With all of the craziness coming out of Egypt and Tunisia in the past few weeks, a recurring theme in much of the media coverage (at least in the West) has been that “the people” are fed up with corruption, and that frustration is fueling much of the outrage behind the protests. Ben Ali’s exile and Mubarak’s resignation, goes the narrative, signal a chance for clean government to finally take hold.
A piece earlier this week on American Public Media’s Marketplace summed up the conventional wisdom nicely:
A couple weeks after Tunisia’s former president fled the country, a sign that used to read “Ministry of Finance” was crossed out, and read instead “Ministry of Thieves.” Protesters were railing against what’s known as “rashwa,” or corruption. Everybody has a story about rashwa, paying a bribe to get a passport, a legal document, a job, even government subsidies. Tunisians trace the source of this culture of corruption through a familiar proverb. “A rotten fish starts at the head.” The ultimate rotten fish head was Zine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s former dictator and his family. [Businesses] said corruption trickled down from the Ben Ali family through the ruling party and down into society at large…Tunisians sent a strong message that [a] culture [of integrity is what they] want. And while they acknowledge it certainly won’t happen overnight, they see promise in the fact that the rotten fish head is of Zine Ben Ali and his cronies is gone.
So mission accomplished, right? Not really. The mainstream narrative – that the exits of Ben Ali and Mubarak signal a turning point on corruption – glosses over deep and troubling challenges that remain in each country.
Data from our annual Global Integrity Report paint a more discouraging picture when it comes to prospects for easy anti-corruption reform in each country. In both cases, major legal and institutional reform and capacity building will be necessary for many years in order for the tide to meaningfully turn on corruption. What’s missing?
There is no shred of institutional or legal framework to allow for public access to government information. Worst yet, “There are several laws that [actively] deprive citizens of the right of access to government information and basic government records.”
There is no tradition of making public the finances of the major political parties. Regardless of which parties or coalitions win the next elections in Egypt, powerful vested interests, from state-owned enterprises to private banking and industrial conglomerates, will choose sides, and the public will have little to no insight into which horses they are backing.
Without major reforms, the courts will remain controlled and heavily influenced by the executive branch, undermining the idea of real checks and balances, regardless of who the next president is. The minster of justice will continue to directly appoint even the most senior Egyptian judges, while the Supreme Council for Judicial Agencies, a key internal judicial watchdog, will remain chaired by the president him or herself.
In Tunisia, the outlook is little brighter absent a major overhaul of the country’s core governance institutions and legal framework:
There is still no independent election monitoring agency or mechanism to ensure that future elections are free, fair, and meaningful.
The Tunisian legislature remains largely unchecked in its exercise of legislative authority. Its laws cannot be reviewed by the courts and its members are granted immunity while in office. Those same members are never required to disclosure their personal income and assets, even confidentially to an internal government audit agency.
The civil service remains hobbled by an absence of conflict of interest regulations; bureaucrats who have been caught in corrupt acts regularly return to public service.
So, what to make of all of these depressing statistics?
The first and perhaps most important point is to digest the reality that the hard work hasn’t even started when it comes to making progress on corruption in either Tunisia or Egypt. Yes, the symbolic rotten fish are gone, but both public sectors remain hardwired for corruption on many levels. Serious, heavy lifting will be required over a sustained period to turn the ships of state in both cases.
Second, that heavy lifting on anti-corruption cannot be sacrificed at the altar of “stability” or “we’ve got bigger problems.” This approach was tried in Iraq, where for years after the 2003 invasion the U.S. government consistently put corruption issues (and the necessary anti-corruption reforms) on the back burner. Unsurprisingly, the situation is now a complete mess in Iraq: after many years of American occupation, Iraq still lacks basic freedom of information legislation; has seen its inspectors general gutted by the prime minister’s office; and Iraqi state-owned enterprises remain a bastion of patronage and nepotism.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from that experience, it’s that the boring but important legal, regulatory, and institutional anti-corruption reform process must begin immediately in Tunisia and Egypt, striking while the iron is hot. The strategy of waiting on those reforms, and/or assuming that more ethical leadership at the top will solve the challenges magically, won’t work (see: Ukraine).
This coming April, Global Integrity will be publishing new national-level data from Egypt (gathered during the second half of 2010), which could shed interesting light on whether corruption vulnerabilities were deteriorating in the run-up to the revolution. We’ll share the early results as soon as we have them.
— Nathaniel Heller
— Image: giladlotan (cc by/nc)