Corruption and clientelism undermined political stability in the region
It is possible to find fat cats all over the Arab world. In the Arab context, the expression refers to those who benefit from the corruption of regimes and control key positions in various institutions to serve their personal goals and to defend their interests by hook or by crook.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is depicted as the latest victim of this system after he was forced to step down by public protests. Among the first demands of the protesters was getting rid of the circle of “gangsters” who surrounded Bouteflika and damming the general corruption in the country.
Sudanese protesters decried corruption in Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s inner circle. They accused him and his collaborators of using the ruling National Congress party, the Islamic Movement and various governments put in place to serve their private interests.
The Sudanese regime has tried to deflect blame for its obvious mistakes and economic failures onto other accused parties but the protesters were not duped and stood fast in their demands. They knew that getting rid of the peripheral elements involved in corruption would keep the regime’s corrupt foundations safe.
In Algeria, the Bouteflika regime had become a symbol of national cohesion and the ability to absorb most political hues. It led the country to safety during many crises but its downfall began with the growth of a network of interests woven by businessmen and former army officers and the National Liberation Front.
Those people broke through many barriers in powerful institutions of government and created a web of interests and relations that allowed them to amass great wealth. This is why they have been striving for the survival of a regime whose head was obviously ill and no longer capable of stemming the flow of funds into their pockets.
Algerians took to the streets because they’d had it with the corruption that was pushing to keep Bouteflika in power for a fifth term despite his chronic illness. The corrupt circles tried to arrange for the safety of their interests until the last minute. In the end they’ve failed.
Corruption in Algeria was born from systematic clientelism. Its main figures laid their hands on the various aspects of life in Algeria. They enlisted in their enterprise Bouteflika’s brothers as well as many business figures and former army officers, through whom they ran the country.
These aspects surfaced when Algerian authorities confiscated the passports of 12 individuals and prevented many of those with links to powerful circles in government from leaving the country. The whole gang was subjected to investigations on charges of unlawful practices.
The powerful military establishment in Algeria finds itself confronted with unravelling and neutralising fat cats and those who joined them for personal gain to at least morally make up for its previous silence about the situation. By doing so, the army stands to gain support from the country’s angry streets.
In Algeria, the regime’s economic and social mistakes became intertwined with political ones, such that one cannot distinguish one type from the other. The pressure from the street was mounting rapidly. Protesters were adamant about getting rid of the regime set up by Bouteflika and his cronies and want to seize the moment to settle the scandal of the hidden system that undermines the state and its prestige.
The situation of the Algerian regime was like that of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali nine years ago, in that an inner circle of corrupt business people and government officials achieved considerable illicit gains by being close to the centre of power. Ben Ali was not the victim of just uncontrolled popular rejection. He was the victim of the boundless greed of his relatives and friends who legitimised unbridled greed and corruption to lay their hands on a large portion of the country’s wealth.
A similar situation existed in Egypt where vested interests closely intertwined with the central power contributed to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The quick rise to economic, political and security power of members of that group and the formation of a court system around Mubarak’s son Gamal to make sure that the group’s decisions went unchallenged provoked the anger of a huge part of the Egyptian people, who refused to return to their normal lives until the regime’s fall and after promises of retaliation against those who had spoiled the country’s wealth.
Subsequent governments in Tunisia and Egypt have tried to wage war on corruption and made great efforts in that direction. The results, however, were less than expected because the web of interests created through corruption cleverly succeeded in making corruption deeply rooted.
Egyptian authorities brandished pompous slogans about tackling corruption at the level of the “deep state.” However, none of the announced anti-corruption measures worked against the gigantic empires built by legalising corruption, which, incidentally, is back with renewed economic fitness.
The biggest challenge to the Algerian state is the powerful lobbies that benefited from it. The Algerian military is trying to avoid making the same mistakes of the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences but it is faced with a tough test.
Will it be capable of countering entire networks that fuelled widespread bribery, nepotism and clientelism, even in the security services where some members offered considerable leverage to business lobbyists.
The Algerian people excel at learning from mistakes made by neighbouring countries. They also refuse to fall into the trap of palliatives being offered. They want urgent measures for fixing the affairs of state and insist on the military’s role in ensuring the country’s security and stability.
Their sights have not been set on the political administration of the country and this administration’s role in providing a cover for the fat cats. The Algerian case is another illustration that the root cause of the disasters that befell several Arab regimes is the destructive role of fat cats.