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Justice and Security in the Middle East and North Africa

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On the Issues by Colette Rausch

April 5, 2011

USIP's Colette Rausch discusses the challenges to justice and security in countries undergoing transformations amid recent protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

What can we expect to see in the short term by way of justice and security challenges in Egypt, Tunisia and countries in transition from the recent upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa?

Criminality and residual violence are commonly found in most post-conflict environments, including those countries emerging from conflict or transitioning from an authoritarian regime. Crime often rises markedly after conflict, including petty crime (e.g., theft, looting), domestic violence, and violent crime (e.g., serious assaults, arson, rape, murder, kidnapping). In Egypt, there are reports of increasing crime, including kidnapping.

After such upheaval, it's not unusual for organized crime to become prevalent, including drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, smuggling of people and goods, and money laundering. Further, when regimes are ended, power battles ensue and already existing tensions can be fuelled as a tool to manipulate the public or ethnic and religious groups for a political group's own ends. This can often result in violence. For example, in Egypt, there are concerns about political aspirants playing on religious tensions between Muslims and Christians and possibly sparking divisions and violence.

The populations in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria have largely viewed the police as being a tool of the state and responsible for much of the brutality behind the crackdowns in each respective state. Is there a future for any of these police forces, and what kind of changes will they have to undergo to regain the trust of their populace?

The security sector is often tarnished following political turmoil due to the view that it helped suppress popular revolutions and engaged in human rights violations. So trust is absent, and the institutions are often in need of reform. In some cases, as we saw in Tunisia, the institutions are not functioning fully at all. During January and February, Tunisian police stations were attacked, looted and burned because of their connection to the government. Today, the police presence is absent in many locations, and crime is on the rise.

It's important to note, that in the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, the police have been slow to address the deteriorating security situation, in large part, due to their uncertain role in the new governments. There are also allegations that their response to the democratic protests leading to the toppling of their respective leaders was heavy handed and excessive. This has led to a demoralization of the police as they try to reestablish their value in the countries' dramatically altered society.

Certainly, substantial justice and security reform efforts will be necessary so that these sectors are transformed into just and fair institutions that serve the public and not solely those in power. However, such reform can only take place with the political will of those in power. Further, it is important that the aspirations of all segments of society be considered. While full-scale reform takes time, there are steps that can be taken in the immediate term to lay the groundwork for effective, long-term reform. For example, USIP's work with justice and security dialogue (JSD) has been effective with countries in this regard. The immediate goal of JSD is to reduce hostility, dispel myths, and share information on justice and security issues facing the country and how other countries have dealt with similar challenges. JSD also serves to foster understanding and trust, share information, facilitate joint problem solving, develop relationships, and encourage cooperation on security and justice issues between civil society, and the police (and/or other agencies responsible for public security) at both the local and the national level. It can also be a process to educate all groups about how a rule of law-based society operates; creating awareness of the individual and collective responsibility to build rule of law; contributing to a national debate on rule of law; fostering police commitment to human rights and accountability; building public support for police efforts to tackle crime; and persuading political actors that political interference in policing undermines good governance.

There are always very high hopes and expectations by the populace following a transition from an authoritarian regime. They have been waiting a long time for change and want it to happen immediately. The challenge is that effective change takes time so expectation management is important to ensure that frustrations do not spiral into a resurgence of violence. At the same time, those governing must operate with a new openness and inclusiveness. They must not fall into the footsteps of their prior regime. Most significantly trust must be built between those governing and the people. This includes involving all segments of society into the reform process and not conducting business behind closed doors. It is critical to institute an effective communication mechanism.

Based upon the experiences of other countries emerging from similar conflicts, over the mid- to long term, what security challenges do you foresee as threats to a peaceful transition to democratic governance?

In countries emerging from conflict, as one can hope Libya will soon be, or for countries in transition from authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Tunisia, you can expect to see the emergence of residual violence and criminality pressure points. If I were to provide a roadmap of possible mark flashpoints, it would include:

  • obstructionists to peace who may be engaged in violence, terror, or paramilitary activities;

  • criminality that relates to the underlying or unresolved conflict and may be a function of unachieved conflict aims;

  • the existence of a party or faction that was left out of a peace agreement or power-sharing arrangement and might pose a threat to stability;

  • the existence of distrust or discord among ethnic or religious groups;

  • the existence of armed groups or individuals, such as unemployed former combatants, who turn to crime because they feel they have no other way of making a living;

  • whether the old regime has disintegrated, thereby leaving a power vacuum and fuelling a battle for power;

  • whether insecurity is likely to occur if past wrongs (including war crimes) are not addressed;

  • the potential for instability due to refugee-related matters (e.g., the presence of refugee camps, property disputes, or resettlement issues).