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More than trials will root out corruption

Corruption arrests in Egypt will meet the demands of an angry public. But in a region where public officials are rarely put on trial for extortion or patronage, long-term institutional changes are needed to provide a fairer playing field.

When Egyptian protesters torched an upscale building in Cairo in February, their anger was aimed at its owner, Ahmed Ezz - a steel tycoon allegedly said to have at one point controlled two-thirds of Egypt's economy.

The charges now levied at Mr Ezz and other Egyptian elites - including Hosni Mubarak and his sons - are encouraging. They meet the demands of an angry public eager to see justice served after years of flagrant government corruption.

In a region where public officials are rarely put on trial, and baksheesh governs daily life, prosecution is but one uncertain weapon in an unending war against an old, endemic system.

Corruption is a Hydra possessed of many heads, nearly impossible to exterminate. And while bribery, extortion, petty theft and patronage may know no geographic boundaries, they all lend themselves exceptionally well to autocratic regimes, of which the region has no lack.

Indeed, anti-corruption efforts undertaken by the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in recent years have met with little success in a region that lacks transparency. "Middle East and North Africa countries consistently perform below average on indicators of transparency, voice and accountability, as well as control of corruption," writes Marie Chene from Transparency International.

There are exceptions, of course - the Emirates has gone to great lengths to root out corruption through anti-money laundering and counterterrorism finance initiatives in recent years. And there are other examples.

But the usual suspects remain: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran lurk at the bottom of the Corruption Perceptions Index, with Syria, Egypt and Libya in close pursuit. Egypt is estimated to have lost over $60 billion this past decade on various forms of corruption; Iraq and Afghanistan, around $4 billion a year, and impoverished Yemen, $3 billion.

Trials will help to hold officials accountable, and a justice system free of graft is critical. But transparency may count as much as prosecution. Freedom of expression helps to bring cases to light, as the Egyptian media have demonstrated in recent months. E-governance too has been shown to help cut down on the paperwork and red tape that often produce petty government bribery.

As corruption scandals sweep across the globe, and protests over unresponsive leadership continue, it's clear that it will take more than a change of guard to enact the types of long-term institutional changes needed to provide a fairer playing field.

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