The key to real change in the Middle East: police reform

When will they be reformed? M.Soli, CC BY-SA

The recent Justice Department report into policing in Ferguson was scathing about the Missouri force’s bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement. Its findings have resonated with minority communities across America – from Michigan and Washington to California – who have long felt that their police services are predatory rather than protective.

These American concerns are also reminiscent of the event that many acknowledge to have been the symbolic catalyst for the Arab Spring: the self-immolation of the street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, an act undertaken to protest harassment by the police.

Similarly, the Egyptian protesters who took to Tahrir Square in early 2011 were mobilized in part by images of 28-year old Khaled Said, who was brutally beaten to death by police in Alexandria.

So what has changed in the last four years?

At first glance, it seems, not much. In February, the world witnessed the heartbreaking pictures of activist Shaima Al-Sabbagh in her final moments – a young, peaceful protester gunned down by the Egyptian police. Although it now appears that the Egyptian judiciary has taken some action toward accountability given the widespread publicity and outrage that Shaima’s murder generated, most acts of police brutaility in Egypt are committed with impunity.

At the same time, the lawlessness unleashed by the Arab Spring has made people long for public order. And this, in turn, strengthens the hand of authoritarian forces and unreformed security services who promise to protect citizens from chaos.

The threat of terrorism – think the devastating attack on the art museum in Tunisia – gives them further justification. In other instances – here Libya is a good example – the lack of security allows extra-state militias to argue that they cannot disarm so long as the central government cannot protect citizens.

The point I want to argue here is that Arabs’ aspirations for legitimate government and dignity will remain a distant hope so long as police forces remain unprofessional and unaccountable.

Fear of police

Police forces throughout the Arab world have long been synonymous with authoritarian control and abuses that start with daily, petty harassment and corruption but more than often rise to practices such as unlawful detention, torture, and even killing.

While in the US there is a deep gulf of mistrust between certain minority communities -— especially African-Americans, of whom 64% have only some, very little or no confidence in the police, according to Gallup surveys -— in Arab countries most citizens fear and loathe, and certainly do not trust, the police.

In the Arab Barometer survey conducted in 2006-2007 in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, nearly 40% of participants expressed little to no trust in the police.

During the revolution of 2011, Egyptian protesters attacked police stations, a hated symbol of Mubarak’s rule. Police retreated from the streets in fear of the public, and crime went up. In fact, two in five Egyptians after the revolution said they didn’t feel safe walking alone at night, twice as many as before the revolution.

Now the old, unreformed police are back on the streets.

Police recruits in countries such as Egypt are are often drawn from rural areas and have low levels of education, while regimes like that of Bahrain have relied on foreigners (Pakistani nationals and others) to staff their security services.

Officers are poorly paid and trained. They are under the control of politicized Interior ministries deeply steeped in decades of practices designed to exercise control and instill fear rather than to ensure the well-being of individuals and communities.

One researcher has noted that the Mubarak-era security sector had over 1 million personnel, including up to 850,000 policemen and Interior Ministry staff, 30,000–100,000 State Security Investigations Service agents, up to 450,000 conscripts in the paramilitary Central Security Force, and 300,000–400,000 paid informers. These numbers, to all accounts, have barely changed. This basic architecture of policing has remained unreformed.

If police reform is an indicator of the progress of democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, then even democratic front-runner Tunisia has only taken baby steps.

The problem is that these countries are caught in a vicious cycle. Yes, Arab citizens want a just police force. But they also long for law and order in the context of chaotic and often violent post-Arab Spring transitions. Interior Ministries can, therefore, easily capitalize on the widespread public desire for stability and avoid reform.

In other words, democratic institutions cannot take root so long as there is no provision of security. But at the moment the only providers of security are the corrupt and undemocratic police. This situation only strengthens the impetus toward authoritarianism.

The case of Libya

Libya – where non governmental militias perform most police functions – provides the starkest illustration of this cycle.

I witnessed this dilemma firsthand at the end of 2013 in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. My taxi driver and I were witness to a store robbery carried out by heavily armed men.

In the aftermath of the event, there was no response. Nor were there sirens to be heard the next day when the Russian Embassy in Tripoli was attacked.

That same driver took me to the airport shortly after the attack on the embassy, and observed that while he supported the revolution, he longed for the law and order that prevailed under former Libyan dictator Muammer Qadhafi (though he quickly offered the disclaimer that he was by no means pro-Qadhafi).

The choice should not have to be one between police that abuse human rights on one hand and chaos in the streets on the other. Sadly, many Arabs have come to see it as such, and authoritarian regimes have an interest in keeping things that way. But police repression and abuse only offer an illusory kind of stability, because they reinforce the idea that a key state institution is illegitimate in the eyes of the public.

Why police reform matters

Democratic legitimacy only has a chance in the region if police forces are reformed so that they see themselves as as citizens serving citizens. Professionalism and internal and external accountability must govern police practice.

Reform in this direction was critical to the successful democratic transformation of post-communist countries such as Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovenia.

Much like Arab states, communist-era police and security services were used to assure regime control over citizens through surveillance and harassment – and sometimes worse. After the fall of communism in 1989, the new governments undertook security sector reform (mandated by the EU, which they sough to join.)

While problems remain and levels of trust toward police are still lower than they are in Western Europe, the building of accountable, legitimate police has helped legitimize democratic institutions and bridge the gap between state and society in post-communist countries.

In contrast, in the countries of the former Soviet Union (with the exception of the Baltic states), such reform never happened.

Last summer, I taught a course in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and one night, while walking home on a dark stretch of street, was accosted and roughed up by a band of corrupt police officers seeking to extract a bribe.

It was a deeply humiliating experience, one that made me understand, at least to a very modest degree, the humiliation and anger felt by citizens in the US, Middle East, and around the world who have been victims of police abuse.

I remember thinking at the time that in many ways it would have felt better to be assaulted by criminals than uniformed police, the very people who are supposed to protect you.

The dreams of those who took to the streets throughout the Arab world nearly four years ago to demand justice will never be realized until police forces and the institutions that oversee them undergo serious reform.

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