Corruption in the Arab world
Why are most Arabs so prepared to trust the military?

Why do so many people in Arab countries trust the armed forces, even though most armies in the region are highly corrupt? Abdalhadi Alijla has the answers

Do people in the Arab region tend to trust transparent and corruption-free institutions more than others? That is what you would expect, but the opposite appears to be the case.

According to the Arab Barometer from 2018-2019, 49.4% of people in Algeria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Kuwait, Sudan, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen put a huge amount of trust in their armed forces, while 26% put considerable trust in their armed forces. In the same survey, 47.3% of respondents who said that they had a high level of trust in the armed forces also replied by saying that corruption at a national level was very high in their countries, while 52.2% of them believed levels of corruption to be average.

In Egypt, for instance, 57% of Egyptians polled in 2018 said that they put great trust in the army, while 27.3% put considerable trust in their armed forces. Strikingly, 48% of respondents who said that they had a high level of trust in the army believed that corruption in the country was extreme. The majority of those surveyed tended to believe that there is corruption to a large extent at a national level (formal institutions): 74% of Iraqis, 59% of Lebanese, 77% of Libyans, 42% of Moroccans, 46% of Sudanese, 74% of Tunisians and 33% of Yemenis.

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High risk of corruption in MENA countries

Based on data from the Government Defence Integrity Index (GDI), which measures five corruption risk factors: political, personal, operational, financial and procurement, the vast majority of MENA countries at a high risk of corruption. GDI categorises corruption risks from A to F, where F is the highest risk of corruption, and A is the lowest. Most MENA countries are at critical or very high risk of corruption.

Arab barometer infographic from 2018-2019 shows public approval ratings for the armed forces throughout the Arab world (source: arabbarometer.org/opendemocracy.net)
High approval for the military despite despite rampant corruption: "Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are at critical risk of corruption in their defence sector, while Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, and UAE are at a high risk of corruption in the same sector. Are citizens of these countries aware of the corruption within the defence sector, or do they prefer to turn a blind eye, since the army remains the most powerful institution in the country?" asks Abdalhadi Alijla

Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are at critical risk of corruption in their defence sector, while Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, and UAE are at a high risk of corruption in the same sector.

Compared to the data from the Arab Barometer, we find that the countries at critical risk of corruption put high levels of trust in the army. For instance, in Tunisia, which is the only MENA country which scored a “D”, 69% trust the armed forces, although 74% of them believe that corruption is rife in the country. Tunisia’s risk of corruption level would appear to indicate a slight improvement within the defence sector.

A need for security? Heroism? Militarism?

This contradictory attitude to corrupt institutions that have not only been abusing their power and exploiting the economy, but also evade scrutiny and oversight under the pretext of confidentiality and national security raises the question as to why people tend to trust what they perceive to be corrupt. Do they prioritise security? Heroism? Militarism?

Are citizens of these countries aware of the corruption within the defence sector, or do they prefer to turn a blind eye, since the army remains the most powerful institution in the country? In fact, many people do know about the corruption in the military, but do not speak out because they fear extreme punishment. By extension, corruption cases are not covered by the media, meaning the general public remains ignorant of their existence.

The data demonstrates that the perception of corruption at a national level in MENA countries does not include the defence sector and the armed forces. The high levels of trust towards the armed forces compared to other political and judicial institutions reflects a contradiction in the perception of corruption.

A breach of trust between the armed forces and civil society

It seems that citizens in the MENA region exclude the army from their perception of corruption, perceiving it as a separate entity from the government, parliament and judicial. The perception of the armed forces as a unique institution means a trust gap between civilian institutions and military institutions in the region.

The glorification of the army, selling it as the saviour of the nation from external and internal enemies, appears to work as a strategy of manipulation. Civil-military relations in MENA should be examined by asking how the military is being presented to the public through the media.

One significant component of the GDI is the accessibility of information about the defence sector. According to the GDI, this data is kept extremely secret in all MENA countries (except Tunisia), so the media, journalists and civil society organisations find it impossible to criticise the military.

Egyptians delight in the appearance of an army helicopter in Cairo's Heliopolis district in July 2013 (photo: DW/A. Hamdy)
The military as perceived guarantor of stability and order in socially divided and politically polarised states: "The glorification of the army, selling it as the saviour of the nation from external and internal enemies, appears to work as a strategy of manipulation. Civil-military relations in MENA should be examined by asking how the military is being presented to the public through the media," writes Abdalhadi Alijla

Local media are prohibited (by law in most MENA countries) to publish any data on the defence sector as it is considered confidential, and in most cases undermines national security. However, it is possible to uncover corrupt practices within civil bodies. In most cases, such corruption scandals are used as a political tool to gain public support, such as in Lebanon.

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The army "as saviour of the Egyptian people"

In divided societies and politically polarised states (such as in Lebanon, Tunisia, or Iraq), the military adopts a corporate national identity. In these cases, the army presents itself as an entity that unites all the factions and sects. There is a concerted effort by the military to present itself as the guardian of unity that brings all sects and colours of the society together.

Such a strategy aims to present the army to the people as a model among the failing civilian institutions, protecting the stability of the country. The process of creating a corporate national identity comes either through the experience of civil war or a professional military. For example, in Egypt, the army presents itself with a corporate national identity as the saviour of the people, providing security, fighting terrorists and also providing affordable goods to civilian markets.

In conclusion, the level of trust in the armed forces is a result of long strategies that include the creation of national corporate identities, preventing and punishing access to information, while cultivating a lack of openness towards the people.

Although the armed forces enjoy a high level of trust, the figures do not mean that there is no corruption within these armies. Rather, they indicate a very deep rift between the military and the general public.

Abdalhadi Alijla

© OpenDemocracy 2020

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