Preventing Abuse in Egypt and Tunisia: How to Exclude Perpetrators and Reform the Security Sector

The sixth panel of the conference continued the discussion on institutional reform, focusing on the security sector as one of the backbones of justice system and its relationship with civil society.

Abd elrazik ben Khalifa, councillor in the Administrative Court of Tunisia, presented a history of the Tunisian security apparatus, the pressing need for institutional reform and some specific recommendations on how to achieve this. The key obstacle to reforming the military and police forces in Tunisia, he argued, is the fundamental lack of information available on both the structure and operations of these forces. Any reform process must first overcome this, as well as the taboo surrounding open discussion about the actions and responsibilities of the security sector.

Under the Ben Ali regime, the security sector acted as the police force of the ruling elite, serving only the interests of the regime, he explained. Citizens viewed security forces as a threat rather than a right or service provided by the government to protect the people. There was no civilian oversight or civilian personnel within the security sector; the only connection between citizens and security forces was taxation.

The key reform need, therefore, is to change the role of the security sector from protecting the governing elite to protecting the people. Civilians still view the security sector with deep suspicion even after the revolution, viewing the police and military forces as "moles," whose main function is to report on civil activities.

Khalifa concluded by making recommendations to guide the process of reform, underscoring the need for the objectives to be clearly defined, transparent, and for the process to include oversight by human rights organizations and civil society. He argued for certain symbolic measures to be taken, including the changing of institutions' names and uniforms to signify a break from past practices.

To reduce the culture of violence within the security sector, he recommended a fundamental shift in security training procedures, the adequate equipping of personnel, and the inclusion of a female component to police and military forces.

Hossam Bahgat, director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, continued the discussion, focusing on the reform process needed in Egypt. Despite the progress made in the past year and the readiness to move forward, the real movement towards democracy in Egypt has not yet begun as security sector reform has not been implemented, he said.

He expressed concerns about the measures taken to reform the security sector since the revolution. "We are not moving forward," he argued. "On the contrary, we are moving backward." There are new abusive security mechanisms that were not present in the past regime, no one responsible for past atrocities has been held to account, and no measures have been implemented to reform the training mechanisms which created the culture of violence in the security sector.

Bahgat conceived the official acknowledgement of the role the security apparatus played both during the dictatorship and the revolution as the first step needed in this process. Echoing Khalifa's discussion of Tunisia, he argued the security has traditionally never been taught how to protect human rights; in fact the key role they played achieved the opposite.

Radwan Ziadeh, president of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, provided commentary on the discussion, addressing two fundamental questions: what is the process of reforming the security sector, and how do archives contribute to this process. He reaffirmed the need for civilian oversight of the security sector, as well as the importance of reforming training procedures as pivotal in determining whether security forces are an instrument for protecting human rights or perpetrating abuses.

On the issue of archives, he cautioned that the opening of such documentation is a two-edged sword; information about past actions of security forces can contribute to accountability, but may also jeopardize national and civilian security and become a highly politicized process. Expert oversight of any archives process is therefore necessary, he argued.

Questions from conference participants explored issues on how radical security sector reform must be to be effective, details on the training needed to change the methodology and culture of the security sector, and issues surrounding the implementation of technology to enhance the operations of the security sector, such as through heightened surveillance.