Devolving Power After the Arab Spring: Decentralization As A Solution

Executive Summary

  • Arab states are among the most centralized in the world. A centralized political and economic model concentrates power in central government and capitals, driving massive rural-to-urban migration, widening inequalities between regions and undermining social cohesion and stability. A centralized development model relying on the central state for job creation is unable to keep up with the demands of a new generation of young people who are left without economic opportunities.
  • Local and regional authorities in the Arab world are often deprived of the power and starved of the resources and skilled personnel needed to meet the needs of local populations, creating more pressure on national institutions.
  • As a result, the Arab world is suffering from a crisis in state-society relations that has built up over decades. Grievances have built up against the concentration of all power in a small number of hands at the center, fueling poverty, exclusion, anger and extremism. The refusal to devolve power has led to de-facto devolution and fragmentation in many countries as competing groups and militias increasingly challenge the monopoly of the central state.
  • To achieve greater and more inclusive development that meets the needs of diverse groups in society, Arab states need to decentralize powers and resources to subnational levels and allow local authorities to take a greater role in local planning and management.
  • Decentralization is often dismissed in the region as a threat to the nation-state and to already fragile systems of government. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that decentralization strengthens the state by making it more “supple” and able to respond to and withstand shocks. States that impose unity through coercion and fear are more likely to fall apart as soon as the central state shows signs of weakening than states that accommodate demands for regional diversity and autonomy.
  • Decentralization can help spur development by mobilizing local resources and investment and designing development policies geared towards the needs and priorities of each region or locality.
  • Decentralizing powers to local authorities can help address the gap between the citizen and the state by fulfilling some of the demands for greater self-government and allowing local communities to take decisions on some of the issues that affect their lives.
  • Even in authoritarian contexts where there are no free local elections, decentralization is a potential conduit to greater public participation, for example through participatory local development planning processes. Pushing for more powers for local authorities can open up limited space for citizens to mobilize and achieve “small wins” where politics at central government level is completely closed to public participation.


The centralized Arab state is under unprecedented pressure. Throughout the region, demands for self-governance are being heard – whether these are demands by urban young protesters for a decent quality of life or civil and political rights, or by marginalized regions for development and greater autonomy. Across the Arab world, there is a feeling that the governance model in the region must change and that more inclusive governance is desperately needed to address the needs and realities of a vast swathe of excluded and marginalized social groups.

Calls for the devolution of power can be heard across the region. As Michel Foucault once wrote, “Power is tolerable only on condition that it masks a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to an ability to hide its own mechanisms.” It seems that Arab regimes and political elites are increasingly dispensing with even the pretense of consent and exercising naked power, relying solely on methods of coercion and an ever-smaller social base to defend their monopoly on power.

This failure by political elites to devolve power and make concessions to competing social groups is weakening the central state rather than strengthening it. As we see in Iraq, for example, the state’s sectarian policies, which exclude vast swathes of the population, and Sunnis in particular, have led to an increasing reliance on Shiite factions and militias, weakening state institutions and driving grievances among Sunni communities, and contributing to the rise of ISIS. By ignoring local grievances, the central Iraqi state has contributed to its own fragmentation.

This paper argues that to address the deep malaise in the Arab world, power must be devolved outwards from the center. The Arab Spring was partially a desperate cry for help by marginalized  groups and regions against highly centralized political and economic systems in which all power is concentrated in a few hands at the center. It is no coincidence that the wave of protests was ignited by an incident in an impoverished, out-of-the-way rural region of Tunisia rather than a capital city. The grievances of the first Tunisian protesters were deeply linked to the wretched geography of their lives – young people born on the margins, growing up and struggling to find work in marginalized rural regions disconnected from the center, with little infrastructure, poor public services and with a deep sense of being abandoned by the central state.

Thus, local demands and regional grievances are critical to understanding the Arab Spring. A focus on the national level as the central unit of analysis and on centers such as Tahrir Square and Taghyeer Square causes us to overlook the margins in which grievances have slowly built up over decades due to regional inequalities. These tensions between the center and “the margins” is a theme that stretches across Arab Spring countries – whether in Libya, where the eastern region has long complained of marginalization, or in Yemen, where the Hirak or Southern Separatist Movement has gained strength during the current conflict.

It is time to rethink the obsession with the central state and shift our attention to the local level – this goes for both governments and opposition actors. Arab political life has become restricted to the salons and meeting rooms of capitals, with opposition parties often having little reach outside major cities. The revolutions in many countries mobilized large numbers precisely because they went beyond the usual political actors and mobilized ordinary people across their countries. Decentralization must become a motto for Arab opposition movements too, not just regimes. Focusing on the local level would enable opposition movements to build stronger bases and, where they can get elected into local government, give them valuable experience of governing on a small scale before attempting to govern on a national level.

The decentralization of power down to regional and local levels should be one of the key demands of revolutionaries across the Arab world. Decentralization can promote power-sharing by devolving powers, responsibilities and resources and creating new fora for political competition. Particularly in countries where a “winner takes all” style of governance has long been imposed, introducing decentralized governance helps create new prizes for which political actors can compete at local and regional levels, reducing the costs and risks associated with losing power at the central level.

In fact, a shift from the national to local level has begun to take place in the Arab world over the past decade. Decentralization reforms are perhaps most advanced in Morocco, where citizens directly elected their local and regional representatives for the first time in 2015. Local elections have been taking place in Lebanon since 1998, while Jordan introduced them in 2007. Iraqis and Yemenis also elected their governors and regional councils for the first time in 2009 and 2008 respectively. Saudi Arabians have been electing part of their municipal councils since 2005, and in 2015 women were able to vote for the first time. Palestinian municipalities have existed since the second half of the 19th century and play a critical role in providing services to citizens in the context of occupation and territorial fragmentation.

Local authorities are often at the forefront of conflicts and demands. As the physically closest state institution to citizens, they are the first to face popular demands and protests and the first to bear the brunt of conflict and the collapse of public services, as we have seen in Libya and Syria. New challenges for local authorities have given rise to innovation across the region. In post-revolution Tunisia, local authorities have taken the initiative to involve local residents in development planning and introduce new mechanisms for participatory democracy. In war-torn Syria, the “sovereignty gap” created by the displacement of the regime in opposition-held areas has seen the rise of local councils and coordination committees alongside new actors – armed factions, political parties, clans, religious authorities, citizens’ groups and youth networks – providing local services and gaining local trust and support (Khalaf 2015).

Tunisia is going further than any Arab country in decentralizing power. Not only has power been devolved across the three branches of government at the national level, but the new constitution adopted in 2014 also shifts power from the central state down to regional and local authorities. This paper examines this revolutionary step to fundamental reshape the structures of decision-making. It argues that decentralization could be a solution to the profound governance problems facing Arab states, enhancing stability by bolstering the legitimacy of the state and opening up political space for excluded groups and minorities. Rather than weakening Arab states, decentralization could actually make them stronger, more flexible and more able to respond to changes.

This paper draws on interviews conducted by the author with actors involved in the decentralization process in Tunisia, including government officials (at both national and subnational levels), parliamentarians, former officials, researchers in state research institutes, academic experts, representatives of international organizations who provide support or input into the decentralization process, and representatives of professional and civil society groups.

What is Decentralization?

Decentralization is the process of moving government closer to the people by transferring powers and responsibilities to subnational levels of government. There are various components of decentralization – political decentralization involves transferring decision-making power down to the local level, usually to elected officials; administrative decentralization is the transfer of power and responsibility for providing public services to local government; and fiscal decentralization is the transfer of power to raise revenues to local government. Decentralization is based on the principle of subsidiarity – that the lowest level of government that is closest to people should perform government functions, as long as it is capable of doing so effectively.

Decentralization has become a buzzword in recent decades, as the majority of countries around the world have attempted some form of decentralization of power (Manor 1999). Around 95 per cent of democracies around the world have elected subnational governments (World Development Report 1999/2000). It is seen to bring two main benefits – driving development improving public services by adapting policies to local needs, and improving governance by strengthening participation in managing local affairs and bringing decision-making closer to citizens. It works on the premise that strengthening local control over public spending and institutions helps improve local services and reduce corruption by promoting greater accountability, transparency and dialogue between state institutions and citizens. The further away decision-making is and the more administrative layers there are between citizens and their representatives or officials, the less accountability citizens can exercise (the principal-agent problem). Moreover, decentralization is seen as a way of improving the representation of minority groups.

Nonetheless, countries may decentralize for reasons other than to improve governance – for example, Chile’s former president Pinochet introduced fiscal decentralization in order to shift financial spending from the national to the local level to reduce the national fiscal deficit, while restricting local elections to prevent the true empowerment of local officials (O’Neill, 218). Another incentive for decentralizing is pressure from international donors, which can lead to central governments adopting reforms that pay “lip service” to decentralization but which do not effectively transfer powers to the local level.

Why Decentralize?

Decentralization can bring a number of benefits, which can be divided into two main categories:

Promoting Development

The main argument for decentralization is that it can promote greater local development by producing policies that are better matched to local needs. Research shows that decentralization can enhance human development (Habibi et al. 2003), improve basic social services and infrastructure and generate more local resources by tapping into local sources of income (Klugman 1994). Locally elected leaders and governments tend to know their local constituents and their preferences and priorities better than national governments hundreds of kilometers away. By giving local governments more powers to shape local policies and manage local services such as public transport, primary health care, education and housing, all of these can be adapted to local needs and priorities, and decisions can be taken faster than if central government approval is required for every decision. Recent studies also show that local officials and communities are better able to identify and reach the poor than central government, making social assistance programs more effective (Alderman 2002, Gadenne and Singhal 2014).

Promoting Better Governance

Greater Access to Decision-Making

Most citizens do not have access to their national parliament or ministries in the capital. But they can access their municipal office or town hall. By shifting decision-making down to the local level, decentralization makes it more accessible to citizens and creates more points of access for the public to get involved in decisions that shape their lives. Tunisia provides an example – each municipality has a local development plan (Plan dInvestissement Communal or “PIC”), which sets programs and budgets for local investment for the coming year, such as infrastructure, urban planning, local economic projects, and cultural and associative activities.

Historically, municipalities have had very little decision-making power over the PICs. It is a department of the Ministry of Interior that drafts and approves them and monitors their implementation. Now, under the new decentralization framework, it will be municipal councils who have primary responsibility for drafting the PICs, and they will be required to involve local communities when preparing the plan. This means that local residents, who know the needs and priorities of their own areas, can participate directly in deciding what local projects should be carried out and how their local budget will be spent. Theoretically, this proximity to decision-making also means that citizens will become better informed about the decisions at stake and more able to hold officials accountable. By becoming closer and more visible to citizens through local governments, the state can thus gain greater legitimacy in the eyes of citizens (Faguet 2012).

Recognition of Diversity and Prevention of Conflict

By giving groups concentrated in certain regions or localities recognition and the power to make decisions about certain issues that affect their lives, decentralization can help reduce tensions and prevent conflict (Lijphart 1996, Schou and Haug 2005). Several studies indicate that “relatively higher levels of sub national expenditure and employment as well as authentic politics decentralization are linked to a lower probability of ethnic conflict” (Siegle and O’Mahony 2006). By distributing power and creating different channels through which various social and minority groups can defend their interests, decentralization can reduce conflict.

Preventing the Concentration of Power

Decentralization can help prevent the concentration of power in the hands of one group, party or individual by creating many arenas of political contestation. Many South American countries, for example, introduced decentralization after periods of authoritarianism to avoid a repetition of the excesses of powerful central rulers (De la Cruz 2004). Decentralization transforms the political process from being “national, top-down, and subject to oligopolization by a socio-economic elite based in a few powerful cities, to a meta-arena embracing many specific, local arenas” (Faguet et al 2015a, 11).

Renewing the Political Elite

Decentralization can also help renew the political elite by creating new arenas for the emergence of leaders – something the Arab world is in great need of after decades of political atrophy. Local politics also gives new actors the chance to gain valuable experience through the process of political learning. The Arab Spring revealed just how little actual political experience many opposition parties have in the Arab world. In the absence of an open, competitive political arena, opposition parties have little experience of governance, coalition-building or power-sharing with political rivals. Being able to do this at the local level, where the stakes are lower than at the top of government, gives political leaders valuable space to accumulate governance experience, while allowing the public to test out different parties and develop more informed political preferences based on performance.

The Centralized Arab State

Arab states are the most centralized of any in the world (Harb and Atallah 2014). Local governments in the Arab world have an average share of only 5 percent of national spending, compared to 35 percent in OECD countries (CGLU 2010). This was not always the case. Prior to colonization, many local communities in various parts of the Arab world managed their own affairs within a decentralized set of structures, relying on the central state for very minimal functions (Harb and Atallah 2014). Under colonialism, the central state became more dominant as colonial authorities sought to exploit economic resources often located in areas far from the capital, bringing these areas further under the state’s control and contributing to the centralization of power (Oxhorn et al. 2004).

On gaining their independence, many states in the developing world massively expanded the central state as part of a drive to build strong modern institutions and achieve economic and social development, putting in place national education, health and other social services, industrialization policies, and large central bureaucracies to manage these programs. This state-building phase further consolidated power in the hands of central elites and strengthened centralization.

However, by the 1980s many developing states had begun to decentralize powers to local and regional government. Africa, Asia and Latin America all saw massive waves of decentralization in response to internal and external pressures. The economic decline of the 1970s in particular created economic and governance crises that hit many countries in these regions, putting single-party, centralized regimes into question and undermining their legitimacy. This led to a search for new governance approaches and a move towards decentralization (Ndegwa 2004). Other countries adopted decentralization reforms following democratization processes which created momentum for dispersing power, as was the case in Brazil and Argentina (Eaton 2004). 

Most Arab countries, however, have been able to resist the pressures to democratize and decentralize through a combination of distributive and repressive policies. Not only are most Arab states still highly centralized, but the central state also continues to dominate every aspect of citizens’ lives. The state and access to it are the key determinants of wealth, in terms of access to “rents” and influence over state bureaucracies and access to jobs, contracts and permits for a vast swathe of economic activity. The state is also the main employer. In Syria, for example, approximately half of the population lived off fixed government incomes prior to the start of the revolution (Abu-Ismail & El Laithy, 2005). This role as the key instrument of resource distribution makes the central state in the Arab world even more resistant to the devolution of power.

Local governments in most Arab countries have few powers and very limited resources and revenues. They have few taxation powers of their own (apart from Palestine), and transfers of funds from the center are often conditional on political allegiance (Harb and Atallah 2014). In some countries, local authorities do not use the powers of taxation they have to the full, exempting local taxpayers from paying in order to gain political loyalty. According to Harb and Atallah, “In Jordan, up to 40 percent of municipal revenues were not collected in 2003. Jordanian mayors seemed to prefer negotiating grant transfers from the central state rather than antagonizing their immediate constituency. In Morocco, too, fear of losing their electoral base, clientelism, and mistrust of public finance, make mayors reluctant to collect taxes. Similarly in Yemen, local councils did not want to upset the popular base they needed to appease.” (Harb and Atallah 2015, 233).

Local governments also suffer from insufficient human resources and a lack of skilled personnel. Many regimes have used recruitment into local authorities as a safety valve for reducing unemployment and relieving political tensions – for example, the Moroccan Interior Ministry recruited enormous numbers of young people into local administrations in the 1990s in response to the outbreak of protests in several cities. As a result of this mass recruitment policy, urban communes spend 43 percent of their budgets on paying salaries while in rural communes this figure rises to 55 percent. Despite this, there remains a shortage of skilled personnel as only 19.54 percent are skilled (“des cadres moyens”) (Bouabid and Iraki, 2015).


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