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Middle East populations want end to corruption

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Kai Ryssdal: When things in the Middle East eventually do settle down, there’s going to be some rebuilding that has to happen. Physically, reconstruction of burned-out and damaged police stations and infrastructure. But also institutionally; basic functions of civil society will need to be rebuilt after years of neglect.

One key sign of progress will be corruption prosecutions, taking back ill-gotten gains and punishing officials who skimmed billions off the top. From Cairo, Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman reports.

Mitchell Hartman: Demonstrations by Cairo’s office workers pop up all over the place these days, attracting a crowd and snarling traffic. It’s people demanding higher wages, and an end to corruption in the workplace.

Maged Ghorab is 32. He’s been working as a sports writer at one of Cairo’s leading dailies for six years, but he’s still considered a temporary ‘trainee,’ and makes less than $200 a month.

Maged Ghorab (via translator): He said the daughter of the editor-in-chief, his daughter just got employed here after two months of when she graduated from her university. Why don’t they treat us like their own sons or daughters?

The reason is a culture of nepotism and corruption, ingrained for generations. It starts with petty acts of favoritism and bribery — like paying a few coins to park illegally or a few day’s wages to get a birth certificate. It extends all the way to multi-million-dollar bent land deals and sweetheart contracts between government ministers and the businessmen they made into tycoons.

Negad El Borai: We have now five tycoons behind bars because of corruption. One of them is very popular, what you call ‘The King of Iron’ or ‘Iron King,’ Ahmed Ezz…

That’s Egyptian lawyer Negad El Borai, and he probably knows more than anybody about official corruption. He ran a USAID-backed project to investigate shady dealing, until U.S. funding ran out last year.

El Borai: Thirty years in power can make a lot of corrupted people. I believe that at least we still have more than 200 persons who need an immediate investigation about their money.

Yep, he said 200 — and he thinks the illegal profits that should be seized are in the multi-billions of dollars.

So far, though, there are just a handful of former ministers in prison awaiting trial. And the military has asked foreign governments to freeze the assets of only President Mubarak and a few in his entourage. Which explains why youth leaders who took this revolution to Tahrir Square called in a press conference yesterday for more heads to roll.

Press conference: We stress the need to quickly purge all state institutions, and figures of corruption, of the former regime, including the incumbent and former ministers, governors and chief of press…

El Borai, the lawyer, is realistic about the challenge. He says the problem isn’t Egypt’s judicial system — there’s a strong legal tradition and many sitting judges who remain uncorrupted.

But he asks, even if the generals want to hit corruption hard, will they risk sacking all the Mubarak-era ministers, and their little deputies too — not to mention go after powerful business interests in sectors like construction, tourism, transportation?

El Borai: If we don’t reach to a real and fully democratic regime, and transparency and freedom of media, I think the corruption will be back again. Because as you know, corruption lives only in the dark places. If you are in the dark, live in the dark, then corruption will grow.

And in the long run, that could hurt Egypt’s economy even more than the recent revolution has, by convincing foreign investors and multinational corporations that Egypt will never be a place where they can play by the rules — and win.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

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