In the past two months, mass protests have erupted in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. Over a million have taken to the streets in Lebanon alone, to protest against injustice, often in defiance of violent suppression by the authorities. Although the protesters’ demands differ between countries - and even within protest movements - a common factor has underpinned much of the outpouring of outrage: corruption and financial mismanagement by governments.
Persistent corruption; eroded rights
In Transparency International’s most recent Global Corruption Barometer from 2015 - 2016, respondents in MENA reported the highest rate of bribery of any region in the world, with 30 per cent saying they had given a bribe to access a public service in the previous year. The 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index shows most countries in the region failing to make inroads against corruption.
“The current wave of protests against government corruption cannot be separated from suppressive state control and a broken social contract between states and their citizens,” says Kinda Hattar, Regional Advisor for the MENA region at Transparency International. “The protests we’re seeing across the Middle East and North Africa in 2019 all result from governments failing to meet the demands that their citizens have been making at least since the Arab Spring protests beginning in 2010.
“The scale of the corruption challenge in most Arab states requires wholesale, systemic reform that leaves no space for the old patterns and players to retain control or reemerge after a ‘cooling off period’. This has not happened in the vast majority of countries, and the rigorous anti-corruption reforms needed have not been made.”
Sparked initially by government plans to tax internet mobile-phone messages, the current protests in Lebanon are fueled by years of resentment over corruption and mismanagement by the government: from a garbage crisis made worse by the contract for waste removal being given to the company owned by a political leader, to wholesale petty bribery affecting every facet of life. In the 2015 MENA GCB, people in Lebanon were the most likely to say that the office of their Prime Minister, their Members of Parliament, Government Officials and Local Councilors, were highly corrupt.
A holistic approach is needed to fight the systematic corruption that has been building in Lebanon over many years. The government’s immediate response and proposed actions are too modest. In-depth reforms are needed to secure the corruption-free future that people are demanding. The solution should be participatory, and the government should engage with civil society and citizens in order to make lasting change and rebuild trust within a new system. This includes the long-awaited National Anti-Corruption Strategy, and work on setting the standards for the fight against corruption.
Amid high youth unemployment and paper-thin reform efforts, thousands of mostly young Iraqis took to the streets in early October. Shocking scenes of violent suppression followed, with security forces using live rounds against crowds of peaceful protesters, killing more than a hundred and leaving thousands injured.
Sectarian groups have dominated Iraq’s politics since the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003. The entrenched power among these groups divides the population and creates space for political parties to dominate ever more areas of life. This affects everything from employment opportunities to the distribution of government contracts, and is a breeding ground for corruption.
Earlier, in September, a US-backed TV channel, Al Hurra, was closed down after reporting on corruption among such sectarian groups. Respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, such as freedom of assembly, protest and speech, has to underpin Iraq’s struggle against corruption.
In a rare show of dissent against their authoritarian government, in September protesters called for President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to leave office, which he seized in a 2013 coup after protests two years earlier had forced Hosni Mubarak to end his 30-year rule.
Corruption among the military and the army’s role in the country’s economy were a central cause of the anger that brought people on to the streets last month. Earlier this year, a series of constitutional amendments positioned the military as the ultimate authority in Egypt. In addition, Sisi’s own family have key roles in institutions such as intelligence agencies.
Thousands were detained in the violent crackdown against the protests, which have been illegal since Sisi took power in 2013. Space for civil society is severely lacking, with disappearances, house arrests and reports of torture.
Glimmers of hope
In a region where cause for optimism over anti-corruption developments is often in short supply, there have been some signs of hope this year.
In Tunisia, where recent elections passed peacefully, there have been encouraging levels of engagement by young people and civil society, allowing for a system of checks and balances to develop. "After the 2010 uprising and the fall of the Ben-Ali regime in 2011, the entire system in Tunisia changed. There have been setbacks along the way, but the elections this week indicate a public awareness of the need to be part of the system, engage and demand change from their representatives. This is proving to be the way forward for establishing solid rules for democracy," said Hattar.
Mass protests in Algeria earlier in 2019 led to the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and opened a window of opportunity for a more participatory society. However, the old guard are still in power, and protesters continue to demand change, despite the heavy crackdown on freedom of expression. Unless we see systemic change that ensures good governance and accountability in Algerian politics, the corruption that characterized the previous regime, and which drove public protests, will simply continue.
This summer, protests toppled the government in Sudan, which scores just 16 points out of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, placing it close to the bottom of the ranking of 180 countries. Omar Al Bashir, the former dictator deposed by the military following the protests, is now in prison facing corruption charges. The most recent protests have called for his party to be disbanded while a joint military-civilian administration attempts to transition the country towards democracy.
Winter is coming?
2019 has seen another season of change across the MENA region, with its roots in the cry for change of almost a decade ago. The question is whether this time leaders in the region will listen to citizens’ demands or continue along the same paths. Shallow reforms will not satisfy citizens tired of decades of impunity from their leaders, and will most likely only postpone the next outpouring of public anger.
Above all, governments must respect the right to peaceful protest, and engage constructively with emerging civil society movements.
Global Corruption Barometer - Middle East and North Africa 2019
In December 2019, Transparency International will publish the Global Corruption Barometer for the MENA region, documenting citizens’ perceptions and experiences of corruption in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Sudan.
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