By using the word "corruption," we usually mean one of two things: when someone who is in a position of power or authority uses it to embezzle funds or otherwise extract undue benefit, or they extort it directly in the form of a bribe. Citizens of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (or, really, almost anywhere in the world) are no strangers to both kinds. Tired of the indignity of endemic corruption, many joined the popular movements that were collectively termed the Arab Spring.
Syria and Libya have since fractured, and Iraq was that way beforehand. Governments in Libya and Iraq, in particular, are notorious for corruption, but the absence of those three countries in a new Transparency International report does little to make its new Middle East and North Africa data on corruption less dispiriting.
In the nine countries surveyed — generating 11,000 individual responses — one in three adults had paid a bribe in return for an ostensibly free public service. One in three had paid at a court. One in four to a police officer. One in five reported doing so to a higher authority, but of them, almost half said they feared retaliation. Transparency International says that the 30 percent of respondents who paid some kind of bribe represents the equivalent of 50 million people across the region.
The chart below should give a sense of the frustration felt by many of the respondents.
The survey was done over more than a year, from September 2014 to November 2015. The nine countries or territories included were Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian enclaves, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen. Besides the Palestinian territories, where this question wasn't asked, the government of each and every one of those countries was rated "fairly bad" or "very bad" at tackling corruption, and 61 percent said corruption had increased in the year prior to the survey.
Transparency International further cautioned that in many places, many respondents said that corruption had stayed level but that half had paid bribes, indicating that corruption may have been at a high level previously, too. Below are the numbers showing how many people in each country surveyed had paid at least one bribe over the course of the preceding year.
Generally, the officials seen as the most corrupt were tax officials, members of parliament and government officials, though court clerks and police officers did not lag far behind. Business leaders were seen as even more corrupt than those in the public sector. Religious leaders were seen as least so, though respondents said that "most" or "all" were corrupt in 19 percent and 29 percent of instances, respectively.
The persistence of corruption and bribery in the region is a testament to its history of repressive governments, often installed by foreign powers, which were more concerned with maintaining power and stability than creating structures of legal accountability that are a necessary foundation for enforcement. And in some cases, when new governments have tried to reform those broken systems, they soon change their minds.
In March, an anticorruption ombudsman in Egypt was hounded out of his job after he told a newspaper that the new military government of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was following in the corrupt footsteps of the previous military government of Hosni Mubarak. Hesham Genena, the official, had estimated that corruption had cost Egypt more than $75 billion in 2015, though he later walked those statements back to say that the figure accounted for multiple years.
“It’s as if the Arab Spring never happened. Leaders who fail to stop secrecy, fail to promote free speech and fail to stop bribery also fail to bring dignity to the daily lives of people living in the Middle East and North Africa. Peoples’ human rights are seriously affected,” José Ugaz, chair of Transparency International, said in a news release.