Friday, February 17, 2012

Security Sector Reform

Andrew Exum and Dana Stuster call for a stronger emphasis on security sector reform over at the Sada blog. They argue, “the United States must bolster its relations with nascent democratic institutions like the new parliaments and start with what many of the citizens of these countries are demanding: reform of the internal security services.”

I absolutely agree.

When folks think about supporting political reform, there is a tendency to focus on the institutions that symbolize democracy (parliaments, elections, judiciaries, etc) and the people who demand democracy (activists, journalists, politicians, etc). And of course, that focus is justifiable. But we often lose sight of other less intuitive ways in which we can promote democratic transitions – like engaging with the security services.

Egyptian Central Security Forces take a break. I watched them beat protesters a few minutes later.

In many authoritarian countries, the security services can be downright brutal. The face of the dictator may be on all the posters in the streets, but it is the police who actually patrol those streets and interact with the citizens who live on them. They are the ones who wield the tools of daily oppression, and the hatred people feel towards them can therefore be quite potent. For some, the police are seen less as fellow citizens than as pigs with batons. It is not surprising then that the security services are too often viewed only as obstacles to reform instead of subjects to be reformed.

From the US perspective, it’s simply not sexy to focus on security sector reform. Both the government and NGOs need to sell their democracy promotion “product” to their constituencies and funders. And it’s much easier to sell a program that trains journalists how to write about a beat than one that trains the police how to patrol one. After all, when we think about what makes a democracy, we would rarely place the police high on the list, if they make it on the list at all. But democracy does not work without security. As Exum and Stuster contend, “if democracy is to succeed, police forces in Tunisia and Egypt need to have the competence to maintain order” without becoming the “vehicles of state repression as they have been in years past.”

There is currently a split in the DC policy community over how to push authoritarian allies towards political reform. One camp argues its best to place pressure on repressive governments by limiting or cutting our ties with them. The other camp argues that the US would lose its leverage with repressive governments if it were to cut ties, so it is better to push for reform as part of a comprehensive relationship. Both camps offer valid arguments, and much depends on the particular situation and how we actually use our leverage.

But at least for cases like Tunisia and Egypt, the critical need for security reform calls for greater US engagement. Yes, the US could also face the usual criticism of hypocrisy, and many will cite it as one more example of the US abandoning its principles to get cozy with repressive governments. So be it. If we can help these countries build an accountable, representative, and professional security sector, it will be worth it.

You can also read this blog in Arabic (هذه الصفحة باللغة العربية)

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