The keys to change across the Arab world

Transparency, accountability and citizen’s rights must take centre stage in new constitutions across the region.

Protests in Egypt
Disregard for the people’s wishes led to massive protests in Egypt demanding civil rights [EPA]

As Tahrir Square fills up again with angry, disillusioned and disappointed citizens, those in power in the Arab world and those who wish to gain power through the ballot box in 2012 should ask themselves one question: How can the next generation of Arab leaders deliver the better world their citizens so courageously demand?

New and old leaders alike must stop the violence and tackle the fundamental problems that created the conditions for inequality, poverty, corruption and repression.

There are three key opportunities for the next generation of parliamentarians to convince their people that they are committed to real reform.

First, transparency, accountability and citizen’s rights must take centrestage in the new constitution that they will draft.

Second, rules to keep corruption in check as outlined in the United Nations Convention against Corruption and that have already been ratified by 140 countries, including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, must be implemented. Enforcing the Convention, which criminalises bribery and outlines specific laws to curb corruption, would be a strong first step to creating a more equal world. It would also give governments their crucial legitimacy and answer the protests of the people to tackle the corruption that blighted daily life.

And third, all those who abused power in the former regime must be held accountable. Perpetrators should be brought to justice and the assets they stole returned to the country. Clear signals need to be sent that nobody is above the law.

The interim leaders in Egypt can start today by supporting a new constitution that does not put the military above elected politicians and by repealing Law 84 that restricts the role of civil society organisations.

These moves are vitally important. Creating a safe and open space for people and organisations to express their views without government intervention should be a priority across the region. The people were the catalyst for the revolutions and they must be allowed to be the conscience of those who now take over through the ballot box.

That is why removing Law 84 in Egypt is so necessary and why the campaigns against non-governmental organisations and bloggers must stop across the region. Citizens need ways to hold their governments to account.

In Tunisia and Egypt, people queued for hours to cast their ballots, showing their hunger to play a role in shaping their future and a belief that their votes would lead to change. Their representatives have the responsibility not to disappoint them.

The process of drafting new constitution will play an important role in enshrining citizen’s rights. But how these constitutional pledges are fulfilled by a country’s institutions, its judiciary, laws and its parliament gives the words their power. Indeed, today many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa have strong legislation. The problem was that it was never implemented.

The United Nations Convention against Corruption, for example, is clear on what is needed to end the impunity that allowed the powerful to abuse their positions to accumulate wealth. It provides a template for comprehensive, well-defined laws to prevent bribery and cronyism. It also provides a legal framework for facilitating the repatriation of stolen assets, a top priority which has become a symbol of the change that has swept the region.

People around the world have a right to hold their governments to account. The ballot box and a vibrant civil society are the best way to do this. But the lessons from recent history are clear: listen to the people, or risk being overtaken by them.

Huguette Labelle is the Chair of Transparency International, the anti-corruption non-governmental organisation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.