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April 7th, 2016
Health • Infrastructure • Cities • Finance

Restoring and revitalising the city of Alexandria

In 1997, the great Mediterranean seaport city of Alexandria was in decline. Education and health services were inadequate, the infrastructure was in poor shape, businesses were unable to invest or prosper, and the city administration was rife with corruption. The incoming governor, Mohamed Abdel Salam El-Mahgoub, had a reforming agenda and a participatory management style that welcomed input from academics, businesses and citizens in his quest to revive Alexandria’s fortunes.

The initiative

Alexandria's decline was arrested in 1997, when Mohamed Abdel Salam El-Mahgoub became governor. “Determined to restore the city's greatness, Mahgoub encouraged citizen participation, formed alliances with key groups, and won public support via high-visibility projects. He made government more business-friendly by tackling corruption ... and he lured back investors with tax incentives and improved infrastructure.” [2]

His initial steps focused on the city's infrastructure, repainting iconic city buildings, widening roads to ease traffic congestion, and cleaning the streets. “Between 1998 and 2000, as advisers completed development assessments, Mahgoub's administration renovated more roads, installed streetlights as far as 30 kilometres outside the city, overhauled the public transportation system and installed fibre-optic phone lines.” [3]

With the assistance of his secretary-general, Mohamed Bassiouny, whom he appointed in 2002, Mahgoub “created open and transparent procedures in the governorate office to root out corruption among municipal employees and ensured that the governorate office responded to citizens' complaints of corruption or mistreatment”. [4]

Mahgoub also focused on improving services such as the city's education system, collaborating with the private sector to improve school facilities and equipment.

The challenge

In the last decades of the century, Alexandria’s infrastructure and economy were in decline. Citizens lacked adequate access to education and health and other public services. “Businesses found it difficult and often unprofitable to invest in the city. Tourists, who used to flock to Alexandria’s beaches and other attractions each summer, went elsewhere.” [1] Only two percent of the six million annual foreign tourists to Egypt visited the city and those who stayed at, for example, the ornate Hotel Cecil on the Corniche, found it to be decaying and run-down like much of Alexandria’s architecture.

The public impact

With Bassiouny’s help, Mahgoub created open and transparent procedures in the governorate office to expose corruption in the public administration. During his nine years in office until 2006, Alexandria’s economy blossomed, thanks to successful infrastructure projects and an enhanced business climate. The UN report of 2004 (see Bibliography) complimented the city on its revival. “When the governor of Alexandria was appointed in the late 1990s, the city began a revitalising trajectory that totally transformed it.” [5]

Stakeholder engagement

There was strong support from citizens, universities, advisors, business association and even the World Bank to develop and improve the city's infrastructure.

In their attempts to make the administrative system more open and transparent, Bassiouny and Mahgoub ensured that the governorate office responded to citizens' complaints of corruption or mistreatment.

“University professors, working without financial incentives, became drivers of the city's development, advising on solid-waste management, education and urban planning projects." [6]

“Between 2002 and 2006, businesses associations contributed 90 million Egyptian pounds, or about US$18 million, to improve schools and clinics. Hence there was support from private sector as well.” [7]

There were also international stakeholders. “In 2004, Mahgoub asked Bassiouny to collaborate with the World Bank and the Cities Alliance, a global coalition, to develop a City Development Strategy, a comprehensive plan for Alexandria's long-term development and economic growth [and] the World Bank provided a US$10 million low-interest loan to the governorate.” [8]

Political commitment

The governor was committed to the initiatives to reform the administration and rebuild the city's infrastructure throughout his nine years in power. For four years, he was ably supported by his secretary-general.

In 2004, the Egyptian prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, helped by improving the business climate in the country and removing many barriers to inward investment. The Ministry of Finance provided funds towards Alexandria's redevelopment.

Public confidence

Mahgoub was a popular figure in the city. “‘People [in Alexandria] really liked Mahgoub. Cab drivers, vendors on the Corniche, and business owners said to me, ‘We would vote for Mahgoub to become president if Egypt were a Democracy.' Mahgoub's unorthodox approach to his job won him admirers in Alexandria.” [9]

His approach, of dispensing with security and engaging citizens in government, raised his profile and left him slightly exposed. “Mahgoub's rising popularity created risks in Egypt's autocratic setting. If Mubarak viewed Mahgoub as a potential rival, the president could move him to another, less visible position at a moment's notice. Handoussa, who wrote the UN report in 2004, said, ‘People in elite circles began saying that Mahgoub has become a hero to the people of Alexandria, and now he will be removed. The president does not like competition'.” [10]

Clarity of objectives


Strength of evidence

Mahgoub drew on ideas from Europe and North America make innovative developments in infrastructure. “For instance, after seeing Baltimore's waterfront development in 2000, he planned to develop Alexandria's harbour into a complex of marinas, restaurants and shops. Bassiouny visited cities such as Marseille, Barcelona and Toulouse to learn from their experiences in city planning and project management." [11]

In education, he instigated “the Alexandria Pilot Initiative that will expand to six other governorates, aiming to improve the quality of education through greater community involvement in monitoring school performance, through improved and decentralised school management, and better conditions for teaching/learning and upgraded teaching skills”. [12] This was an experiment in itself and also a pilot to be rolled out to other Egyptian cities.


The financial feasibility was strengthened by “the contributions of EGP90 million (about US$18 million), to improve schools and clinics from the business associations”.

In 2004, a committee of professors and governorate officials, with advice from World Bank experts, took six months to complete an initial assessment for the city development plan for Alexandria. The backing of the World Bank and the approval of the UN for his work gave him financial support and political credibility.

Mahgoub had sound advice from professors in engineering and other disciplines to support the technical feasibility of Alexandria's infrastructure projects, while the educational pilot (see Strength of evidence) did the same for his educational reforms.


Mahgoub's management style was unorthodox, but it enabled him to carry out his reforms successfully. “Mahgoub's participatory yet direct management style helped him achieve deep reform in the governorate office. As Heba Handoussa, lead author of the United Nations' 2004 Egypt Human Development Report, observed, ‘He used an iron fist with a very generous and friendly face'.” [13]

This participatory style was evident in the way “he reached out to businessmen, university professors and development experts as partners in addressing Alexandria's infrastructure and service delivery problems." [14]

For example, "he appointed a technical evaluation committee of university professors and city officials to draft project guidelines and evaluate applications." [15]

Mahgoub has been Egypt's minister of local development since 2006, a job he has retained through the Egyptian revolution and the fall of Mubarak.


Bassiouny and Mahgoub hired experts to track performance. “In 2002, Bassiouny revitalised a neglected office within the governorate to discourage corruption on government projects ... he hired 30 engineers, agricultural specialists, doctors and environmental experts and equipped team members with cameras to record the progress of projects. Authorised to run checks and view project documents, the monitoring team tracked the performance of both municipal employees and contractors, and reported irregularities directly to Bassiouny.” [16]


There was clear alignment between all the actors in the revitalisation of Alexandria's infrastructure and services and cleaning up the administration. Mahgoub was the central figure, supported in the administration principally by Bassiouny, and externally by university departments, business associations and the private sector, and international NGOs such as the World Bank.

He was also able to count on the support of President Mubarak, despite the threat posed to him by Mahgoub's popularity. “[Mostafa] El-Abbadi, [professor emeritus at Alexandria University] noted, ‘Mahgoub was on very good terms with the president. He could pull through the projects and finances that others could not'.” [17]

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