Speculation over a potential military intervention in Egypt’s current conflict provides a timely reminder that security sector reform is prerequisite of genuine democratization. Drawing on months of interviews with police, army, and intelligence officers, Omar Ashour casts new light on the political dynamics of the process.
Successful democratic transitions hinge on the establishment of effective civilian control of the armed forces and internal security institutions. The transformation of these institutions from instruments of brutal repression and regime protection to professional, regulated, national services – security sector reform (SSR) – is at the very center of this effort. In Egypt, as in other transitioning Arab states and prior cases of democratization, SSR is an acutely political process affected by an array of different actors and dynamics. In a contested and unstable post-revolutionary political sphere, the reform of Egypt’s security sector requires urgent attention.
Egypt’s revolution of January 2011 was sparked by the brutality of deposed president Hosni Mubarak’s police and security forces. The most notorious and feared divisions of this security apparatus, State Security Investigations (SSI) and the Central Security Forces (CSF), quickly became the target of revolutionary actors across the political spectrum. The SSI’s longstanding record of unlawful detentions, disappearances, and systematic torture was well known; its “Human Rights Unit” was tasked not with protecting rights, but monitoring and repressing rights activists. The CSF, meanwhile, was seen as the armed enforcer of the regime’s will – stuffing ballot boxes or quelling demonstrations as needed.
The cause of overhauling these institutions to ensure effective governance, oversight, and accountability has been taken up by a range of stakeholders since the revolution, with varying degrees of success. Civil society actors have taken the lead, and one promising project is the National Initiative to Rebuild the Police Force (NIRP). The emergence within the police force of a cadre of reformist officers is also encouraging and may help shift the balance of power within the Ministry of Interior. These officers have established reformist organizations, such as the General Coalition of Police Officers and Officers But Honorable, and begun to push for SSR themselves. The prospects for implementing these civil society and internal initiatives, however, remain uncertain; they focus on admirable ends but are less clear on the means of implementation. They also have to reckon with strong elements within the Ministry of Interior – “al-Adly’s men” (in reference to Mubarak’s longstanding minister) – who remain firmly opposed to reform.
Government-led security sector reform initiatives have proved similarly problematic. After his appointment as minister of interior in March 2011, Mansour Issawi sacked hundreds of generals and disbanded the SSI. However, many have criticized his reforms as cosmetic – the new National Security Apparatus continues many of the SSI’s practices, and officers’ past abuses remain largely unpunished. From January 2012, a new parliament dominated by former (largely Islamist) dissidents – themselves victims of police brutality – took up the cause of SSR and approved amendments to the Law on the Organization of the Police. Again, though, there were criticisms of the reforms as insufficiently comprehensive, and the work of the parliament was in any case cut short when the body was disbanded by a Constitutional Court ruling.
The major obstacle to successful security sector reform in Egypt’s transition, however, has been the role played by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, an inherently SSR-averse body which retained executive powers until June 2012. Unlike in Tunisia and Libya, pro-revolution forces in Egypt did not enjoy any real power in the immediate after math of their uprising, and the country’s first freely elected parliament had a limited mandate.
The election of President Muhammad Morsi and his bold attempt to tilt the balance of power between the civilian administration and the military establishment have dealt a significant blow to opponents of security sector reform. By reclaiming executive powers for the presidency and culling Egypt’s top military brass and security sector chiefs, he has removed major obstacles to civilian control of the armed forces and security apparatuses. Furthermore, the president’s choices of ministerial appointments will allow him to advance a pro-reform agenda in key areas through ministries that wield significant, if soft, power, such as the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Parliamentary and Legal Affairs.
The paper’s final section includes recommended steps to be taken as the newly-elected government seeks to extend civilian control of the security establishment – an initiative that will be an important test both of Morsi’s administration and of Egypt’s democratic transition.
Omar Ashour is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and the Director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.
The above extract is from “From Bad Cop to Good Cop: The Challenge of Security Sector Reform in Egypt,” a paper published jointly by the Brookings Doha Center and the Program on Arab Reform at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.