leaders encouraged activists and social movements to address some of the challenges in their communities by becoming deeply involved in local government and civic deliberation.
Tunisia’s new constitution of January 2014 emerged slowly after two years of political negotiation and deliberation following the 2011 Tunisian revolution. The political climate and the constitutional drafting process encouraged decentralization and citizen participation in local governance. Article 137 of the new constitution stipulates that “local communities, within the framework of the approved budget, have the freedom of allocating their resources according to the rules of good governance.” Article 139 adds “local communities are to apply the mechanisms of participatory democracy and the principles of inclusive governance to guarantee a larger participation of citizens and civil society in designing development programs” (Tunisian Constitution 2014).
Building on that momentum, Associative Action (AA) launched its “Eye on the Budget” program to advocate the adoption of PB practices in Tunisia’s municipalities. Associative Action is a Tunisian non-governmental organization formed in March 2012 to advocate democracy, pluralism, diversity, and justice. Ahmed Ben Nejma, Project Coordinator at Associative Action told TADAMUN, “After the revolution, if we want to build our country, there has to be trust between the people and public institutions. We asked ourselves how could we contribute to this? There can be no trust if citizens do not participate directly in the decision-making process for developing their own cities. Participatory budgeting is a mechanism that allows citizens to participate in the decision-making process and to see their participation materialize into real infrastructure and other projects” (Ben Nejma 2016).
In 2014, AA initiated a bottom-up advocacy process for the introduction of PB in La Marsa, a coastal community of 110,000 residents located near the capital Tunis. AA worked with a governance expert from Switzerland living in Tunisia to brainstorm strategies for increasing citizen participation being deployed elsewhere and to develop a plan to propose to local authorities. “We chose PB because we wanted a level of real participation” (Ben Nejma 2016). That year, AA began training for citizen PB facilitators in La Marsa and since then ten more municipalities have adopted PB practices: Menzel Bourguiba, Tozeur, Gabès, Sfax, Menouba, Qafsa, Raoued, El Kef, Sbeitla, and Ben Arous.1
Training La Marsa Facilitators
AA administered training to seven facilitators and then veteran AA facilitators coached the La Marsa facilitators during the actual PB process. According to Bedis Bouziri, one of the facilitators who described the process in detail, AA facilitators were in complete charge of the PB process at the beginning, with Bouziri and other facilitators from the local area playing minor roles. Soon, the AA facilitators stepped back, allowing the locals to take over (Schugurensky 2015).
During the training, AA introduced local facilitators to international examples of PB. The training began with general information and the historical background of PB experiences in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The trainees also watched a video on the PB experience of Cotacachi in Ecuador. AA also provided the facilitators with strategies for coping with and defusing disorderly behavior, such as interruptions or people talking on mobile phones (Schugurensky 2015).
The PB budget meetings were always held on Saturdays and Sundays. The first meeting, held at the La Marsa municipal offices, was just to explain the general notion of PB. In this meeting, the citizens of La Marsa were treated to a technical explanation about the city budget in general: how it works, the difference between the investment budget and the operational budget, and how the budget is divided among different items like roads, lights, parks, rainwater, and so on. Municipal officials then informed participants that the participatory budgeting initiative would focus on public lighting. In Tunisia, the options offered for PB at present are rather limited. “The municipality decided that (public lighting) was the first item to be discussed in PB. Given that this was the first experiment, they thought that this was the easiest topic for the citizens to understand and to manage,” Bouziri explained (Schugurensky 2015).
The Saturday meetings were originally intended as information sessions, but occasionally problems arose. Rather than focusing simply on technical information, citizens used the meetings as an opportunity to voice their discontent about unfairness or mismanagement on the part of local authorities. Unlike the Saturday meetings, municipal officials did not attend Sunday meetings, which were much more fruitful and solution-oriented (Schugurensky 2015).
Despite the limitations, the participants managed to make decisions on street lighting. They, for example, chose to increase lighting in high crime areas and near public schools, as well as in places frequented by women and children.
Enter the Techies
One of the lessons to be learned from the La Marsa experience is that the citizens must interact with both the municipality’s technical staff and municipal administrators. Understanding institutional and technical constraints and the relationships between different government levels of administration (national, provincial, city, village, and neighborhood) and among different government entities is a goal and by-product of PB. Direct interaction with municipal administrators and technical staff gave the citizens a better understanding of the relevant institutional constraints, as well as the feasibility and practicality of proposed budget expenditures.
“Before the technical staff came, citizens chose their projects without any knowledge of technical, legal, or institutional impediments,” Bouziri explained. “The mayor and vice mayor were there to represent the municipality, but they hold political and administrative positions, not technical positions, and don’t have specific knowledge about potential problems that some projects may face,” he added. Once the technical staff started showing up for the meetings, the decisions became sharper and needless tensions were defused. “[There] was a proposal to asphalt a road in an area where there is no sewage network. It was not advisable to pave that road, because later on we would need to break the road to bring the sewage and pave it again, so it would be a waste of time and money. So the community decided to wait for the sewage before paving and to put pressure on the federal agency to build the sewage network,” Bouziri said (Schugurensky 2015).
The presence of the technical staff helped the citizens understand the situation, thus avoiding misunderstandings and conflicts. PB, by its very nature, also encourages greater awareness of staff resources, training, and compensation as well as institutional hierarchies and bureaucratic relationships at the municipal level.
Vote and follow up
In La Marsa, participants in the PB debate were divided into groups of five or six people. Each group discussed possible projects and then a spokesperson from the group presented three or four projects to the assembly. Once the small groups presented their proposed projects to the rest of the group, all participants were invited to vote by secret ballot on the projects (Schugurensky 2015).
After deciding on the budget, participants also voted for delegates who would represent each district in the public assemblies that would approve their proposals. Each district had three delegates. The main role of the delegates was to ensure that the projects approved by the citizen participants would be implemented after their votes were taken. The delegates also liaised with the municipality and the community, thus ensuring effective communication between the people and local officials during the implementation phase. This process was similar in each one of the five districts of the town, resulting in a total of fifteen delegates for La Marsa (Schugurensky 2015).
As anticipated by the AA trainers, Bouziri and other facilitators in La Marsa faced some frustrating moments. Bouziri recalled a confrontation in a low-income area of La Marsa, where the police had killed a number of residents during the uprising against Ben Ali in 2011. “Our meetings were disturbed by people who come as provocateurs to reject us and to attack us. They were only four or five of them, but they were very angry and very loud. They said that we had a political agenda,” he noted.
Their confrontational presence pushed many of the meeting participants to want to leave, effectively jeopardizing the process. Fortunately the facilitators were able to make use of lessons learned during their training and defuse the disruption. They firmly informed the attendees that they would have to call off the entire PB initiative for that area if order could not be restored. The firmness helped resolve the tension and the meeting proceeded normally afterwards (Schugurensky 2015).
Limited PB scope
Under current Tunisian regulations, participants in PB deliberated about only 5% of the municipal budget in 2014, rising to 10% of the budget in 2015 (Day 2015). But perhaps the main problem with the use of PB in Tunisia is the limited jurisdiction of the municipality since many important policy areas such as sanitation, roads, and environmental issues fall outside its mandate. The central government and its ministries currently handle such activities and municipalities cannot influence decision making in these areas in any clear manner (Schugurensky 2015).
When the municipalities informed participants that PB could only focus on public lighting, the citizens were disappointed. Some, especially in the poorer areas, wanted to focus on sanitation. According to Bouziri, sewage is the responsibility of a national agency that is under the Ministry of the Environment rather than a responsibility of the municipalities. Similarly, forests, major highways, and schools all fall outside of the purview of municipalities and are managed instead by the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Infrastructure, and the Ministry of Education, respectively (Schugurensky 2015).
Grooming the locals
In La Marsa’s case, the experiment started with AA training seven facilitators, who ran a public debate in which hundreds participated. Of those participants, fifteen delegates later on liaised between the government and the public, thus establishing a precedent for regular communication between municipalities and the residents. AA’s work on PB also helped local groups, such as the Action Citoyenne Marsa-Corniche (ACMC), to which Bouziri belongs, expand the scope of their public action. The ACMC was invited, along with similar associations in La Marsa, to be part of the PB processes in Tunisia, which offered them an opportunity to make public policy, albeit on a small scale.
Discussing street lighting may have fallen short of the aspirations of participants in PB at the current stage in Tunisia, but there is no doubt that the political and organizational skills developed during the discussions are required to apply PB on a larger scale. As discussed earlier, a certain level of orderliness needed to be maintained, a voting process was successfully completed, and the community managed to promote participants to the function of volunteer delegates, who became involved in follow-up operations.
AA is cautiously optimistic that their first experiences with PB were a jumping off point, and its scope will expand in future budget cycles. In 2015, for La Marsa’s second round of PB, the Municipal Council opted to give citizens the power to decide directly which budget expenditure would be open to the PB process. In other municipalities, Municipal Councils have opened up this decision to civil society organizations (Ben Nejma 2016).
When asked about the main accomplishments of PB process in Tunisia, Bouziri painted an optimistic picture. “I think that we initiated a change in mentality and in our culture. We are seeing people becoming involved in the public life of their communities. They not only feel concerned about problems, but they also feel that they are part of the solution,” he remarked. The experience “shows that democracy is not the privilege of the elites anymore. Participatory budgeting was an exercise that helped people become more familiar with the idea of democracy,” he added (Schugurensky 2015).
Smarter public resource allocation
During one meeting, facilitators in La Marsa invited some experts on solar energy to the PB session. As a result of the encounter, the citizens attending the meeting decided that solar energy was suitable for public lighting. During their discussion with the experts, an interesting piece of information emerged: the municipality only had to pay for 80% of the total cost of solar energy projects due to a subsidy by the national office in charge of promoting renewable energy. Had it not been for PB, city officials would have remained unaware of the solar lighting incentives from the national office. “We never had any solar lighting project in La Marsa before, and now, thanks to PB, we are going to have some. This is good for the government of La Marsa, good for the people of La Marsa, and good for the environment,” Bouziri said (Schugurensky 2015).
Tunisia’s experience with PB is still in an early phase. Although the constitution seems to encourage local authorities to engage citizens in decision-making, local authorities are limited in the scope of their activities and have few financial resources to allocate, which was a cause for frustration among those citizens that showed interest in the process. Still, the interaction between officials and citizens was unprecedented. And the mediating role that facilitators from the local communities played in defusing mistrust, encouraging debate, soliciting expertise, reaching decisions, learning about their municipality and its budgets, and following up on projects may pave the way to more extensive PB in the future.
The future of PB in Tunisia will remain closely linked with the political process in the country. Is the central government willing to give up some of its functions to the municipalities? Will political players, including NGOs, press for more power for local authorities? Judging by the frustration felt by some of the participants in the La Marsa experience, there is reason to believe that the success of PB depends on the expansion of local power at the municipal level to be able to address more substantial matters, such as infrastructure, health, schooling, and public transportation.
In Mīt `Uqba, a strategically located yet chronically under-funded neighborhood in the middle of Cairo’s upscale Muhandisin district, residents established the “Mīt `Uqba Popular Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (2011-2013)” at the beginning of Egypt’s uprising to protect the neighborhood (initially) and to address critical infrastructure problems and poor public service provision.2 This group of youth and residents of Mīt `Uqba created their initiative from the grassroots and successfully lobbied and worked with the Giza governorate to install a natural gas network and to pave nine of the neighborhoods streets after the repairs. Community members participated in every step of the initiative, resulting in reduced gas prices for residents and an end to the constant state of disrepair that had previously caused daily problems for both automobile and foot traffic in many of the neighborhood’s streets. Citizen oversight also led to a more efficient use of some of the district’s public resources (For a more comprehensive overview, please see the Mīt `Uqba paving initiative, and Maḥaliyyāt Al-Duqqī w Al-‘Aqūza: Engaging Citizens in Marginalized Areas TADAMUN 2013, 2015).
What allowed the Mīt `Uqba Popular Committee to achieve its goals is precisely the kind of citizen participation required to make participatory budgeting initiatives, like those implemented in Tunisia, successful. The residents of Mīt `Uqba opened direct channels of dialogue between the public and local officials, demanded information and the transparency of public institutions, and were able to allocate public resources according to the needs and priorities of the neighborhood as determined by those who actually live there, rather than by the central government. This organizational capacity and ability to devise creative, reformist, and collaborative solutions to address inefficiency and injustice in public policy would bode well for the incorporation of more participatory approaches to public resource allocation in Cairo.
Like the Tunisian constitution, Egypt’s new constitution expresses a general desire to decentralize power to local government authorities. Article 176 in the 2014 Egyptian constitution “ensures support for administrative, financial, and economic decentralization.” Unlike the Tunisian constitution, however, Egypt’s does not commit local government or other governmental bodies to more participatory approaches. That said, the absence of any constitutional commitment to citizen participation in local government affairs did not prevent the residents of Mīt `Uqba from taking an active role in the allocation of public resources in their neighborhood.
Moreover, the language in Tunisia’s constitution regarding citizen participation in local governance is sufficiently vague, offering no specific mechanism by which to achieve it. Associative Action took advantage of the space created by the open-ended legal language to develop a proposal for what they believed to be the most effective and meaningful citizen participation tool: participatory budgeting. Ahmed Ben Nejma, AA Project Coordinator and a national expert on participatory budgeting told TADAMUN, “We actually used the constitution’s language to our advantage, so we were able to propose anything that is under the umbrella of citizen participation. It gave us the space to consider different options” (Ben Nejma 2016).
The upcoming municipal elections for Local Popular Councils (LPCs) are another reason to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for increased citizen participation initiatives in local administration in Egypt. Though the official date has not been set, it is expected that the elections will take place in spring/summer 2016. Article 180 of the 2014 Constitution stipulates that a quarter of seats in LPCs will be filled by women and another quarter by youth (under the age of 35), that workers and farmers will be represented by no less than 50 percent of the total number of seats, and that a proper representation of Christians and people with disabilities are also to be represented (although the exact numbers are undefined). These more diverse new LPCs may be captured by the dominant parties supporting the regime, but there is a possibility that LPCs could embark on interesting experiments, as the municipalities did in La Marsa and other Tunisian cities and earmark some funds for participatory budgeting.
As mentioned earlier, participatory budgeting has been able to absorb and direct some of the politicization and activism that culminated in democratization and regime change in nations such as Brazil. As such, the high expectations for reform, political change, and governmental accountability expressed in the 2011 Egyptian uprising might find some consolation by a process such as participatory budgeting which encourages civic engagement, informs citizens and residents about their government (its limitations and opportunities) and allows for deliberation and decision-making as well as closer supervision of government projects and public investment. Even on a small or experimental scale, PB could provide a potentially mutual beneficial program for both citizens of Cairo who wish to participate more in the governing of their districts, and elected officials dependent upon popular support for their re-election.
Ben Nejma, Ahmed. Personal Inverview. 25 January 2016.
Day, Flora. 2015. “Participatory Budgeting in La Marsa.” Participedia, 27 July. Visited 3 January 2016.
Guidara, Ahmed. 2015. “Le Budget Participatif: Un pas vers la démocratie locale en Tunisie (l’expérience de la commune de Sfax).” Leaders, 30 October. Visited 3 January 2016.
Damaq, Hatem. N.d. “Fī Mafhūm wa aliyyāt aldīmuqrātiyya altashārukiyya wa foraṣ taṭbīqhā fī tūnis [Report on the Concept and Mechanism of PB],” Jasmine Foundation.org.
Visited 3 January 2016.
Schugurensky, Daniel. 2015. “Bedis Bouziri on Tunisia’s Participatory Budgeting Initiative.” Shareable.net, 22 June.. Visited 2 January 2016.
TADAMUN. 2014. “Basic Questions about Participatory Budgeting.” TADAMUN, 23 June 2014. Visited 3 January 2016.
TADAMUN. 2013. “Could Participatory Budgeting Work in Egypt?” TADAMUN, 23 June. Visited 3 January 2016.
Wempler, Patrick and McNulty, Stephanie L. 2011. “Does Participatory Governance Matter?” Comparative Urban Studies Project, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, 31 October. Visited 7 January 2016.
Additional Resources on Participatory Budgeting
Associative Action: Eye on the Budget Program – Participatory Budgeting in Tunisia (French)
Participatory Budgeting Project
International Observatory on Participatory Democracy
TADAMUN: “Basic Questions About Participatory Budgeting”
TADAMUN: “Examples of Participatory Budgeting”
TADAMUN: “Benefits and Limitations of Participatory Budgeting”
TADAMUN: “Could Participatory Budgeting Work in Egypt?”
TADAMUN: “Participatory Budgeting: What Can Egypt Learn from Porto Alegre?”
TADAMUN: “The Citizens of Porto Alegre: In which Marco borrows bus fare and enters politics”
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