POMED Notes: “Security Sector Transformation in North Africa and the Middle East”
On Thursday, May 10, 2012, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) held a conference entitled “Security Sector Transformation in North Africa and the Middle East.” In the first panel, featuring representatives from the region, the speakers were: Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Tunisia; Magda Boutros, Criminal Justice Reform Director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; Dr. Murhaf Jouejati, Chairman of the National Consensus Movement and Member of the Syrian National Council; Najila Elmangoush, former member of the National Transitional Council’s Public Engagement unit in Libya, Rana Jarhum, human rights activist in Yemen; and Hesham Sallam, a researcher at Georgetown University and in Egypt. In the second panel, featuring former U.S. ambassadors to the region, the speakers were: Ambassador Rust Deming, former U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia (2000-2003); Ambassbador Deborah Jones, former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait (2008-2011); Ambassador Thomas Riley, former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco (2003-2009); and Ambassador Barbara Bodine, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen (1997-2001).
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDFDr. Radwan Masmousi began his remarks by mentioning that there is considerable debate within Tunisia today regarding whether what happened in January 2011 was a revolution or the beginning of a period of reform. He asserted that, because some parts of the former regime remain in place today, Tunisia cannot be said to have had a complete revolution. This “halfway” state, according to Masmoudi, means that the overall security situation in Tunisia is generally more stable. In reality, he explained, only a few people at the top of government ministries have been removed. While this may be problematic in some ways, the general attitude among Tunisians is to “forgive and forget” and to try to build a new Tunisia based on reconciliation and inclusiveness. Masmoudi added that Tunisia has benefited greatly from having a professional, clean, nationalist army that has historically stayed out of politics. Police forces, however, have typically been very corrupt and complicit in torture, corruption, and general mismanagement. Masmoudi outlined the dilemma that the country needs police to maintain security, but also needs to clean up the security forces so that they behave as a republican force that protects the people and respects national laws. Tunisians expect to see justice, according to Masmoudi; the problem, however, is that the justice system was also complicit in the former regime’s crimes – many judges were corrupt judges and institutions were deeply flawed.
Dr. Masmoudi concluded by acknowledging that the transition period will of course be difficult, since many institutions have to be rebuilt. As such, Tunisia will need considerable support from the United States, Europe, and the broader international community. Although Tunisia has received promises for economic and other assistance, very little has been delivered to date. He finished: “it is vital and critical that Tunisia succeeds.
Next, Magda Boutros addressed Egypt, explaining that Egypt has historically been a security state with institutions that faced little or no public accountability. This security state, in Boutros’ view, is what Egyptians rose up against in January 2011. She outlined three broad components to the security state: the police, the army, and the intelligence agencies. Regarding the police, Boutros stated that the main problem is that people do not feel secure on the streets. She stressed the need for more robust oversight mechanisms, explaining that there is an urgent need to reform the police in broad and meaningful ways, rather than selective and symbolic ones. Regarding the army, Boutros explained that after having taken control of the state following the 2011 uprising, the army now seems willing to transfer power to civilian hands. However, it wants to safeguard important privileges, particularly economic interests (with little or no oversight). On the intelligence agencies, Boutros stressed the need to ensure that the operations of intelligence actually remain strictly in intelligence. She concluded that the security sector needs to be a priority for reform in Egypt today and called on getting rid of the “state of exceptionality” in which the privileged security sector exists.
Dr. Murhaf Jouejati spoke about the immediate need to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Acknowledging that there are numerous challenges facing Syria today, he began by identifying the particular need to secure stocks of weapons of mass destruction as soon as possible. He also drew attention to the common denominators between the Syrian uprising and the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. He stated that what sets Syria apart is the sectarian nature of it conflict, which is manifest in the army and security services. Furthermore, Jouejati highlighted the problem that in addition to the official state security apparatus, Syrians suffer the constant threat of the shabiha (which Jouejati defined as “death squads”). Ultimately, what Syrians want is a small, professional army whose function is to secure the country’s sovereignty, not suppress its own people. Addressing concerns related to the Free Syrian Army, Dr. Jouejati contended that the FSA really has very little command and control capability and will be ill-equipped to actually police the country if the regime were to fall. He concluded that while these are daunting challenges, the Syrian people remain energized and determined to make their voices heard. “The barrier of fear in Syria has broken,” he declared, adding that it is only a matter of time before the Assad regime collapses.
Speaking about Libya, Najila Elmangoush explained that Libyans never thought that what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt could happen in their country. As protests in Libya were growing, Elmangoush joined a group of lawyers, judges, and legal professionals that met regularly to devise communications strategies on independent media and hold seminars to educate people on conflict resolution and transitional justice issues. Elmangoush noted that there are a wide variety of daunting challenges related to security sector reform in Libya, including the fact that a considerable amount of money was smuggled out of the country during and shortly after the uprising, and that the rule of law was consistently violated under Gadhafi, which makes it more difficult to build sound and accountable institutions today. To help ensure better security in the future, Elmangoush concluded, it is important to ensure that pay for police officers is increased and that there are no religious or other divisions among the army and security forces.
On Yemen, Rana Jarhum asserted that the military is quite different than militaries elsewhere in the region since it is closely linked to tribal society. She described the strong “tribal effect,” emphasizing that blood relations are the key to acquiring and sustaining power in Yemen. Thus, to understand the army in Yemen, one must understand family and tribal relations. Helpfully, Yemen’s transition was clearly outlined by the GCC roadmap, which mandated that security forces be reformed. The army is organized geographically (North, South, East, and West), and Jarhum pointed out that this is problematic in Yemen because each region has different loyalties. In addition to the army, the Republican Guards have historically been very strong and influential in the country, as well as well-funded. All components of the security sector, Jarhum stated, have been found to use excessive force and other inhumane or corrupt practices. One central challenge, she stressed, is the need to integrate the variety of different forces under one umbrella with a coherent, trusted and unified leadership.
Lastly, Hesham Sallam provided further thoughts on Egypt. Although people willingly called Egypt’s uprising a “revolution” last year, now Sallam says that it is “embarrassingly clear” that the uprising has actually produced a military dictatorship. The people who carried out the uprising are not calling the shots in the country today, and the emergence of electoral politics has not diminished the SCAF’s role in the political arena and its ability to secure privileges from the elected civilian authority. Although there is an elected parliament today, according to Sallam, little has changed, and there are growing fears in Egypt that the country is being steered towards a system in which elected civilians have no real control over fundamental government issues. This has convinced many activists in Egypt that more important than electing civilian leadership is creating institutions that have depth and meaning. In Sallam’s view, security sector reform is at the epicenter of the reforms that Egyptians are demanding, and real security sector reform has the potential to give Egypt’s uprising depth and permanence.
Ambassador Rust Deming opened the second panel by talking about Tunisia. He noted that his first assignment in the Foreign Service was actually in Tunisia in 1966-68. After that, he then spent 30 years on diplomatic assignments in East Asia and returned in 1997 as ambassador to Tunisia. After having witnessed political change in Asia, he observed that societies with an educated, large middle class were the most likely to undergo peaceful democratic political change. Moreover, a functioning economy was of course also essential. When he arrived in Tunisia in 1997 as the U.S. ambassador there, he wondered why Tunisia had not yet experienced a broad political transition. The answers that he received, at the time, fell into two categories: first, that transitions must come about slowly and in an incremental manner, and second, that Islamists could be in a position to take power if genuine democratic processes were to take hold. When real political change did occur in Tunisia in 2011, Deming contended, secular parties were “vastly underdeveloped” and only al-Nahda had a structure and ideology with broad roots and appeal. At the time of the revolution, security forces and the justice system lacked credibility with the population, and this remains a challenge today. Other challenges ahead include writing an inclusive constitution, safeguarding freedom of expression and the press, reviving the economy, and addressing foreign policy questions involving Tunisia’s role in the Arab League and relations with U.S., among others.
Ambassador Deborah Jones (who served as U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait) made the point that in American democracy, citizens are protected by the rule of law and rights, not by family, tribe, or position in society. She noted that in the U.S., we seem to believe that we are the “last word” on democracy and called on the audience to understand that there may be other ways of designing democratic systems around the world. Jones stated that while many people debate the impact of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq on democratic development in the region, the real influence was Turkey, in which the AKP demonstrated that Islamists can lead a democratic state and that the asserted choice between “stable” authoritarians and radical Islamists is a false one. Turning to the Gulf, Jones pointed out that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervened in Yemen and Bahrain because they did not want to see chaos erupt in those places. Their response to other uprisings, however, has varied. Wealth alone is not a predictor of how an uprising or political transition will pan out, Jones emphasized, adding that tribal governance is not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, the question facing the Gulf is: for how long can Gulf governments continue to meet their citizens’ needs? Challenges that Gulf governments face, moving forward, include economic problems (particularly when citizenries feel entitled to a certain standard of living), risk associated with being affiliated with unpopular policies, and the fact that many youth are increasingly disenchanted with aging and distant regimes.
Ambassador Thomas Riley (former Ambassador to Morocco) observed that in North Africa, youth populations are large, unemployment is high, and corruption at both high and low levels is commonplace. As such, economic challenges cannot be ignored, and it is economic woes that truly frustrate the average citizen. Riley criticized the Obama administration for its poor record on following up with the impressive programs it launches. He called for the need to do honest evaluation and follow through on new initiatives. Once the local populations are empowered and feel inspired to demand political and economic change, there is no turning back, according to Riley. He also emphasized that it is the job of the U.S. to empower people around the world, not just their governments and institutions. Empowering people, he concluded, helps keep governments honest and effective.
Lastly, Ambassador Barbara Bodine remarked on Yemen. Even before President Ben Ali stepped down in Tunisia, she stated, planning for demonstrations was underway in Yemen. At that time, there was longstanding political paralysis in Yemen, and the departure of Ben Ali and Mubarak fundamentally changed Yemenis’ calculation and motivated them to call for Saleh’s departure. While there were many would-be tipping points in Yemen during the first several months of it’s uprising (such as assassination attempts), those incidents did not tip the balance. Rather, the story of Yemen is one of elite competition and stalemate. The negotiated settlement that resulted in Saleh’s resignation was a “very Yemeni approach” to the problem in that it was a long, drawn-out and chaotic process. She asserted that the first phase of the GCC agreement has been implemented reasonably well, with the situation in Sanaa much improved and parliament validating the GCC agreement. The next phase, in her view, will be more difficult: the national dialogue will be slow to get underway and remains ill-defined (who will be included? What does the South really want? Do you include the Houthis?) Security sector reform, as an explicit element of the GCC agreement, is going to be a major test of President Abdu Mansour Hadi’s leadership. It requires integrating the myriad of security forces and perhaps reallocating funding towards the general army rather than towards “boutique forces.” Lastly, Bodine stressed the importance of partnering with Yemen on what Yemenis think is important, not just what the U.S. thinks is important.