Security Sector Reform in the Arab Region: Challenges to Developing an Indigenous Agenda

The manner in which Western practitioners, both governmental and non-governmental, have developed and promoted security sector reform as a field of policy has tended to emphasize its ‘technical’ aspects and so to de-politicize it, partly in an effort to make it more acceptable to governments, both of Western donor and Arab recipient countries. This has rendered it ineffective and irrelevant, and at times counter-productive and even dangerous. The security sector is the most closely bound to ruling elites and power structures; it is all about power relations, and to seek to reform it in any meaningful way is inevitably political and profoundly threatening to the established domestic order. SSR may bolster authoritarianism when its focus is on military modernization or narrow professionalisation rather than efforts to strengthen rule of law and democratic control.

This paper provides an analytical framework through which these questions may be approached. It considers SSR as an element of Western policy towards the Arab region, focusing in particular on the EU and US, and engages in a critical survey of its main normative and operational guidelines. It assesses the context for security sector reform in the Arab region, identifying general characteristics and trends and reinforcing the argument that SSR can only be approached as a fundamentally political challenge. The paper concludes with a summary of the principal aims and challenges confronting the promotion and implementation of SSR in the Arab region. Western policies demonstrate that SSR (not to mention democratization) in the Arab region will not be achieved from the outside, unless driven by powerful domestic actors. A particularly important and practical expression of the conceptual and cultural change needed in the Arab region would be to demilitarize internal security and police forces, and to enhance their capacity so as to enable the regular armed forces to be reoriented exclusively to the provision of external security. Demilitarization and functional differentiation are especially important for Arab governments engaging in political liberalization. Significantly, meaningful steps towards SSR have only been taken by governments undertaking democratization, however limited.

Any discussion of SSR needs to be situated within a broader debate about the meaning and practices of security, and the question of whose security is being provided.

This paper is published with the support of the International Development and Research Center, Canada.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.