Corruption on the Rise


Corruption on the Rise


Wednesday, 22 October, 2008
Attempts to curb corruption in Syria have only scratched the surface of this all-pervasive problem, local analysts say.

Syria was ranked 147 out of 180 countries in the international watchdog Transparency International’s 2008 corruption perception index, released last month. This poor placing is getting steadily worse, falling from 93rd in 2006 to 138th last year.

Of the Arab countries, only Sudan and Iraq had lower rankings in 2008, at 173 and 178 respectively.

A political analyst based in Damascus traced the spread of corruption in modern Syria to the beginning of the late president Hafez al-Assad’s rule, when favours were handed out to officials to win their loyalty and stabilise the regime.

The problem is now so widespread that it will be difficult to eliminate corrupt practices, according to analysts.

Towards the end of al-Assad’s rule, efforts began being made to root out corrupt officials. The then prime minister Mahmud al-Zuabi was sacked after being accused of corrupt practices in March 2000. The Syrian press reported that al-Zuabi, who had held office since 1987, committed suicide after his dismissal.

In 2005, President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his late father in July 2000, fired 81 judges in an apparent attempt to clean up the judiciary.

The following year, the assets of Mustafa Mero, who had served as prime minister from 2000 to 2003, as well as of officials from his government, were frozen. Once again, the allegations concerned corruption, which Mero had been specifically tasked with fighting when he was prime minister.

In recent years, the authorities have also spearheaded anti-corruption campaigns designed to tackle graft among lower-level government workers and the judiciary.

The pro-government website Syria News reported this month that Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otri had dismissed 30 government employees believed to have engaged in corrupt practices. Last week, the website also reported that the authorities had cracked down on cement traders, customs officers and officials in Tartus, who were accused of forging customs data.

Despite such efforts, many Syrians believe corruption is on the increase, and the subject is widely reported in the press. In February, the official newspaper Tishreen reported that 99 per cent of respondents believed corruption was widespread in government and in the judiciary.

Analysts say it is now accepted practice for officials to take bribes. The low salaries paid to public-sector workers makes them more susceptible to earning money on the side, especially given Syria’s difficult economic climate.

"In the past, a bribe was paid under the table in secret, but now it’s done in public,” said a Damascus-based lawyer. “It’s become a normal part of daily life.”

The political analyst explained, “To make a traffic offence disappear, to conclude a government contract, or to obtain a construction license illegally – there’s a price for everything, large or small big. The motto is that anything is possible for money."

Lawyers say that they must pay a 100 lira [two dollar] bribe to court clerks to file a case, and that judges can be paid anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of liras for favourable court decisions. Rather than pay traffic tickets, drivers often bribe police officers half of the cost of a fine.

While it is acceptable to discuss corruption in the press, there are also red lines – the media cannot mention the involvement of powerful individuals until the government publicly announces it is targeting the specific figures concerned.

Some highly-placed figures believed to benefit from corrupt practices are close to the regime. In February 2008, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Rami Makhluf, a businessman who is a cousin of President al-Assad, alleging that he benefited from public-sector corruption.

As the political analyst put it, "Corruption costs the country billions of liras a year, but putting a stop to it is a political issue. Is the regime capable of stopping it? How can that happen when the regime itself is deeply involved in corruption?"

One economist noted that as the government shifts from socialist to market economics, “mafias” with both political and financial clout are emerging as the new owners. These groups “monopolise key sectors and engage in illegal practices so as to make more profits”, he said.

The size of the grey economy can be judged from the finance ministry’s estimate last year that it lost about 3.7 billion dollars annually to tax evasion, worth about 40 per cent of the government budget.

As well as political will, a successful anti-corruption effort would require Syria to have an independent judiciary, not to mention transparency in reporting the scale of corruption.

On the need for publicly-available statistics, the economist said, "The first problem when dealing with Syrian economics is the absence of data, or the low level of confidence in official data, which make any economic analysis closer to an estimate than to the truth."

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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