President George W. Bush has made democratization a pillar of his administration's strategy. "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny," he declared in his January 20, 2005, inaugural address.
Whether because of Bush or not, democracy has progressed in the Greater Middle East. Afghans and Iraqis marched to the polls after decades without the right to vote. Palestinians and Egyptians, too, have held contested elections after years of stilted referendums and closed campaigns. Following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese banded together to advance democracy and reform.
Progress is shaky, however, its permanence far from assured. While both Western and Arab media juxtapose bombings with democratization, the true threat to both political reform and stability in the Middle East is not terrorism, but corruption; and across the region, the problem is worsening.
Take the case of the Iraqi Kurds. Long championed as a model of liberalization, they are becoming a regional embarrassment. Rather than pursue democracy, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership is more consumed with self-enrichment. Following Iraq's defeat in 1991, the Kurds rose in rebellion against Saddam Hussein. The leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani, returned to Iraqi Kurdistan with little but respect for his family name. Fourteen years later, his personal worth is estimated at close to $2 billion. Corruption and nepotism are rife. No foreign businessman can strike a deal in his region without entering into partnership with Barzani or a favored relative. Human rights workers in Irbil say they have met Kurds imprisoned for failing to pay kickbacks. Across the region, the Barzani family conflates government, party, and personal property. Local militias uphold not the rule of law, but rather serve as Barzani's enforcers. The Kurdish Parliament, meanwhile, is flaccid; its power no greater than that of its Syrian or Libyan counterparts.
The cost of corruption goes beyond money. An embezzlement scandal sparked the 1994-97 Kurdish civil war between Barzani and his rival, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani, Iraq's current president. Barzani is not alone. With the complicity of United Nations officials and cynical politicians, Saddam Hussein siphoned off $1.8 billion from the UN's oil-for-food program. While children died for lack of medicine, he built palaces and his family members bought real estate in Amman.
Corruption has done almost as much to hobble Iraq's reconstruction as the insurgency. Former Defense Minister Hazem al-Shalaan embezzled close to $500 million in six months, audacious even by Middle Eastern standards. Such money could have been used to arm and protect Iraq's army and fight jihadists. Shaalan's colleagues in the electricity and transportation ministries also raked off millions.
Iraq is not unique. Visitors to Iran often hear students vent their frustration with professors who sell grades, doctors who extort money for treatment, and officials who use their government positions for personal enrichment. Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has cornered the lucrative pistachio trade. Revolutionary foundations have done the same in the oil and import-export markets. Petrodollar wealth has not reached the population. In 1995, Iranian courts convicted businessmen linked to the Foundation for the Disabled and Oppressed for embezzling $400 million. Iranians, however, say the decision to press charges was more about politics than justice. Far more corruption goes unpunished. Senior Iranian officials live in luxury little different from that of the monarch they overthrew.
Palestinian ministers have also used their positions more for self-enrichment than development. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has little to show for billions of dollars in foreign aid. Critics of Israel can point to the bulldozed Gaza airport and complain about border closures, but it was not the Israeli government that built palatial mansions for Palestinian ministers or that wired PA President Yasser Arafat's wife Suha $22 million annually. In 2003, a team of American auditors estimated Arafat's net worth at $3 billion. At the time of his January 2001 assassination, Palestine Broadcasting Services director Hisham Makki had $17 million in his bank account; his monthly salary was only $1,500. In the autumn 2004 issue of Middle East Quarterly, former Palestine International Bank director Issam Abu Issa detailed the mechanism by which other Arafat aides pocketed millions of dollars. Palestinian refugees, meanwhile, live in squalor.
The situation is little different in Cairo and Amman, where President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II build palaces rather than schools. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, residents pump sewage from tanks several days per week. However, the money allocated for a more efficient sewer system has disappeared.
According to Transparency International, Oman and Israel are tied as the "cleanest" of Middle Eastern countries. However, they rank only 28th overall. The African countries of Swaziland, Malawi and Madagascar rank above Yemen, Libya and the PA. Troubled sub-Saharan Africa should not be the model to which Arab countries aspire.
Terrorism is tragic. A car bomb in Baghdad, Beirut or Basra can devastate dozens of lives. But corruption affects millions. Saddam Hussein's embezzlement condemned many thousands of children to death from preventable disease. The danger is not that the victims of corruption turn to terrorism. Mali is one of the five poorest countries on earth, and yet Freedom House ranks it as the most democratic country in the Islamic world. Mali does not produce terrorists; Saudi Arabia does.
Rather, the danger is in disillusionment. Iraqi Kurds, stifled by the corruption of their leaders, are supporting Islamist parties. While former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi describes himself as the great secularist hope, his administration's corruption drove even liberal Iraqis to vote for an Islamist alternative. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran's president not because Iranians supported his hard-line views, but because of their disgust with Rafsanjani, who, to most Iranians, is regarded as corruption incarnate. The greatest political beneficiary of PA corruption has been Hamas. Likewise, Turks swept Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party to power not because they endorsed its religious vision, but because of anger with the endemic corruption of the mainstream parties.
When Islamists come to power, democracy takes a hit. So too do liberalism, women's rights and tolerance. Washington may preach democracy; Arab reformers may debate whether reform should be gradual, rapid, top-down or bottom-up. But until Arab citizens hold their leaders accountable, in the press, on the Internet, and on the street, the democracy debate will be moot.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.