Sweep corruption from Egypt's past

Punishing the old regime's high-level corruption is a top priority for Egypt, but so is rooting out pervasive small-time abuse of office.

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New leadership opens the way to many changes in a country; not least renewing the battle against corruption. All governments claim to fight abuse of office, but new brooms truly can sweep clean old regimes' practices.

In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi and the Islamist parliament would do their country - and their parties - a great service by rooting out corrupt practices as a priority. This is, to be sure, a formidable task, but one that promises great rewards. In any country, abuse of office for personal gain, by a local constable or a minister or anyone in between, corrodes society, discourages investment and generates other forms of crime.

Public attention has focused on the riches amassed illegally at the highest levels of the old regime. As The National reports today, many in Egypt are certain that former president Hosni Mubarak and his family stole multiple billions of dollars, but investigators have so far identified only a few hundred million in family assets.

That's more than enough to interest prosecutors, and Mubarak's cronies are also drawing close scrutiny. But the public perception of Mubarak's untold wealth is already challenging Egyptian confidence in the new government's zeal or ability to recover the money.

Two other issues loom beyond this. The first is the military, which has its own vast complex of commercial assets and investments, operating with little or no civilian oversight. How deeply will elected politicians be able to look into its practices?

The struggle to deal with the second issue can probably be started sooner, though it will not be won quickly: it is the lower-level corruption that taxes ordinary Egyptians any time they need a permit, go to court, or otherwise brush up against officialdom. Rooting this out will demand legislation, enforcement, an involved judiciary, reductions to the bloated civil service, more transparency and a range of other steps.

It all starts with probity and determination at the top. Corruption spreads more easily down the hierarchy of government; when the highest offices are abused for personal gain, often at great expense to public welfare or the treasury, this perverse ethos will ripple rapidly down.

Reform can travel the same way. When those who stole millions are exposed and punished, and new leaders are seen to be clean, then those who steal smaller amounts will get the message soon enough.