Symptoms of decay

When people make personal gains out of public posts, this is called corruption. When officials carry out public business in a manner detached from, or even harmful to, public interest, this too is called corruption. In general, corruption is the erosion of barriers between the public and private spheres, between public and private wealth. Proper public administration, we all know, requires that decisions are made rationally and in the interest of the public. High-ranking as they may be, government officials do not embody — in person, mood, or wealth — the public interest. Officials have private lives, and whenever the latter clash with their public duties, their private affairs become public. This is why the public is entitled to know certain things about the personal life and leanings of people in high places. Generally speaking, the public and private spheres should remain separate and the private interests of government officials, and of their families and friends, should be segregated from their public functions.

Public employees — whether elected or appointed — are expected to make decisions or recommend policy in a rational and transparent manner, not according to their personal preferences and attachments. A public official should not let his own desires, his family’s financial needs, or his children’s financial ambitions affect his decisions on matters such as public health, roads, industrial zones, selling of public land, government contracts, key appointments, punishment of crimes, and exemption from military service. Partisan considerations and electoral compromises tend to affect public decisions. Beyond a certain degree, however, this could lead to corruption even within established democracies. This latter type of corruption is a structural flaw of democracy for which correction efforts are continually made. Democracy cannot survive without parties and elections, and even in established democracies, it is common for major companies to try and win over elected officials by "contributing" to their campaigns.

Government officials should not seek riches beyond the scope of their salaries. It is unacceptable for a person with ordinary means to become wealthy by abusing the power of his office. Cases of power abuse call for prompt investigation.

Corruption is hard to combat unless checks and balances are in place. Absolute authority begets absolute corruption. Corruption is easier to limit in cases where the state is not monopolising economic activity. This is not to say that market economy involves no corruption whatsoever. Open-door policies and market economy can lead to considerable levels of corruption in the absence of due legal process, judiciary independence, and democratic values. But when laws are upheld and checks and balances are in place, the political and economic domains can be kept separate and corruption spotted.

This is how democracies operate. Corruption may exist, but it is viewed and punished as a felony, not hailed as a feat of business acumen. One cannot aspire for social stability, investment security, and economic growth while ignoring the sovereignty of the law. One cannot aspire for democratic reform without treating all citizens as equal before the law and recognising their basic rights.

The sale of a certain raw material has enabled the Arabs to aspire for — and contemplate alternative modes of — economic growth, even before they managed to fully separate the private and public spheres. Rulers act as if they own the state. They prosper from the sale of raw materials and land for developers, even at times when this may imperil national sovereignty. Cheap workforce, modern infrastructure, and the surge in the leisure industry have led to cases of rapid economic growth, some not depending solely on oil. Some Arab countries have prospered due to their small populations, sophisticated infrastructure, and a low-paid immigrant workforce (the latter changing continually and denied standard labour rights). This model of growth, much admired by certain intellectuals, is actually more suitable to corporations than to states. This is how a modern shareholding company — not a modern society or state — is expected to operate.

A common assumption in modern states and societies is that rulers do not treat their countries as corporations they own. For instance, a modern state should regulate investment in a way that upholds labour rights. And society as a whole should benefit from economic activity, not wait for the crumbs the ruler magnanimously allows his people to have. It is pathetic to hear people commending a ruler because, "at least, he takes care of his people," as opposed to certain republics where the common people fail to benefit from the runaway corruption. The state-as-a- corporation model is often tolerated because the state’s own small population have some share in the "corporation" — even though the large imported workforce are denied their rights.

Even in this above case, the state should ask itself: is the community of citizens developing to the point where it could take charge of the local economy? Is the state preparing itself for the possibility that the International Labour Organisation, or the foreign workers (as the Turks did in Germany) may ask for labour — or citizenry — rights? In the latter case, cheap labour would disappear, and with it the state’s ability to attract foreign capital. Gone also would be the cheap army of household servants and nannies that improve the lives of senior foreign employees (who would not dream of hiring help in their countries of origin because of the high wages of a legally protected labour force).

Some want such an exceptional model — with its inherent corruption — copied elsewhere, but this model does not lend itself to imitation. Under this model, the ruler may act as if the public and private domains are one, and the public is not even aware of how basically corrupt this notion is. Corruption — to reiterate — is the erosion of barriers between the public and private spheres. That some intellectuals admire the above model is simply an indication of the corruption of their minds. The above model is not based on citizenry, for it treats citizenry as an exception. Citizenry — in such a model — means belonging to a privileged class that employs the rest of the population. Citizenry is the right to get into partnership with foreign investors, and impose taxes and customs duties on foreigners. Citizenry, in other words, is the right of citizens to benefit from a corruption they don’t even grasp.

In most Arab countries, however, citizens form the majority of the population and are more likely to be employees than employers. Citizenry does not give them any special rights, or entitle them to anything more than being residents of the state and holders of its citizenship. Women are often not entitled to pass on citizenship to their children. And men do little with their citizenship other than pass it on to their offspring.

In these countries, the working assumption is that there is a separation between the public and the private. The official discourse of the state — a republic, mostly — is that the ruler does not embody or own the state, and that the citizens are not his "subjects" but the "masses" that give him legitimacy. Yet, corruption spreads in such countries from top to bottom, like a thread stringing together the scattered beads of disconnected interests, of interests that may clash with the public good and are not particularly conducive to the building of a nation. Corruption becomes a mode of production, so to speak.

Only the wretched live off their salaries, for salaries are mostly regarded as little more than a supplement to the real income, the income that derived from the abuse of power, authority, or family connections. With government service crowded with an army of low-paid employees, corruption becomes a way of redistributing income, "more equitably" so to speak. As this happens, citizens turn into victims, for what corruption does is hold back their rights for ransom. Citizens would be obliged to pay to conduct legal business, obtain official action, live a hassle-free life (hassle can turn into an art form), or curry favours. Permits and various transactions would go ahead only for a certain fee, or be withheld free of charge and regardless of the damage done to the public good.

One does not need to look far to discover that a large number of the sons of Arab politicians and officials tend to succeed in all manners of "business", without needing to specialise in one field or another, for as long as the father "succeeds" to stay in office. The business acumen of the sons of Arab politicians and officials is phenomenal.

The phenomenon of the sons of officials exist in advanced democratic countries too. But (a) it is not so widespread; (b) politicians in these countries may have earlier careers as successful businessmen; and (c) officials are entitled to use the influence and connections they made while in office to make money after leaving their posts. The latter is not a laudable thing, but tolerable, since no democracy is free from human weaknesses. What matters is that the appropriation of wealth does not take place through the peddling of influence. That a public official would secure contracts for his son, that he would hold back franchises until the companies in question are forced to conduct business with the son, or that he would leak information about lucrative real estate deals are all cases of corruption that democracies cannot tolerate.

One cannot speak of socio-economic development, of democracy and freedom, without applying the law equally to all citizens and ensuring the separation between the private and public spheres. But can this be done without checks and balances, a free press, and an independent judiciary — without democracy? Theoretically speaking, no. None of the above can be implemented in the long run without democracy. Practically speaking, the picture is more complex. We tend to see certain societies and states as democratic just because power rotates between two parties representing political and economic elites, as is the case in India or Mexico. But corruption runs deep in the structure of parties, authority, and the economy of these countries. This is because political democracy in these countries has not emerged through a gradual evolution of democratic values within society or even within the ruling elite. Among European democracies, Italy has been singled out for corruption, but even in that country, there is an outcry against graft.

There have been a small number of undemocratic cases — such as the Bismarck regime in Germany — where the state imposed a bureaucratic system based on the culture and ethics of duty, combated corruption without introducing democracy, and established civic institutions that worked successfully and acted upon the state’s precise interpretation of the public good. And there are cases of absolute monarchies in the West that managed to create a modern and incorrupt state apparatus that is ethical in its performance of public duties. I am ready to argue that the public service apparatus established by colonial British and French authorities in Arab countries was far less corrupt than what we see today. Some may counter by saying that the government service in the colonial period was small, elitist, and so well-paid that public employees were less susceptible to corruption and bribes. True, but what I find saddening is that Arab employees working for colonial authorities were generally more nationalistic in their approach to public interest and more upright in their decisions than their counterparts of today.

I know of no other language than Arabic in which the word corruption, fasad, refers to decomposition, decay, and putrefaction just as lucidly as it denotes influence peddling, mismanagement, and financial irregularities. Hardly a coincidence, for the modern sense of a word depends on its earlier connotations. But I wonder what was it in the Arab experience that made this term so apt?

Corruption, as the old term suggests, is the shortest route to decay.