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World

No quick cure for Middle East corruption

As citizens across the Arab world continue to protest in the name of change, one grievance they repeatedly cite is corruption. Deutsche Welle asks how deep-seated the problem is and how it can be curbed.

A man shouting, arms outstretched, leads a crowd of protesters

Calling for an end to widespread corruption

For all the national borders and different customs and cultures dividing the swathe of Middle Eastern countries that have risen up against their rulers since the start of the year, they are united in their calls for greater political and social justice. Calls which however phrased are all essentially about corruption.

On its website, anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as a practice that costs lives, freedom, health and money, trapping millions in poverty and misery, and breeding social, economic and political unrest. "Corruption thrives where temptation coexists with permissiveness," TI says.

It is a mix, which according to Transparency International's Africa and Middle East program coordinator Omnia Hussien is rife in many countries across the Arab world, "at all levels of society and in every sector." It is rampant in politics, where popular representation is broadly lacking, consistently features as an unwritten clause in commercial contracts, and is an integral part of daily life.

"Petty corruption is routine in the lives of citizens of many Arab countries," Hussien told Deutsche Welle. "It has become a fact when dealing with law enforcement agencies and in basic services like health, education, water and sanitation."

It is also vividly present in the working world. Hussien explains how university graduates who set out in search of a good job are frequently pipped to the post by nepotists and therefore condemned to a life on the fringes of their own potential.

Breaking the cycle

Hands holding a huge pile of money

Dirty money is currency in some Middle East countries

Amer Khayat, Secretary General of the Arab Anti-Corruption Organization in Beirut says those who are lucky enough to be offered a job based on merit, often find themselves being sucked into the vortex that is corruption in the Middle East.

"Corruption becomes a part of their jobs," Khayat told Deutsche Welle. "The university graduate finds himself in an environment where all his colleagues are practising corruption and he has to go mainstream or be termed an idiot who is incapable of making money quickly, buying a big car and so on."

Although the exact face of and reasons for corruption vary from country to country, Khayat says the materialist's mentality is a dominant feature, and is one of the things which has to change if the region's ever-evolving trend of corruption is to be reversed.

"We need a system of reeducation in the Arab world," he said. "We need to show young people that it is possible for someone to practice his or her profession without the aim being to make money. We need to create opportunities for people to work and this work has to be done with respect and integrity."

A catalogue of changes

A rebel fighter next to a huge weapon

The fight for a clean society

But that is only one aspect of what needs to change. At the top of the pile are sound parliaments, political will, clear long-term strategies, strong institutions and independent judiciaries.

"There has to be a strong legal framework and serious implementation and criminalization of corruption practices, with no impunity," Hussien said.

She also stresses the importance of providing access to public documents, offering protection for whistle-blowers, something which is currently lacking in most countries in the Arab world, and perhaps most critically of seizing this most historic of moments.

"Right now there is an opportunity for countries in the Middle East to show that they can succeed in combating corruption," she said. "In the first year of transition to democracy, people are mobilized, they are looking to regain trust and now is the time to start a system where there is no tolerance for corruption."

Western intervention

Transparency International logo

Transparency International monitor corruption across the world

But Amer Khayat is more cautious in his assessment of how long it might take for states in the region to shake the dirt from their reputations. Although he is hopeful that they will eventually manage to put their "culture of corruption" behind them, he does not see them doing it alone.

"It is imperative that countries from the Western hemisphere should opt to have one standard in dealing with us," he said, "These double standards, both politically and commercially are something we are getting tired of."

He says that when Western companies are operating abroad, they ought to uphold the same anti-corruption standards they abide by at home, and that their governments should care about how they behave outside the fold.

Author:Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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