For months, the Arab world has carefully watched ongoing protests in two of its own, Algeria and Sudan. The protests have been surprisingly peaceful, inclusive, and persistent. And in early April, they finally won key victories. The military in both countries ousted longtime rulers whose misrule had sparked the street demonstrations.
Yet the protests have only continued because the generals now in charge refuse to cede power to civilians or move quickly to democracy. Instead, like the despots they replaced, they are trying an old trick to show concern for the people: They are making symbolic crackdowns on corruption.
In Algeria, military authorities have launched a “Clean Hands” campaign against current and former government officials as well as wealthy businessmen who benefited from the 20-year rule of deposed leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
In Sudan, the ruling Transitional Military Council, fronted by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, has arrested many officials for fraud, including two brothers of Omar al-Bashir, the ousted leader who sits in jail after ruling for 30 years.
While the crackdowns represent a nominal respect for rule of law, their real intent is widely seen as a tactic to divide protesters or persuade enough of them to go home with a limited victory.
The anti-corruption moves do not fool the protesters. They understand the best tools against corruption are accountability through free elections, transparency in governance, independence of judges, and the kind of equality that includes civilian rule over a military.
“We demand reform of the judiciary until justice prevails and corruption is prosecuted,” said Appeals Judge Abu al-Fattah Mohammad Othman, one of the many judges who have joined the protesters in Sudan. “We demand the removal of symbols of the former regime from the judiciary and the dismissal of the head of the judiciary to achieve justice.”
Despots are able to stay in power by doling out state assets to loyal followers. In Sudan under Mr. Bashir, an estimated 65% of government spending had gone to the military. The question remains whether this same military wants to keep the money flowing by clinging to power.
Democracies, of course, are hardly immune from corruption or the use of patronage. But autocratic states tend to be more corrupt because, by their nature, they rely on inequality and dishonesty. They put rule by person or party above rule of law.
The protesters in Sudan and Algeria have absorbed many lessons from the largely failed Arab Spring of eight years ago. One is not to settle for half-measures from rulers, such as promises to fight the private use of public goods among the elite. Only democracy itself, with its reliance on honesty, openness, respect, and other civic values, can genuinely root out problems like corruption.