Middle East starts to clean house

In countries with mass protests, early successes include convictions on corruption even before democratic reforms. Demands for honest governance are as strong as those for democracy.

Sudan's former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir sits inside a cage during a court hearing on corruption charges in Khartoum Dec. 1.

The latest survey of Arab opinion gives the lie to the impression that the Middle East will always be mired in corruption. More than half of those polled in the region by the watchdog group Transparency International say ordinary people can help stop graft in high places.

In recent weeks, those personal convictions have begun to turn into public reality.

Mass protests in Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria, and Iraq this year show citizens can indeed make a difference in working toward honest, accountable governance. Here are a few of their successes:

In Sudan on Saturday a court convicted a former dictator, Omar al-Bashir, of corruption and sentenced him to two years in detention and the surrender of $351,770. Protesters had forced the ouster of Mr. Bashir last April, leading to tentative steps toward democracy. The conviction, while one of many that may await the ex-president for three decades of harsh rule, is seen as an example that a “spell of immunity” may be breaking in Sudan.

In Algeria, similar protests led to the downfall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as well as to a string of recent court convictions for former leaders, including two ex-prime ministers, on corruption charges. While the army still holds sway over democratic reforms, the convictions show the military is bending to demands by protesters to end graft. A newly elected president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, vows to fight the “corruption which has infected the Algerian state.”

In Iraq, months of protests have not only felled a prime minister but also forced parliament to lift immunity for lawmakers accused of bribery or other crimes. In addition, the country’s Commission of Integrity has arrested several former ministers, former governors, and others in a new crackdown on corruption.

And in Lebanon, months of protests have yet to lead to court convictions on corruption, but they have forced a crisis for a corrupt system of politics. Since the end of a civil war in 1990, the small country of diverse faiths has relied on power sharing among sects that has also produced mass patronage and nepotism. Now several leaders have mouthed support for a government of technocrats, which could break the current sectarian system. In a TV address, President Michel Aoun said, “Ministers should be chosen according to their competencies and expertise, not political loyalties.”

These examples of progress reflect a different vision of society among the region’s massive youth population. More than half of Arabs in a survey by Arab Strategy Forum say corruption is the “top problem.” In Iraq and Lebanon, nearly three-quarters resent the use of religion for political advantage.

The protests hint at an upwelling for integrity in governance. Some leaders have fallen. Yet fundamental reforms in democracy are still uncertain. For now, these examples in cleaning out corrupt leaders show something just is afoot in the Middle East.

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