The fifth anniversary of the uprisings that challenged autocratic rulers in six Arab states in 2011 has generated many retrospective reflections.
Some commentators insist that analysis of ongoing social and political processes cannot be reduced to simple ‘success or failure’, as these terms understate the transformation of every dimension of the region’s politics.
Others conclude that the uprisings and their aftermath should be re-labelled an Arab Winter, rather than Spring. Instead of delivering on hopes for political reform and social justice, most governments have responded with ‘more war and violence’, as Amnesty International summarised it, “and a crackdown on people who dare to speak out for a fairer, more open society”.
Renewed repression of dissent stands in stark contrast to the eruption of pent-up anger in 2011, which focused on abusive police forces and internal security services.
But while most thoughtful commentators agree that authoritarian rule has intensified in all cases except Tunisia, they also note the severely degraded institutional cohesion and capacity that is bringing into question the resilience and very survival of several Arab Spring states – and of others that underwent earlier forms of transition following armed conflict and occupation.
Governing political structures are more closed to dialogue and their coercive agencies harsher than ever, blocking any meaningful reforms, but the states they run are also more brittle.
Nowhere is the connection between intensified authoritarianism and state brittleness more evident than in what we loosely label policing: law enforcement and the maintenance of public order.
Policing, along with the related formal criminal justice system, was already in serious disrepair even before 2011, but has degenerated far further amid tumultuous transitional politics.
The challenge now is to rebuild and reform security sectors – police, security, and paramilitary agencies and others such as customs departments – that have retreated into sullen passivity or else retrenched in aggressive hostility towards citizens and activists. But the generic frameworks through which Western governments and international organisations conventionally approach the task are inadequate.
These focus heavily on providing security sectors with technical training, management skills, codes of conduct, and procedural rules to ensure ‘democratic governance’ and ‘civilian oversight’ through financial transparency and legal and political accountability.
These outcomes are indisputably desirable, but remain highly nebulous in practice. Indeed, the overwhelming emphasis on technical approaches risks improving the security sector’s ability to deploy coercive tactics and equipment more efficiently, while reducing still further any incentives to comply with the rule of law and respect human and citizens’ rights.
Three kinds of dilemmas stand in the way of security sector reform. The first is ‘hyperpoliticisation’: Every aspect of transition becomes a zero-sum contest between rival political camps, paralysing governance.
For large numbers of citizens, government legitimacy is determined by its ability to repress political or social actors that are seen as threatening – rather than on its readiness to deliver democracy, rule of law, and human rights - resulting in a restoration of authoritarian practices.
As a result, violence becomes the ‘currency’ through which both governance and opposition are exercised. The high financial cost of modernising and professionalising security sectors poses a second, ‘political economy’ dilemma. These trends evolved from more than two decades of crony economic liberalisation and predatory privatisation, but have intensified sharply as transitions in Arab states weakened regulatory frameworks and oversight mechanisms, ‘democratising’ corruption.
And finally, Arab transitions have revealed the divergence of views and expectations within society regarding the purpose of policing.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Arab Spring: Unreformed policing hampers transitions’.