Finishing the Job: Security Sector Reform After the Arab Spring

Finishing the Job: Security Sector Reform After the Arab Spring

The Arab Uprisings were principally sparked by the brutality of the security sector in almost every single country where they occurred. In Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation following an insult by the police in December 2010 triggered the revolution. In Egypt, the June 2010 murder by two policemen of Internet activist Khaled Said, followed by the brutality of police during the fraudulent parliamentary elections of November-December 2010, set the revolution’s context. In Libya, the arrest in February 2011 of Fathy Terbil—a human rights lawyer who had represented the families of the victims of the June 1996 Abu Selim Prison massacre, in which more than 1,236 political prisoners were gunned down by Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces—sparked that country’s revolution. In Syria, abuses committed in March 2011 by Assad’s security forces, which included the pulling out of the fingernails of children and teenagers in Deraa, triggered the protests that ignited that country’s ongoing civil war. In many ways, the Arab Spring was a region-wide reaction against violations by the security services.

Throughout the decades prior to the 2011 revolutions, Arab security establishments behaved more like organized crime syndicates than professional security services. Concepts such as human rights, human security, democratic control, civilian oversight and accountability were absent from the lexicons of Arab interior and defense ministries, and any attempts to introduce them were met with brutal repression—as, for example, during the January 1992 coup against Algeria’s reformist President Chadli Bendjedid and the June 1989 coup against Sudan’s democratically elected Prime Minister Sadeq al-Mahdi. Indeed, Egyptian opposition activists unsurprisingly chose to stage the massive protests that began Egypt’s revolution on Jan. 25—Egypt’s “Police Day,” intended to “honor” the security services. “[We] wanted to ruin their party like they ruined our lives,” a young Egyptian revolutionary told me. “We had to break them . . . I wish there was another way but there wasn’t.”

Now, those security services must be fixed. Following the removal of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, security sector reform (SSR) became an immediate objective of both revolutionary and reformist forces, regardless of ideological or political affiliation. The same will apply to Syria once the Assad regime is toppled, as it will to any other potential post-despotic transition in the Arab world. How this reform process plays out will be decisive in determining the future of Arab democracy.

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