x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Anti-corruption reforms will test the Arab Spring

At all levels, the corrosion of corruption can erode a country's social fabric. The success of the Arab Spring will depend largely on how well it fights corruption.

Corruption fuelled the Arab Spring's anger, but as Badhi Aida knows, old habits die hard.

"We need to change people's mentality," says Ms Aida, 28, whose native village of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia saw a lone fruit vendor spark a revolution with a desperate act of self immolation. "When a person is asked to do something in a crooked way, he needs to just learn to say 'No'".

Democratic change, on the surface at least, came quickly to parts of the Arab world. But whether this change will be lasting depends on whether calls to root out endemic corruption, bribery and nepotism are heeded. And there is reason to be sceptical.

Just this week, thousands of Jordanian marched through Amman - as they have in the past - to call for the resignation of the prime minister for the slow pace of anti-corruption efforts. In Egypt teachers, doctors and civil servants march almost every day to protest that salaries are, they say, being unfairly withheld by the interim government. Protests in Yemen, Libya and Syria occur along similar lines.

Food prices, unemployment and high living costs were grievances that sparked protests this spring. But it was the corrosive element of corruption that fuelled inequality to begin with. Public money lining official pockets devastated the quality of public services from health care to water delivery.

Tales of corrupt dealings span the globe. In Cameroon, students pay for grades while in Ukraine corruption pervades the property sector. India's state of Bihar - where officials have seized corruptly-acquired assets and brought new oversight to government spending - offers hope that even the most corrupt societies can be reformed. But in the Arab world the stakes are higher, and the need for reform more immediate.

Some governments seem to understand this. Tunisia's deposed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has been sentenced to prison in absentia for stealing millions. Similar trials are planned for members of the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

But addressing the ground-level trade of bribery and favouritism will prove much harder. Transparency will be key.

Efforts like Tunisia's National Fact-Finding Committee on Corruption, and the UNDP's just-created Arab anti-corruption partnership with Qatar, offer some hope that structural changes will take. Yet changing attitudes will mean more than panels and promises. It will require new champions, young and old, to give Arabs like Badhi Aida a reason to feel proud.