Corruption that is ingrained from the bottom to the top of regional societies should be the next target of the Arab uprisings.
From petty bribes to crooked cabinets, corruption thrives
Tunis-Carthage international airport feels like the soul of cosmopolitan life. Men speaking French sip small cups of coffee as they smoke cigarettes as early as 7am. A cafe in the middle of the terminal serves food and pulls fresh pints late into the evening.
But then I tried leaving. That's when a ubiquitous regional reality came crashing home, dressed in a uniform and holding a small radio.
"Too big," the gate attendant said with a shrug. "Your bag. It's too big."
My black trolley was with me precisely because it wasn't "too big". But I was in a hurry, returning to Abu Dhabi after a three-day conference on - what else? - bribery and corruption in the Arab world. So I slipped a 10-dinar (Dh25) note into my passport and asked him to check my bag again. "For me?" he asked smugly. "Have a nice flight."
And so I became a very small cog in a corrupt machine. For many people living in the Middle East it will be a familiar story of paying a bribe simply because the system runs on corruption.
As Arab uprisings are establishing a new order in the region, ending corruption is the one of the most serious - and most intractable - problems to tackle. Cabinets have fallen in Jordan, and in Kuwait just this week, because of graft allegations; Egypt's ruling generals acknowledge it will take years to purge the nepotism that is rooted in national institutions. Give them time, they say.
But after months of talking tough on ending corruption and patronage, the fact remains: laws on the books are hopelessly inadequate and often barely enforced.
The latest evidence of this epidemic came last week. Transparency International, which annually ranks perceptions of corruption in societies, reported that Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen had all fallen in worldwide rankings since last year, as people increasingly lose faith in reform efforts.
"This year we have seen corruption on protesters' banners be they rich or poor," the transparency group said. "Leaders must heed the demands for better government."
How leaders would address age-old practices is another question. From petty bribery at the airport to embezzlement of state funds by officials, corruption is more than a law-and-order issue. It is the embodiment of unresponsive governments. Last December, routine police extortion prompted a Tunisian vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, to take his own life in protest and spark a regional uprising.
The question seems to be whether practices so deeply ingrained in daily life can be tamed. If not, what was the point of these Arab uprisings?
Arkan El Seblani, a legal specialist with the UN's anti-corruption project in Beirut, believes there is now an opportunity. During the anti-corruption conference in Tunis in October, organised by the UN's Programme on Governance in the Arab Region, Mr El Seblani told advocates and politicians from the Middle East and North Africa that this is the time for governments to act. And failure to do so could be their undoing.
"There is no longer any room to ignore the importance of fighting corruption as an essential, if not the most important element, in the attempt to promote good governance in the Arab region," he said. "We are not seeing solutions at the rate citizens expect."
Citizens from every country in the region share common complaints. In Yemen, students still bribe teachers for better grades, while Egyptian doctors' salaries continue to be siphoned off by dirty bureaucrats. "Ghost teachers" in the Palestinian Territories are paid without ever seeing a classroom. And in Tunisia, farmers pay baksheesh simply to keep planting.
So what's needed?
Top-down reforms are critical, particularly to shape perceptions about whether corruption will be tolerated in societies. On this front, regional states do seem to be moving. In October, Jordan's king replaced his prime minister over the slow pace of reform. Meanwhile, Qatar and the UN have created an anti-corruption task force to assist Morocco, Jordan, Iraq and others to prevent and punish graft in the public sector.
But regional leaders must understand that policing graft in Arab societies will take more than top-down conventions or government diktat. It will take a change of attitude starting at the very bottom.
"We have to be conscious of a very dangerous phenomenon that is happening," said Abdelfattah Amor, the head of Tunisia's anti-corruption committee. "It is a way of thinking, a culture of corruption and bribery that has colonised the minds of the society."
These fears often seem universal. As one Tunisian customs official told me recently, incidents of smuggling and extortion at Tunis' main port had declined since the overthrow of Ben Ali in January, but only because all the senior managers had been arrested. What happens when today's managers decide that the benefits of graft outweigh the penalties?
And yet, Tunisia may be a leader in the region. The country has already proven it can carry out fair elections, and public opinion illustrates a clear desire to tackle corruption head-on. A recent survey found that 86 per cent of the country sees graft as the biggest socio-economic challenge facing the country. The group led by Mr Amor is investigating thousands of cases of graft tied to the Ben Ali regime.
But translating popular sentiment into action will take time - and public fortitude. "It is mindsets that need changing," said Olfa Nairi, 34, a teacher from the coastal city of Sfax.
This is the message a lone vegetable vendor first sent last year. And it's a message all of us, including those racing to catch a flight, would do well to remember.
Follow on Twitter: @gregcbruno