One big factor that contributed to the 2011 revolution in Egypt was the increasing sense of alienation and disempowerment felt by the country’s poor, who in Egypt tend to be concentrated in rural districts away from the main urban centres of Cairo and Alexandria. As a result, in recent years there has been a growing recognition of the role that provinces can play in both electoral dynamics and economic development, and the accompanying need for a greater decentralisation of policy-making and executive power.

LONG HISTORY: Under the military regime established in the 1950s, the Egyptian economy was restructured along socialist lines, which required the establishment of a rather centralised command and control system, whereby almost all important decisions were made by the state bureaucracy in Cairo. As such, while the provinces did see some development-focused capital investment – for instance, universities were set up in almost every governorate – it became increasingly important to reside in the capital in order to take advantage of the full panoply of economic opportunities.

While the Egyptian economy changed tack in the latter half of the 1970s to become more open, the centralised administrative infrastructure remained in place. Although the nature of the Egyptian government and policy has shifted from the centralised structure of the 1950s, little change has been seen in terms of formal devolution of powers to provincial centres.

The constitution that was adopted in November 2012 is essentially a rewrite of the 1971 constitution, which was itself rather centralising in nature. However, as demonstrated by the results of the 2012 elections and the counter-protests in 2013, rural areas, which are home to up to half of the Egyptian population, have recovered their voice. As in many countries, rural areas tend to be more conservative than big cities, and the result of the first parliamentary elections, which delivered a majority of seats to a number of Islamist parties, more or less reflected the views of the country at large, arguably for the first time in modern history.

BROADENING HORIZONS: Party politics aside, there are hopes that the large number of votes to be found in rural areas may lead to more attention being focused on problems outside of the capital, not least of which is a lack of economic growth and development. This lack of opportunities in the regions has fed the continued expansion of Cairo from a city of around 1m2m in the early 1950s to the megalopolis of some 20m people who live in the Greater Cairo area today. This rapid growth has created new problems as well; although central districts of Cairo measure just 10-15 km across, travelling through the city centre at peak times can take several hours. In most developed countries, some 80-90% of the population tends to live in urban areas. The capital’s capacity to absorb more residents appears limited, and the need to redirect the population to other urban centres has assumed a new urgency.

The previous regime did recognise these problems and considered regional development strategies as early as the 1990s, although their efforts proved less successful than originally hoped. One of the most ambitious was the so-called New Valley Project, also know as the Toshka New Valley Project, first proposed in the 1990s. Under this initiative, water from Lake Nasser, created by the completion of the Aswan Dam, was to be used to create another branch of the Nile, linking the oases of Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra and Bahriya, providing new land for agricultural settlement and increasing Egypt’s agricultural area by 10%. However, technical issues and the remoteness of the oases made it hard to attract businesses or residents to settle there, and while the project has never been formally abandoned, the promised results have yet to materialise.

Another way in which the old regime hoped to solve Cairo’s problems was by building new towns to attract the population away from the capital. Unlike successful schemes elsewhere, however, new towns, such as 6th October City, 10th Ramadan City or the 5th Settlement, were built on the outskirts of Cairo. Thus, while an increasing number of commercial and corporate and industrial facilities are relocating there, such as the stock exchange and the American University of Cairo, they have primarily become attractive dormitory suburbs for the upper and middle classes, exacerbating traffic problems rather than alleviating them.

NEW CENTRES: Although the revolution took place in Cairo, early harbingers of the role outlying areas were to play in the country’s socioeconomic evolution could be seen. For instance, the Delta city of El Mahalla El Kubra, home to a large textiles industry, witnessed a wave of strikes during 2008, when workers were beaten by police for demanding a minimum salary of LE1200 ($170). Subsequently, the city has become a bastion of the independent trade union movement, and the increasing power and prominence of independent labour organisations means the city’s importance in national politics is on the rise.

Residents of the Suez Canal Zone, comprising the governorates of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, with a combined population of 1m-2m, have also complained of government neglect, encapsulated in part by the ongoing saga over 74 deaths at a football match between Port Said team Al Masry and Cairo side Al Ahly. The subsequent ruling in the resulting court case led to further unrest in the canal zone town, with 40 people killed by during a wave of protests. However, the Egyptian authorities are keen to increase their revenues from the canal, and are putting in place plans to turn the zone into a logistics hub, developing over 10-15 years into a centre for transport and manufacturing-related businesses focusing on Africa.

REFOCUS: Of all regions of the country, it is Upper Egypt, also known as Said, which has probably suffered the most from government neglect over the past 60 years. The region remains largely dependent on agriculture, and continues to face periodic sectarian flareups between Muslims and Christians which poverty has done little to alleviate. However, the government is investing to help develop the area. For instance, the new port at Safaga, which is due to go from a small mining harbour to an eight-platform import-export port capable of handling livestock and bulk cargo, will provide Upper Egypt with a direct link to Asia, especially as the port is to be connected to the cities of Assiut, Qena and Sohag by a new highway. Furthermore, Korean electronics giant Samsung has set up a LE1.7bn ($242m) plant in Beni Suef (also in Upper Egypt and around 120 km from Cairo), and had announced that it began the initial production stage by September 2013. The plant will focus on producing television screens and LCD displays, and is expected to create 1400 jobs. The idea is to assemble goods for the Egyptian market, and eventually for export.

All in all, while it appears to be too early for any real political decentralisation, a slow trend towards greater economic decentralisation is discernible, and the new empowerment that the democratic movement has brought is likely to help cement and reinforce this.