Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 April 2008
Issue No. 894
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Redrawing the map

Reem Leila sounds out opinions on the creation of two new governorates

On 17 April two new governorates, Helwan and the Sixth of October, were created by presidential decree, bringing the total to 28. The move eases the burden placed on Cairo and Giza, Egypt's most densely populated governorates, by effectively stripping them of their outlying districts. Fathi Saad leaves his current post as governor of Giza to take over at Sixth of October while Mohamed El-Quwedi has been appointed governor of Helwan.

The restructuring provoked clashes between local residents and security forces in Al-Wahat Al-Bahariya, which lies 300km from Sixth of October, over the decision to place the oasis under the jurisdiction of Minya governorate and not Sixth of October. Protesters threatened to close down local mines in the oasis in an attempt to pressure the government to rescind the decree. Anti-riot police used tear gas against 2,000 demonstrators who set light to tires and more than 20 people were detained. Bahariya residents were disappointed as the presidential decree has "moved" them from Giza governorate to its southern neighbour, Minya, 240km south of Cairo. The changes meant they would have to travel up to 600km to access government and administrative services in Minya governorate, instead of the 300km to Sixth of October City.

After an emergency meeting at the National Democratic Party's (NDP) General Secretariat, the presidential decree was subsequently amended. Minister of Housing and Urban Communities Ahmed El-Maghrabi declared after the meeting that Al-Wahat Al-Bahariya and Ayyat, which had been affiliated to Fayoum, would come under the jurisdiction of Sixth of October. The decree also placed Atfih and Al-Saff, which used to belong to the Giza governorate, under Helwan.

"The final borders of Helwan, Fayoum, Beni Sweif, Minya and Sixth of October governorates will be fixed by the beginning of May by the ministries of housing and urban communities, agriculture and land reclamation and other concerned authorities," announced Mohamed El-Demerdash, assistant to the minister of housing.

The Helwan governorate will include Maadi, Helwan, 15th May City, New Cairo, Haikstep, Badr and Al-Shorouk cities. The Sixth of October governorate will include Sixth of October City, Al-Wahat Al-Bahariya and extend across Wadi Al-Natrun to the borders with Marsa Matrouh.

"The changes will relieve Cairo and Giza of many problems and help speed up the provision of services," says Ahmed Diaeddin, newly appointed Minya governor and a former assistant to the minister of interior. Greater Cairo has grown to such an extent, argues Diaaeddin, that security, economic and social systems were in danger of breaking down. "Four deputies have now been appointed to the Cairo governor which should speed up the decision-making process."

Giza, says Fathi Saad, faced very specific problems owing to it comprising densely populated urban districts and rural areas, including Al-Wahat Al-Bahariya. Dividing the governorate into two, he says, was a logical move. "Now that Al-Wahat Al-Bahariya is part of a smaller governorate, issues can be addressed more quickly, especially in terms of developing eco-tourism. Adding it to Sixth of October rather than Minya was the right thing to do."

But what do the changes mean for ordinary citizens? Saber, a kiosk owner in Al-Haram Street, thinks they will have little impact. "I don't understand why the government did it. What will the people get out of this restructuring? Bread queues and prices are the problems that need solving, not the number of governorates and local administrative procedures. The only people who will benefit are senior government employees."

Critics of the changes say they should have been subjected to a trial period instead of being implemented immediately.

Maher El-Derby, head of the People's Assembly Local Administration Committee, believes that, "it is difficult to judge the effects of a decision when it has just been made." El-Derby agrees in principle with the idea of dividing Great Cairo into more governorates since it will allow officials to focus more on the development process, and address problems earlier. But while he believes only time will tell if the changes are force for good he was surprised that the move came so quickly, arguing that, "it would have been better if local communities, the public as well as the concerned authorities had participated in the decision-making process."

"Restructuring the governorates is a positive move. Change is part of life. Sixth of October City was not what it was 20 years ago, and it won't be what it is 20 years from now," says urban planner Milad Hanna. He thinks the decision to hive off Helwan as a separate governorate was long overdue. The new administrative borders of the governorates, he argues, will help in implementing projects for new cities thus providing solutions for a growing housing problem and reducing migration to cities like Cairo and Alexandria.

There are likely to be teething problems, though, with citizens confused over where they should go to deal with official papers, and it is unclear how the changes will effect representation in the People's Assembly. Analyst Amr Elshobaki of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies is critical of the way the government dealt with the issue as a purely technical one in which public opinion had no part to play. "What happened is an unprecedented change in Egypt's ruling system. Yet the decree ignored the opinions of citizens and experts alike." The lack of communication between the state and the public, he argues, is almost guaranteed to see the changes fail in their avowed aims. "The timing of this decision immediately after the local council elections renders the councils themselves redundant," he says. "What use are they if they were not consulted over such a major change?"

On 21 April President Mubarak issued another presidential decree announcing that the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) would remain affiliated to Cairo governorate even though its headquarters is located in the new governorate of Helwan. If the exception had not been made, future rulings of the court would have been technically unconstitutional.

The idea of splitting Greater Cairo into additional governorates was first mooted in 2005 by the then minister of local development. Abdel-Mohsen Barada, professor of urban planning in Cairo University, welcomes the fact the plans have now been implemented, though he thinks there are some pitfalls that could have been avoided. Barada believes the decision should have been postponed till at least the new budget had been approved. "How much will the changes cost?" he asks. "And is extra money to be made available to cover the expenses involved in setting up two new governorates?"

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