News / Middle East

Security Service Reform Elusive Three Years After Arab Spring

Riot police take their positions near the site of a series of explosions in front of Cairo University April 2, 2014
Riot police take their positions near the site of a series of explosions in front of Cairo University April 2, 2014
Mohamed Elshinnawi
The Arab Spring was many things, but at its core it was a region-wide reaction against the oppressive behavior and impunity by security services across the Arab World. 

In Tunisia Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, which sparked the first Arab Spring revolt, was triggered by harassment and humiliation at the hands of a local police officer.

The uprising in Egypt started as a protest on Police Day by activists outraged over the killing of internet activist Khaled Said who died in police custody and anger over police conduct during parliamentary elections in November and December of 2010.

But now three years after the Arab Spring revolts led to governmental changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen there are few signs of improvement.  Omar Ashour, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center says reforms are long overdue.

“Targeting abuse, eradicating torture and ending the impunity of the security services while imposing effective and meaningful elected-civilian control of both the armed forces and the security establishments,” are all measures that have yet to achieved he said. 

But Ashour says carrying out those reforms in a polarized political environment is difficult. 

“Extreme political polarization can lead to the politicization of the reform process as well as to political violence. Reform also faces internal resistance, spoiler tactics by anti-reform factions within the security sector, and the limited capacity and resources of the newly elected governments,” he said.

An outline for reform

Experts say security sector reform needs two objectives; oversight and accountability over security services, and an improvement in the delivery of security and justice services.

Thomas Dempsey, Chair for security studies at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington says achieving those objectives requires a change in culture.
“We have a set of institutions that developed to serve repressive regimes, so reforming security needs to include changing their institutional culture, their value system, the way they interact with citizens that they are intended to serve,” he said.

Dempsey adds that security sector reform is not a substitute for political reform and unless the Arab Spring countries address fundamental issues of governance and democratization, human rights will continue to suffer.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Senior Associate for Middle East and North Africa at the International Center for Transitional Justice says what’s needed above all else is leadership. 

“Political will is crucial in order for the leadership to be willing to devote the necessary resources whether technical or financial. Unfortunately this political will did not exist in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen,” he said.

Civilian oversight difficult

Ashour of Brookings says Arab Spring countries have security services with long traditions and legacies and civilian oversight is something they have never had to contend with. 

“In Egypt you have a military that sees itself as the founder of the republic, so since 1954 it became above any oversight. In Libya and Yemen, you have a problem of command and control structure where security and military institutions have multiple loyalties based on sect, tribe, region and ideology, he said.” 

Ashour says an exception is Tunisia but even there police officials seeking to block reforms have been able to use strikes for example to resist change.  Still he says Tunisia has made progress. 

“It is the only Arab Spring country who has taken serious steps using multiple international experts on technical aspects of that needed reform,” he said. 
And Dempsey says if there is a lesson to be learned it’s that reforms cannot be carried out in isolation.

“One of these lessons is that you can’t reform the police in isolation of a broader process that involves the judiciary, the legal system and prisons. You can’t simply reform just one piece,” said Dempsey.

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