Finishing the Job: Security Sector Reform After the Arab Spring

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The Arab Uprisings were principally sparked by the brutality of the security sector in almost every single country where they occurred. In Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation following an insult by the police in December 2010 triggered the revolution. In Egypt, the June 2010 murder by two policemen of Internet activist Khaled Said, followed by the brutality of police during the fraudulent parliamentary elections of November-December 2010, set the revolution’s context. In Libya, the arrest in February 2011 of Fathy Terbil—a human rights lawyer who had represented the families of the victims of the June 1996 Abu Selim Prison massacre, in which more than 1,236 political prisoners were gunned down by Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces—sparked that country’s revolution. In Syria, abuses committed in March 2011 by Assad’s security forces, which included the pulling out of the fingernails of children and teenagers in Deraa, triggered the protests that ignited that country’s ongoing civil war. In many ways, the Arab Spring was a region-wide reaction against violations by the security services.

Throughout the decades prior to the 2011 revolutions, Arab security establishments behaved more like organized crime syndicates than professional security services. Concepts such as human rights, human security, democratic control, civilian oversight and accountability were absent from the lexicons of Arab interior and defense ministries, and any attempts to introduce them were met with brutal repression—as, for example, during the January 1992 coup against Algeria’s reformist President Chadli Bendjedid and the June 1989 coup against Sudan’s democratically elected Prime Minister Sadeq al-Mahdi. Indeed, Egyptian opposition activists unsurprisingly chose to stage the massive protests that began Egypt’s revolution on Jan. 25—Egypt’s “Police Day,” intended to “honor” the security services. “[We] wanted to ruin their party like they ruined our lives,” a young Egyptian revolutionary told me. “We had to break them . . . I wish there was another way but there wasn’t.”

Now, those security services must be fixed. Following the removal of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, security sector reform (SSR) became an immediate objective of both revolutionary and reformist forces, regardless of ideological or political affiliation. The same will apply to Syria once the Assad regime is toppled, as it will to any other potential post-despotic transition in the Arab world. How this reform process plays out will be decisive in determining the future of Arab democracy.

SSR can be described as the transformation of a country’s security apparatus—including the roles, responsibilities and actions of all the actors involved—so that it is managed and operated in a manner consistent with democratic norms and sound principles of good governance, and thus contributes to a well-functioning security framework. Ideally, the reform process should embrace all branches of the security sector, from the armed forces to the customs authorities. The focus here will be on post-Arab Spring security bureaucracies affiliated with interior ministries, as opposed to those affiliated with defense ministries or under the direct command of the top executive—the president in Egypt and the prime ministers in Tunisia and Libya. In Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, security bureaucracies under the interior ministries include the police; paramilitary forces, such as the Central Security Forces in Egypt and the Intervention Forces in Tunisia; domestic intelligence services, such as the National Security Apparatus in Egypt; and temporary irregulars, such as the Supreme Security Committee in Libya.

Two core objectives of SSR are critical in the case of Arab states in general and Arab Spring countries witnessing post-despotic transitions in particular. These are, first, the establishment of effective governance, oversight and accountability in the security system; and second, the improvement of the delivery of security and justice services. The challenges of SSR are numerous, however, beginning with the technical, organizational and administrative dimensions of the process. In addition, SSR is a highly political process involving powerful anti-reform factions within the relevant bureaucracies. Indeed, this political dimension can dictate the direction and success of the entire project.

Attempted Reforms

Following each successful revolution of the Arab Spring, various SSR initiatives were put forward by governmental and nongovernmental institutions as well as by independent experts. In Tunisia, SSR efforts started as early as June 2011, a few months after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled. In November 2011, the Ministry of Interior laid out a roadmap for reforming Tunisia’s security sector in a white paper, which discussed transforming the security sector from a police order to a police service that could respond urgently to the new challenges of crime. Tunisia’s current leaders, however, view this white paper as the product of former regime elements within the Ministry of Interior who are not necessarily pro-reform. “There are some good elements [of the white paper]. But it offers no comprehensive reform,” Amer Larayedh—head of the Political Bureau of the Ennahda party, the lead party in Tunisia’s ruling coalition—told me in May 2012. Meanwhile, in December 2011, Ali Larayedh, a civilian who was himself a torture victim during the 16 years he was jailed by the Ben Ali regime, became the interior minister; he became prime minister this March.

In Egypt, more than 10 SSR initiatives have been proposed since March 2011. The proposals, which vary significantly in terms of quality and comprehensiveness, have been put forward by a range of stakeholders including independent experts, civil society groups, disenchanted police officers, the Ministry of the Interior and parliament. Civil society organizations have offered various initiatives focused on legal reform, oversight and civilianization of the security sector. Disenchanted police officers were able to form several independent organizations, such as the General Coalition for Police Officers (GCPO), which lobbied for official recognition as a police union with an elected leadership. The initiatives proposed by GCPO and others were focused on cleansing the police force of corrupt generals; improving work conditions, training, media relations and public relations; and increasing salaries and pensions. Several independent SSR experts were consulted by both the presidency and the parliament regarding implementation of the various proposals.

But perhaps the boldest step toward civilian control over the security sector was taken by the Egyptian presidency. In August 2012, a massacre of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai by an armed group led to the culling of the top brass of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), including its head, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, and his deputy, Gen. Sami Anan. The Sinai incident also sparked a process of removing some of the most powerful generals across the security sector. These included the head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Murad Muwafi; the head of the Presidential Guard, Nagib Mohammed Abd al-Salam; the head of the Military Police, Hamdy Badin; the head of the Cairo Security Directorate, Mohsen Murad; and the head of the Central Security Forces, Emad al-Wakil. These generals all shared an anti-reform stance, defiance of elected civilian rule and a desire to maintain as many Mubarak-era policies and practices as possible. Two of them, Badin and Murad, were specifically accused by several revolutionary and reformist groups, including the GCPO, of organizing a campaign of repression against activists.

In Libya, security sector reform began with the appointment of Salem al-Hasi as the head of the Libyan intelligence agency, the Foreign Security Apparatus (FSA). Al-Hasi, who was a member of the armed wing of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) and spent more than two decades in exile in the United States, thus became the first civilian opposition figure to lead an Arab intelligence service. “All of the Arab intelligence services were there to protect the regime and oppress citizens. I will change that,” al-Hasi said upon taking his post. “The Libyan intelligence will be under the control of the elected executive and the direct oversight of the legislative assembly.”

Whether he will succeed or not is another matter. Accusations have been leveled against al-Hasi and his agents for allegedly tapping phones and electronically monitoring Gadhafi loyalists, using the interception equipment they inherited from his regime. Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) and future parliaments will need to craft laws for oversight and control of the security and intelligence apparatuses, as well as a clear mechanism for enforcing that control. Such steps will require the help of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) as well as independent experts. At the same time, Libya also critically needs a thorough process of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR), and several steps have already been taken to that end.

Critical Challenges

To achieve the core SSR objectives of effective security sector governance and improved security and justice services delivery, a few critical hurdles need to be overcome. Six major ones can be identified in the Arab Spring countries, where revolutions were successful in overthrowing despots—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. They also apply elsewhere in the Arab world. The first is extreme political polarization, which can lead to the politicization of the SSR process as well as political violence. The second is internal resistance and spoiler tactics by anti-reform factions within the security sector. The third is the limited capacity and resources of the newly elected governments. The fourth is weak democratic institutions. The fifth is limited knowledge and experience of SSR requirements among stakeholders. The sixth, which mainly applies to Libya and Yemen, is incomplete demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) of former anti-regime fighters.

Political polarization per se should not be a hurdle to SSR. Diversity in the political spectrum, heated debates, intense arguments and general differences of opinion should be celebrated as gains of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Indeed, this freedom of opinion and expression should be aimed for in other Arab countries.

However, some of the ramifications of such polarization have negatively affected SSR processes. In all of the aforementioned transitioning countries, political and criminal violence is cheap and effective, and the risks of using violence are low. “I got 186 dead officers and more than 800 injured so far, petty-officers blocking security chiefs from entering their offices, a presidential palace getting torched on weekly basis by a hundred kids or so,” said the new Egyptian interior minister, Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim, at a press conference in February. “Egypt’s largest government complex was blocked for four days; when will I have time to reform? . . . When these political polemics end.” This was one of the rare times an incumbent minister had spoken out publicly about the limitations of the security forces and the reform process. And, more worryingly, he was not lying about the facts or the numbers.

In that sense, the Egyptian and other post-Arab Spring interior ministries face a dilemma. On the one hand, they are responsible for defending state institutions, which are constantly under attack by violent groups from various backgrounds. On the other hand, if any members of these groups should be killed or injured, the interior ministry will be accused of brutality. On top of that, all these ministries have limited experience in non-lethal tactics of riot control.

A major in the Egyptian Central Security Forces who witnessed the attacks on the presidential palace last January summarized the problem: “The pattern we have here is that the officer gets attacked with shotguns and Molotov cocktails. If he flees, he gets accused of negligence, and then he gets tried. If he fights back, he gets accused of brutality, and then he gets tried as well. What exactly is he supposed to do?”

The other consequence of extreme political polarization is the politicization of the SSR process by rival politicians. On talk shows, political figures call for SSR to be implemented and for police brutality to end. At the same time, the very same political figures praise generals known for their support of brutal tactics. Some politicians even call on them to intervene in the political process by cracking down on their political rivals. As comparison with other cases makes clear, the unity of political forces regarding the very particular demands of depoliticizing the security sector and imposing civilian control over the armed forces is key for the success of both security sector reform and democratization.

A second challenge is the strong resistance within the ranks of security sectors in post-Arab Spring countries to several critical elements of the reform process. Many of the leaders of Arab interior ministries understand the reform process to mean increasing the material capabilities and budgets of their respective institutions. Whereas this is a part of the SSR process insofar as it aims to enhance the performance of these security institutions, Arab interior ministries do not usually welcome other elements of SSR. These elements include effective civilian oversight, procedures ensuring transparency, the introduction of merit- as opposed to seniority-based promotion criteria, and even revisions of the police academies’ curricula—though there is lesser resistance to this last element compared to others.

Accountability in particular faces strong resistance. One example from Tunisia is the case of Col. Moncef al-Ajimi, the former director of the Tunisian Intervention Forces. Al-Ajimi was officially accused of firing on peaceful protestors in the towns of Thala and Qasarin during the Tunisian revolution. During al-Ajimi’s trial, then-Interior Minister Larayedh attempted to remove him from his position. In reaction, hundreds of policemen from the Bouchoucha barracks physically blocked access to al-Ajimi and then organized a strike to protest his attempted dismissal. Thousands of Intervention Forces members withdrew from key locations in several Tunisian cities and returned to their barracks. “We will not be a scapegoat for the families of the martyrs,” said one of the protesting policemen. As a result, Larayedh had to keep al-Ajimi in the ministry. In June, a military court found al-Ajimi not guilty. Though the military prosecutor appealed the verdict, the incident reflects the level of resistance to the process of accountability faced by newly elected, post-revolution governments.

A third challenge is limited capacity and resources. The post-revolution, democratically elected governments in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia inherited serious economic challenges. Egypt’s public debt is $188 billion, or 85 percent of its GDP. Though public debt is lower in Tunisia (15.8 percent of GDP) and Libya (4.2 percent of GDP), these countries’ governments also still suffer from limited resources available for a thorough SSR process. The economic crisis in Egypt, however, did not prevent SCAF from increasing the bonuses of policemen by 300 percent in the 2012 budget to “enhance security performance.” Tunisia spends 9.5 percent of the state’s budget on its Interior Ministry for the same reason. However, there is limited public information about how such resources are spent and what the outcomes of such spending are, undermining both transparency and accountability.

The related fourth and fifth challenges to SSR in post-Arab Spring countries are weak democratic institutions, and limited knowledge and experience of SSR requirements among many of the stakeholders in the process. In Egypt, the lower house of the parliament, the People’s Assembly, which was elected following the revolution, was dissolved by the SCAF following a Constitutional Court verdict that deemed parts of the electoral law unconstitutional in June 2012. Before dissolution, the lower house had approved amendments to a law governing the organization of the police force. The new version of the law removed the president’s right to act as the head of the Supreme Council of the Police, and amended articles relating to salary controls and the status of certain ranks in the force.

Yet, some members of parliament and activists expressed frustration with the amendments. “There were more than 70 Egyptians killed in Port Said stadium . . . And all the revolutionary parliament does is try to amend a few articles on salaries and pensions,” said one MP. Clearly there is a big gap between the revolutionary demands of eradicating torture, ending impunity and increasing transparency on the one hand, and the limited knowledge of how to translate such demands into policies and procedures for SSR on the other. A general understanding of such limitations in Tunisia led the government and the Interior Ministry to collaborate with an international organization and several SSR experts to identify necessary reforms as early as July 2011.

A final challenge to SSR, which exists mainly in Libya and Yemen—and to a much lesser extent in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt—is DDR. The DDR process is key to the success of both the SSR and democratization processes in these countries. If it fails, or succeeds only partially, armed organizations will emerge as a challenge to democratically elected governments, as the case of Libya currently demonstrates despite the relative progress that has been made. In February 2012, the Libyan Ministry of Interior announced the appointment of 10,000 armed revolutionaries to its ranks, while the Ministry of Defense announced the reintegration of 5,000 others into army units. Back then, the numbers remained small compared to the estimated 125,000 citizens who were said to be armed following the revolution.

Moreover, collective reintegration of armed brigades has proved to be highly problematic, as it undermines the command-and-control structures within both the Ministries of Defense and Interior. “Reintegrated” personnel take orders from the immediate commander of their own brigade, not from the minister of defense or interior. The Kufra events of February-June 2012, in which two tribes clashed in the remote southeast of Libya, leaving more than 100 people dead, not only exposed the limited capacity of the army and security forces to contain intertribal violence, but also the weak command-and-control structure within the Ministry of Defense. Such weakness is sensed by other non-state armed formations, which refuse to disarm when the state cannot guarantee their safety due to limited capacity, among other factors. This ultimately undermines the DDR process altogether and further complicates the related processes of SSR and democratization. A very similar situation exists in Yemen, although there the forces of the old regime had not been as undermined as they were in Libya.


Although the repressive societal model known as the “mukhabarat state” was severely undermined by the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, many of its subcultures survived. To ensure that SSR progresses further, three recommendations are essential. They are related to the political, institutional and legal dimensions of the SSR process and can be summarized in a few words: political consensus on SSR, institutional oversight and new police laws.

The involvement of international democratic partners such as the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and other democracies in Arab SSR is useful for knowledge transfer—for example, oversight training for MPs, non-lethal riot control training for the police and assistance with depoliticizing security institutions—as well as for advanced equipment supply and training. However, direct Western support of SSR in the Arab world may be used by anti-reform generals, old regime remnants and even by some opposition groups to delegitimize SSR as a “foreign conspiracy” to weaken or infiltrate the security services.

In all cases, no democratic transition is complete without targeting abuse, eradicating torture and ending the impunity of the security services while imposing effective and meaningful elected-civilian control of both the armed forces and the security establishments. Those objectives were at the core of the Arab revolutions of 2010-2011. They have yet to be attained.