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Public disgust over corruption threatens stability in Middle East and North Africa

Recent Tunis protests. EPA

During the Tunisian revolution of 2010-11, which sparked the Arab uprisings, protesters would chant “A job is a right, you pack of thieves!”. In Ben Ali’s Tunisia, supposedly a “democratising” country that regularly received Western praise for its economic “reforms”, people felt increasingly marginalised both economically and politically.

Tunisians have been out on the streets again recently, demonstrating against government policies and especially against corruption and unemployment. There have also been protests against corruption in Morocco. It is all very reminiscent of what happened seven years ago, where ending corruption was one of the principal demands of protesters alongside social justice and political freedom.

Our recent research suggests that corruption continues to be a major cause of discontent throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It confirms the findings in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which ranks several countries in the region among the most corrupt in the world. Does this mean we are in danger of seeing history repeat itself?

Transparency International rankings 2016

176 countries are ranked in total, with Denmark considered least corrupt and Somalia coming last. Transparency International

Corruption continues

Expectations of change after the uprisings have become increasingly frustrated: Jordan and Morocco have attempted to absorb protest; Egypt’s counter-revolution continues to stifle any significant change; and rumbling discontent in Tunisia is a reaction to the government’s failure to deliver on promises of jobs, development and fighting corruption.

Our latest research, which is part of the Arab Transformations Project, includes a public opinion poll of almost 10,000 people across the region carried out in late 2014. It found that corruption was perceived as by far the most important cause of the Arab Uprisings in Iraq, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. In Egypt and Jordan, it came a close second after economic problems.

Around 60% of all respondents thought there was still a great deal of government corruption in their country. Nor did citizens see any signs of a government crackdown – essential for any significant transition to stabilised democracy.

Most people also felt that who you knew was more important than what you knew when it came to everything from getting hired or promoted to winning places at university. A majority of respondents felt that the need for this kind of social influence was endemic: very few thought it possible to get work without it – 6% in Egypt, and barely 1% in Jordan.

Corruption in state institutions and agencies (%)

Pamela Abbott, Andrea Teti, Roger Sapsford

The problem is not merely that endemic corruption is morally undesirable. It contributes significantly to political and economic instability – including migration and terrorism – and undermines inclusive and sustainable development across the region. There is a strong link between corruption, lack of employment opportunities and economic insecurity.

Corruption creates fundamental injustice, denying citizens the right to claim their social, economic and political rights. It has a negative impact on people’s daily lives by increasing the cost of obtaining public services, and undermining improvements in service delivery as public resources are siphoned off for private gain.

In economic terms, corruption obstructs growth by deterring both domestic and foreign investment. It raises transaction costs for companies, undermines fair competition, impedes business growth, increases costs and poses serious legal and reputational risks.

Unfortunately, Western intervention has often made things worse. Demands by the likes of the IMF and World Bank for countries to liberalise their economies in exchange for assistance has in fact facilitated crony capitalism. This sees wealth and opportunities concentrating around a country’s elites to the exclusion of other firms and ordinary workers.

The price of complacency

When it comes to effectively fighting corruption, it doesn’t help that there is scarce good evidence on what works. Certainly, however, it requires time, effort and strong political will.

Rage in Rabat. EPA

Governments need to introduce strict anti-corruption laws and enforce them rigorously, along with having well staffed, well funded public audit departments. Corruption must be seen and treated as a serious crime, so that corrupt politicians and officials are aware they are likely to face serious consequences.

So far, there are few signs that any of the regimes affected by the Arab uprisings have learned these lessons – despite all six countries we surveyed having ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption.

Of course, tackling corruption is a difficult challenge. But the price of doing nothing is to leave untouched one of the major causes of economic inequality and political radicalisation in the Middle East.

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