Blog Post by: Michael Wahid Hanna , on March 27, 2013
This post is excerpted from “The Seven Pillars of the Arab Future.” The full version is available at Democracy, and is reprinted here with permission.
The early days of the Arab uprisings were uncomplicated and inspiring, as they reaffirmed many Westerners’ long-held beliefs regarding universal values, human rights, and democratization. With the fall of long-standing dictators and the spread of unrest and protest, historical parallels were quickly drawn to the transformative events of 1989, which witnessed the fall of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the acceleration of events that soon thereafter led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas. This post discusses the second of those seven pillars: Education. Previously I’ve discussed the first pillar, Economic Growth and Equality, and the second pillar, Education, and provided an an introduction to the series, which offers an overview of the Arab uprising and its recent aftermath, and provides a high-level sketch of the seven pillars.
One of the major drivers of popular outrage in the Arab world has been and continues to be the repressive and brutal tactics of the security sector. Yet there is a great deal of variation among the region’s security apparatuses. In Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces have largely been focused on external security rather than repression, with such duties falling to internal security forces and mukhabarat, as the region’s intelligence services are known. This is in stark contrast to Syria, where the conscript army and elite military forces have been used to violently suppress internal dissent and armed opposition. In Libya, security-sector reform represents a unique challenge due to the proliferation of regional and independent anti-Gadhafi militias that have remained outside the scope of centralized authority. In Yemen, the balkanized security sector and its divided loyalties represent a key impediment to centralizing authority behind a reformist agenda. Other countries in the region that have not experienced regime change or transition, particularly Bahrain, have increased repression in the hopes of smothering any impetus for change.
The security sectors of the region are steeped in a brutal and corrupt culture that privileges confessions and encourages torture in the service of both maintaining regime security and policing minor crime. Those detained for petty crimes often suffer the same coercion and abuse met by citizens arrested on suspicion of oppositional activities or terrorism.
Changing the prevailing cultural norms and professional practices of sprawling security bureaucracies will take many years. The first step for any credible reform effort must be centered on vetting and removing the most corrupt officials from positions of authority. Because such steps can be destabilizing in transitioning societies, reformers may have to take a more cautious approach. In some instances (especially if retaliation is a concern), administrative reassignment might be more prudent than removing a potential offender from a sensitive position. Targeted vetting is absolutely necessary if institutional reform is to take root, as it signals intent and begins the process of establishing working norms of behavior.
Reform will also require that democratization extend to civilian control and oversight. In many countries this will necessarily be a gradual process of normalizing civil-military and civil-police relations. The early stages of transition will be critical in terms of establishing the legal frameworks governing these relationships. While no constitutional or legal order is self-executing, provisions that mandate legal and budgetary transparency are essential even if the record of compliance is incomplete for the region’s emerging democracies. In this sense, Egypt’s new constitution, which enshrines military privilege and autonomy, is a profoundly negative step that effectively places the country’s most important security institution outside civilian purview.
Training programs to increase professionalism and reform institutional culture must also be retooled and implemented, and recruitment should better reflect each society’s ethnic and sectarian composition. Additionally, establishing meritocratic promotional structures will help guard against future politicization of the security sector and decouple it from regime maintenance. Finally, monitoring and advocacy by civil society will provide a key check on abuse, and setting a durable and robust legal framework for such groups will be an important safeguard against repression.
Security-sector reform is a difficult task, but precedent for success does exist. A key example is post-apartheid South Africa, which took an ambitious, long-term approach to integrating former adversaries into the government and shrinking the size of the security sector. Similarly, the experience of post-Communist Eastern European countries is largely positive; a relapse into security-sector repression is no longer a possibility in many of these societies. The impediments to effective security-sector reform in the Arab world are numerous, but the conditions for it do exist—even, surprisingly, within the security institutions themselves, thanks to a small number of internal stakeholders who support reform as part of their efforts to professionalize their services.
Sign up for our mailing list and stay up to date on the latest happenings at The Century Foundation