Corruption, Cohesion and the Rule of Law

Arab Transformations Working Paper 15

18 Pages Posted: 28 May 2017

See all articles by Roger Sapsford

Roger Sapsford

University of Aberdeen

Gerasimos Tsourapas

University of Birmingham

Pamela Abbott

School of Education, University of Aberdeen

Date Written: May 25, 2017


Corruption provokes much anger in MENA and was important as a trigger in the Arab Uprisings it was government corruption that sparked the greatest anger among the population. The argument of this Report is (a) that government corruption is a major and obvious breach of trust, (b) that the same is true for ‘civil’ corruption – ‘wasta’ in employment, business corruption - and (c) that corruption is a special case of breach of the Rule of Law which is essential for a decent society. The initial focus on corruption leads to consideration of what people think they can reasonably expect from government and from each other. Ultimately, corruption breaks the cords that hold modern societies together; it is an attack on social cohesion.

The MENA countries have some way to go before much social cohesion is achieved. While three quarters or even more would trust their neighbours and people known to them personally, 70 per cent (83% in Tunisia) say other people are generally not to be trusted and a third or more consider that others would take advantage of you rather than try to be fair. More than a third of respondents think every level of government is corrupt (except in Tunisia, but even there the figure is around 16%), and where we have the detailed information we find that between 13 and 35 per cent think all or most of the politicians, the tax officials and even the judges are corrupt. Over half the population, and in some countries three quarters, think the government is doing little or nothing to remedy this. Beyond monetary corruption, wasta is very influential in the allocation of jobs, and if you do not know the right people and are not known by them you will have difficulty finding a job, which is profoundly divisive. ‘Crony capitalism’ may be seen as a high-level governmental version of the same process, with business opportunities and advantages reserved for the friends of government. Over 60 per cent in most countries trust the police and the army, but this still leaves a substantial minority who do not have trust in them, and only half the population trust even the courts (varying from 63% in Egypt and 57% in Jordan to 28% in Morocco and 31% in Tunisia).

However, there are signs that at least an understanding of what is required for cohesion underlies this disaffection. In the three countries covered by the AfroBarometer for this period over 80 per cent in Egypt and over 90 per cent in Tunisia agree that the decisions of the courts are binding, for example, and that people must obey the law (but 64% and 71% respectively in Morocco); some of them merely ‘agree’ rather than ‘agree strongly’, but the distinction may be a question of passion versus simple acceptance. Around 80 per cent agree that people must pay their taxes in Egypt and Tunisia, and 67 per cent in Morocco. The fundamentals of the Rule of Law – that laws must be obeyed by everyone equally and the decisions of the courts are binding on everyone equally - would therefore appear to have a place in MENA governmental discourse.

Of particular interest in this context is the ways in which people in the MENA region define what they mean by ‘democracy’. There is every indication in the ArabTrans survey that a substantial group of the population in each country want what they see as ‘democracy’ – at least a third in most countries, towards half in Tunisia and more than half in Iraq. However, ‘democracy’ tends to be defined in terms not of elections and the ballot box alone but as showing the characteristics of a decent society. Doing away with corruption was chosen as a defining characteristic of democracy by between 20 and 40 per cent of respondents; other popular choices were economic ones (the availability of basics and of jobs) at a similar level, ‘equality’ items (political or economic), and freedom to criticise government.

The point to be made is that trust, detestation of corruption and wasta, the desire for free speech, the wish to be recognised as an equal of others politically and to have the resources to live the same lives as other people are not separate goals but in some sense facets of a single desired life style. People want a society where they are treated as adults, with dignity and respect, have a say in their lives and are as free to develop their capabilities as is compatible with the same freedom being offered to everyone else. Where the behaviour of the powerful – whether members of an elite or those with a small and temporary power – is blatantly aimed at the advantage of self or in-group, this forces reappraisal of the underlying cohesive norms that make a society possible.

Keywords: MENA, Uprisings, Arab Spring, Corruption, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco , Tunisia, Democracy, Cohesion

Suggested Citation

Sapsford, Roger and Tsourapas, Gerasimos and Abbott, Pamela, Corruption, Cohesion and the Rule of Law (May 25, 2017). Arab Transformations Working Paper 15, Available at SSRN: or

Roger Sapsford

University of Aberdeen ( email )

Dunbar Street
Aberdeen, Scotland AB24 3QY
United Kingdom

Gerasimos Tsourapas

University of Birmingham ( email )

Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT
United Kingdom

Pamela Abbott (Contact Author)

School of Education, University of Aberdeen ( email )

Aberdeen, Scotland
United Kingdom

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