In December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi grew so frustrated with inequality and corruption in the Tunisian government that he set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid, 100 miles south of the capital Tunis, and sparked a series of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa which became known as the Arab Spring.
Yet over a decade later, the corruption that this Tunisian vegetable vendor felt so acutely is still causing civil unrest and violence.
The Tunisian president has taken control of the judiciary, shut down anti-corruption institutions and arrested protesters. In the summer of 2022, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of central Tunis and called on President Kais Saied to stop autocratic rule.
Today, civil unrest in Tunisia continues and citizens have voted with their feet – just 11.2 per cent of voters cast their ballots at the most recent parliamentary elections.
Tunisia: calls grow for president to step down after latest low election turnout
Transparency International's 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which ranks countries in terms of public sector corruption, released today, shows how the Middle East and North Africa region exemplifies how corruption fuels violence and conflict.
Personal connections, known as wasta in Arabic, bribery and the stratification of society are corrupt systems used in the Middle East that empower the few.
"The spread of political corruption is a main reason for the spread of grand and petty corruption due to the absence of accountability mechanisms, especially social accountability," Transparency International told MEMO.
"In such systems, public officials believe they are the ultimate power and above the law. In democratic systems public officials are considered to be public "servants", under huge scrutiny and monitored by taxpayers, minimising corruption."
Libya is incapacitated, according to Transparency International, which has allowed inequality and corruption to take hold amid ongoing unrest which began during the Arab Spring.
Leaders have failed to establish a democratic state following the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, which has led to civil war between armed groups, elites battling for oil resources and corrupt public officials looking out for themselves whilst ordinary people cannot access basic services.
In war-torn Yemen and Syria, the lowest ranked countries in the world on the index, corruption is diminishing the availability of resources for the people most in need and instead funnelling them to the people in power. In Yemen, two thirds of the country are in dire need of food whilst Syria faces a cholera outbreak as well as a shortage of clean water, health care and food.
Jordan has dropped two points on this year's index. The government has repressed journalists using the state of emergency put in place after the pandemic, which in return has fuelled public mistrust in authorities.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost of living crisis have exacerbated corruption in this region.
"The conflict impacted the world economy, and with economic crisis comes corruption," Transparency International told MEMO. "Every region will face new risks for corruption. The Middle East and North Africa in particular already faces ongoing war, conflict and instability, which incapacitates systems and opens more opportunities for corruption."
READ: 'Equality Now' calls on MENA governments to urgently review sex discriminatory laws
Nearly 80 per cent of countries in the Middle East and North Africa rank below 50 on the index, where zero is the most highly corrupt and 100 is clean. Even the three Arab states which score above 50 – the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi – show signs of decline.
"To stop the cycle of violence and corruption, leaders across the Middle East and North Africa must reverse the trend of authoritarianism and open space for all people to participate in decision-making," Transparency International said.
"State institutions must exist to combat corruption and provide support for those most in need, rather than siphoning off public resources to consolidate power for the elite few. After years of stagnation, this year's CPI decrease must be a wake-up call to take on urgent reforms and protect fundamental rights and freedoms across the region."
The first principle governments should adhere to is separation of powers to guarantee that the legislative, executive and judicial branches all oversee each other," Transparency International told MEMO. "In addition, free and fair elections, enabled by social accountability and freedom of speech, are critical. Protections for civil society, media and whistleblowers allow them to hold government accountable."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.