How Can We Save the State Bureaucracy?

10 June 2012

Following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's chances of undergoing meaningful democratisation considerably depend on the restructuring of the state bureaucracy. A functioning democratic system requires an autonomous, professional and accountable state apparatus that abides by the rule of law and protects human rights. Autonomy refers to the protection of the state administrative apparatus from the whims of political leadership, so it can preserve its political neutrality. Professionalisation indicates the formulation and observing of rational rules and regulations that guarantee institutional competence, efficiency and cohesion.

What are the means by which such a bureaucracy can develop in contemporary Egypt?

Egyptians have inherited from the Nasserist era a highly politicised state bureaucracy. Successive authoritarian regimes have exercised tight control over the state apparatus and have utilised it to serve ends related to their own political survival. On the one hand, the bureaucracy was used to cultivate support bases through the extension of patronage networks and the distribution of public employment. For instance, successive authoritarian regimes used to hire thousands upon thousands of graduates in different posts in the local and central government as a populist gesture. Little if any regard was given to the actual needs of these bureaucratic agencies and the impact of overstaffing on efficiency and the quality of service delivery. Another example is the distribution of leading positions to retired high ranking officers from the military, intelligence and the police. These well-connected leaders have often had better access to financial and human resources and thus contributed to the fragmentation and lack of cohesion within and among government agencies.

On the other hand, the regime, via its security organisations, penetrated key posts and agencies within the bureaucracy in order to suppress its rivals and promote its allies (clients and cronies). Using the police forces for political ends, such as vote rigging and election manipulation, are just examples. Key positions within ministries, universities, local governments and public agencies were subject to scrutiny by state security bodies and loyalty was often preferred to competence. Moreover, the bureaucracy was almost merged with the single ruling party. The merge was an official policy under Nasser's Arab Socialist Union but proved to be resilient even after the instatement of a multi-party system since 1975. Party membership has often been a prerequisite, together with security approval or endorsement, for occupying key positions within the bureaucracy.

Over six decades, these practices have led to fragmentation, inefficiency, and rampant corruption in the state bureaucracy. Following the January 2011 revolt, Egyptians face two challenges concerning the future of the state bureaucracy:

1.The preservation of the status-quo and the reproduction of old interests, relations and power arrangements within the bureaucracy. This scenario is likely to materialise at the hands of the military and intelligence establishments which already seem to be playing a significant role in defining the post-Mubarak order. Such a scenario poses significant challenges to current democratisation efforts for two reasons:

a. There is a risk of further fragmentation of the state bureaucracy resulting from the creating of safe havens for old interests and corrupt practices. The persistence of corruption and inefficiency would in turn contribute to furthering popular frustration and disenchantment with the perceived markers of democracy (democratically elected parliament, subdued security establishment, etc). Democracy will be seen as having failed at improving the socio-economic conditions of citizens.

b. If the bureaucracy goes unchanged old networks will remain able to rebel against any future elected-government and sabotage its economic plans and undermine its development strategies. If future lawfully and freely elected elites are deprived of an efficient and professional state apparatus, they are likely to fail at effecting significant changes to citizens' lives. Again, this may lead to the discrediting of the nascent democratic system.

2. State capture by the newly elected  party-elite(s). In this scenario, the bureaucracy would be cleansed of the old regime-related power holders but only to be replaced with the affiliates of the new political powers. In this context, the bureaucracy will be equally politicised and used for political ends such as patronage distribution, favouring cronies and even the suppression of rivals. The current lack of autonomy, efficiency and professionalism is likely to persist if such a scenario ensues. Moreover, state capture might enable regression to authoritarian modes of control by those in control of the state apparatus.

The critical question here is not which model the Egyptian bureaucracy should adopt so as to promote democracy and the rule of law. There is already broad consensus among experts as well as laypersons around the desirability of an autonomous, professional and accountable state apparatus. The question, rather, concerns the means by which to bring about such change in post-Mubarak Egypt. How can the Egyptian state bureaucracy become more professional and gain autonomy from the burgeoning political forces?

In this sense, state reform is a political matter that has very little to do with optimal and technical solutions. How can the short-term interests of principal stakeholders get articulated with longer-term concerns such as bureaucratic autonomy, efficiency and professionalism? The future of the bureaucracy, in terms of its form and function, is subject to the political interaction of the major actors in the political sphere, namely, the large political parties (especially the Muslim Brotherhood), the military and intelligence apparati, protest movements and revolutionary groups, in addition to other transnational actors such as international financial institutions (which will likely contribute to the shaping of public policies and institutional reform in the near future). The key challenge lies with making autonomisation and professionalisation of the bureaucracy political matters, and engaging the broader public with them. This could be the only guarantee against old as well as new elites capturing the Egyptian state.

* Published at Ahram Online - 10 June 2012.