Despite the costly efforts of Arab activists and citizens over the past decade of the Arab Uprisings, today no Arab state can claim to be fully democratic. Two countries, Egypt and Tunisia, traveled farthest down the path towards democracy, and Tunisia witnessed ten years of democratic elections–but today neither country protects the rights of citizens nor permits political freedoms. For many Arabs, though, the greatest shortcoming of their political reforms movements was the failure to root out persistent elite corruption. In my book, Making Democracy Safe for Business: Corporate Politics During the Arab Uprisings, I show how powerful business groups undermined efforts by democratic reformers to end corruption relationships between political and economic elites. As elite bias persisted after democratic transitions, Arab citizens came to doubt the promises of democratic reform, putting the future of democracy in the region in jeopardy.
The Middle East and North Africa, where most of the world’s Arab speakers live, is at the same time one of the most authoritarian and corrupt regions in the world. Even after decades of research, scholars are not completely sure of the link between authoritarian government and corruption, but it is clear that more democratic countries are less corrupt on average. There are notable exceptions, such as Singapore, a country that has low levels of corruption and has been a single party state since independence. The longitudinal survey data of the Arab Barometer shows that Arab residents overwhelmingly believe their institutions are corrupt; approximately 80 percent of respondents in 2019 reported that they believe there is at least a “medium to large extent” of corruption in their governing institutions.
When the Arab Spring protests first surfaced in Egypt and Tunisia in early 2011, many people in the region and outside of it thought that the massive scale of these movements might lead to lasting change. The rallying cry of the protests—bread, freedom and social justice—captured the desires of the masses for not only civil liberties but also an economic system based on fair exchange. Given that democracies are less corrupt, it made sense that transitions to democracy that occurred in Egypt and Tunisia later in 2011 would lead to more transparent and accountable governments. These changes, though, never occurred—according to Transparency International’s widely-used corruption rankings, the corrupt practices by government officials between 2011 and 2022 worsened rather than improved. Nepotism, bribery, corrupt government contracts and biased business regulations are no better now than after the Arab Uprisings.
In my book I explain this puzzle by studying the political strategies of businesspeople following the massive protests movements of 2011 in Egypt and Tunisia. Initially, democratic reformers targeted corrupt businesspeople in prominent court cases, leading to prosecutions and the expropriation of ill-gotten gains, including from Tunisia’s former president’s family. However, the attention of reform movement leaders quickly turned to the tasks of building a democratic regime such as party formation and competing in elections instead of untangling the complex web of business connections to corrupt state officials. Politicians in Egypt and Tunisia were quite aware that the legitimacy of their new democracies rested on supplying jobs to citizens, and some business leaders warned that anti-corruption probes would scare established companies away from investment.
Businesspeople did not only make arguments to politicians to protect their interests, they also ran their own campaigns. Both Tunisia and Egypt witnessed the rise of powerful anti-democratic coalitions around two to three years after the democratic transitions in 2011, and big business participated in both coalitions as donors and by running in elections as candidates. For a brief period in Tunisia in 2015, the anti-Islamist and subtly pro-authoritarian party Nidaa Tounes held an outright majority of seats and had the backing of big conglomerates like the Elloumi and Mabrouk Groups. This coalition successfully halted the investigation of corrupt government contracting under the old regime and ambitious efforts to overhaul Tunisia’s opaque regulatory environment, appeasing established companies while hurting young entrepreneurs who wanted to create innovative startups.
The culture of corruption that these political movements protected undermined support for democratic institutions. Today Arabs are less likely to believe that democratization will bring economic opportunity than they were prior to the Arab Uprisings. Tunisia enjoyed ten years of relatively open freedom of expression and assembly after its democratic transition in 2011, but as I document in my book, saw little change in the control of conglomerates over much of the economy. For young Tunisians without political connections or prominent family background, obtaining entry-level employment in established companies could be near impossible.
As I argue in the book, though, the survival of corruption after transitions does not mean that businesspeople necessarily want democracy to collapse. Democratic institutions in Tunisia survived much longer than Egypt, where a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected government after only two years. Tunisia’s experience with corruption shows that businesspeople can make democratic institutions work for them by insinuating themselves into electoral competition, permitting a corrupted democracy to continue. Egypt’s much earlier democratic downfall can be traced to its autonomous military that spearheaded the anti-democratic movement. The military’s massive economic holdings, which have only increased since the coup, have pushed businesspeople to support its authoritarian project or risk losing their access to government contracting and other perks.
In Tunisia, business influence corrupted institutions, which led to anti-democratic sentiment as people grew frustrated with the slow pace of reform. In Egypt, businesspeople participated in ending democracy and building a new dictatorship in order to preserve their lucrative relationship to state officials. In both cases businesses were engaged in securing the relationships with government officials they need to survive rather than implementing an ideological project. Business leaders do not need to have ideological reasons to oppose democracy; they only need to preserve their corporate interests to weaken democracy and increase support for authoritarianism. Until reform movements are able to fully expose corrupt relationships between business elites and government officials, democracy on its own will not deliver what Arabs want: both political freedom and economic fairness.