Corruption the focus of protesters’ ire across the region
In Lebanon and Iraq, angry protests against the ruling classes continue unabated, and they have one thing in common: The rage against rampant corruption. Regardless of the political demands that millions of protesters make every day, it is corruption that lies at the heart of their discontent with the status quo. The trigger that launched the first wave of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 remains the same and it is frustrating that regimes have failed to learn the lessons of the recent past.
Most Arab countries rank low in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of 2018, with an average score of 39 on a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean. Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen are among the lowest-ranked of the Middle East and North African nations. The UAE, with a score of 70 and a ranking of 23, leads the region and is way ahead of other Gulf countries.
According to the CPI, some countries in the region have shown slight improvement over the last four years, including Oman (whose score increased from 45 to 52), Tunisia (from 38 to 43) and Morocco (from 36 to 43). Meanwhile, Lebanon (28) and Iraq (18) have essentially remained static over that period.
Those who studied the phenomenon of the Arab Spring agree that political corruption played a major role in building momentum against the ruling classes. As people demand democratic reforms, transparency, good governance and the rule of law, among others, it is political corruption — namely abuse of power and the pilfering of state resources — that motivates them. The outcomes of such abuse can be seen clearly in Lebanon and Iraq today: High unemployment rates, especially among the youth, high poverty rates, failing public services, especially health and social security, and cronyism.
The absence of an independent judiciary and the violation of articles in the constitution are also traits of such dysfunctional systems. Rampant corruption is the result of a number of factors and it is the one thing that people across the region see as a common denominator.
Corruption — which one UN Development Program study last year estimated costs the Arab world $90 billion a year — has become the main feature of failing states. Ironically, almost all countries in the region, including Lebanon and Iraq, have legal mechanisms to fight corruption, but it is the abuse of power by the ruling elite and the absence of an independent judiciary that often stand in the way of fighting it.
As people demand democratic reforms, transparency, good governance and the rule of law, it is political corruption that motivates them
With 19 of 21 Arab states scoring below 50 on the CPI, it is vital that governments in the region take notice and find ways to rein in corruption before it is too late. And one cannot escape the conclusion that democratic reforms are the only way forward. Small steps may have taken place in countries like Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco, but they are not enough. The challenges facing any government today are shared: Unemployment, poverty, lack of economic growth, and national debt. But these ailments can only be addressed through a transparent, accessible and democratic system that contains corruption both politically and economically.
Without the genuine political will to democratize, including the separation of powers and accountability, adopting anti-corruption regulations will not work. Public pressure will continue to mount across the region, as we see today, and the protests that led to change in Tunisia and Sudan may do the same in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq. This should warn other countries to speed up reforms through a credible process.
One troubling note that has been cited by Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization founded to combat global corruption, is that, following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, authoritarian regimes in the region have intensified their crackdowns on political dissent, free speech, independent media and civil society organizations. It concluded that corruption thrives in environments where speaking truth to power is a risky and daunting task.
Political corruption weakens the state’s institutions and undercuts the role of civil society activists. The latter have an important role to play in promoting democratic practices, respect for human rights and creating public awareness. In an interconnected world, public grievances can be contagious and what happens in Lebanon today can take place in other countries tomorrow.
In a region of 100 million youths aged 15 to 29, who make up 32 percent of the population, it is they who will provide the momentum for change. Whether in Algeria or Iraq, youth have the same dreams and shared demands. With youth unemployment standing at a rate of 30 percent in the Arab world, excluding North Africa, the pressure on corrupt governments will continue to build and change will become inevitable.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010