x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Graft threatens gains of the Arab Spring

Changing the culture of petty bribery and corruption that besets much of the Arab world could be even more challenging than toppling three dictators.

Women line up Sunday for the first free vote in Tunisia's history.
Women line up Sunday for the first free vote in Tunisia's history.

TUNIS // The Arab uprisings of 2011 have been dominated by the colourful, sometimes bizarre, characters of the three "rulers for life" toppled by their own people - Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.

The preoccupation with personalities, however, has often overshadowed perhaps the main spark of the region's upheavals: corruption.

And just as anger at corruption - from petty bribes to entrenched systems of patronage - has been a catalyst for what has been called the latest Arab Awakening, nothing is more likely to nullify its gains more quickly than the failure to tackle fraud, graft and official double-dealing.

These curses beset the lives of not only Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans, but of Arabs across the region.

At a political rally in the run-up to Tunisia's first democratic election on Sunday, ordinary people such as Oli Bouofio wanted to know only one thing: How did the party staging the rally plan to end the sleaze that marked what he sarcastically referred to as "the royal family" - the cabal centred on Mr Ben Ali, the deposed president?

"Nothing has changed in the past nine months," the 66-year-old wheat farmer said impatiently. "I'm here to hear what this party has to say about it."

Annie Demirjian, an anti-corruption expert with the United Nations Development Programme, says progress in fighting corruption is vital.

"We do need a success story, and Tunisia is it," says Ms Demirjian, who has advised governments from Zimbabwe to Iraq. "If we fail here, we all fail together."

Many analysts believe that independent judicial systems and fairly applied laws can go a long way to eradicating kleptocratic regimes. As examples, they point to court cases against Mr Ben Ali and Mr Mubarak, and pending court action against members of Qaddafi's government.

Far more difficult, say these analysts, is changing a culture of petty bribery and illicit payouts to doctors for better treatment, police to turn the other way, teachers for higher grades and airport staff for a quick way out of the country. This kind of corruption creates a fierce cycle of dwindling expectations - and realities. As the public's assumption of graft goes up, opinion polls show, quality of life, literacy rates, education and employment opportunities all go down.

With the upheavals of 2011, this calculus has changed, and expectations for action to combat corruption have soared.

Tunisians, for one, rank corruption as their biggest concern after unemployment. One recent poll, by the Tunis-based Arab Institute of Business Managers, found that a staggering 86 per cent of respondents nationwide view corruption as the top socioeconomic issue affecting their lives.

Policymakers worry, of course, that anti-graft initiatives will not keep pace with the renewed public demands to clean up the sleaze.

"Minor or sectarian demands are mounting," says Ghada Moussa, an anti-corruption official with Egypt's ministry of state. "On salaries, we have a demonstration almost every day, where teachers, doctors, workers and labourers" complain that their pay is being withheld or lowered by crooked bureaucrats. "We can not just sit silent towards their demands."

The challenge for leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world is convincing their citizens that anti-corruption efforts are under way and genuine, .

For autocratic regimes or those drifting that way, that is not an easy task, said Sabah Al Saaedi, chairman of the Iraq Parliamentarians Against Corruption.

A decline in violence in Iraq has enabled once shuttered ministries to reopen, yet procurement procedures are lax or non-existent.

The result has been billions of dollars embezzled from state coffers by officials who "treat ministries like private bank accounts", according to the International Crisis Group. Last month, the head of country's anti-corruption agency resigned in protest.

"Authoritarian governments try to broaden the scope of suffering and poverty so that people are kept busy with their own problems, taking care of problems individually rather than collectively," Mr Al Saaedi told a UN conference last month.

Yet that recipe for channelling public anger about corruption may be threadbare. After all, it was in southern Tunisia that a street fruit and vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, triggered the Arab Spring.

On December 17, 2010, he set himself on fire in frustration and anger after police confiscated his stall, and refused to return it to him unless he paid for a trader's licence. That mix of abuse of power and corruption turned out to be combustible.

Those fighting graft are turning to international agreements, such the UN Convention Against Corruption, which offers guideposts for improving procurement processes and bringing a level of transparency to financial dealings. And a new partnership between Qatar and the United Nations Development Programme, announced on September 22, will train policymakers on fighting structural, top-down corruption.

These programmes will take time to yield results, however, and will largely leave unaddressed issues of more endemic, low-level bribery that continues to corrupt from the bottom up.

"There is a very dangerous phenomenon that is happening, a way of thinking, a culture of corruption and bribery," says Abdelfattah Amor, president of Tunisia's national committee to investigate corruption. "It's colonised the culture and the minds of the society."

Ending this mindset, says Ms Moussa, Egypt's anti-corruption official, will probably take longer than many in her country may be willing to wait.

"We are talking about one and half or two years of a transitional period, and then … three to four yearss to take off. With the fifth year, we want to stabilise ourselves," she says. "This is a lot of pressure.

"But we need to do it. It is a must that we do it. Otherwise, we'll sink. This ship will sink."