More than two years have elapsed since the Arab Spring started its sweep across the Middle East and North Africa. The scope and yield of these revolts, primarily manifested through an overturn of political authority and bids for greater democratization, have often been compared in magnitude with the 1989 anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe.
In spite of their faltered progress, the revolutions of 1989 did advance stability over time. Yet the context and factors that rehabilitated much of the ex-Soviet Eastern European countries and put order in the post-Yugoslav debacle are different than the circumstances of any of the post-Arab spring countries. In hindsight, we now know that Eastern Europe benefited from a favourable context and was very likely not to fail: it recovered at a time when, and in a place where, democracy was a promise strong enough to compensate for austerity and the difficulties of transition. In addition, solid regional organizations like the EU and NATO supported and, in most cases, gradually absorbed these countries.
As transition has commenced in the post-Arab Spring world, however, many hopes for a successful and peaceful recovery have been abandoned in the face of a less promising reality. Latent discontent, anti-election and anti-government protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and, more recently, the upsurge of violence in Libya and across the region have raised concerns about the future of the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring. As disarray has begun to overshadow the prospect of gradual democratization, the oft-raised question is how to ‘rescue’ the Arab Spring, that is, how to sustain the expectations undergirding the Arab Spring in the aftermath of the revolts?
While it is impossible to identify a single solution to guide the social and political transition, a critical step with far-reaching effects would be to pursue democratic reform of the security sector. The Middle East has been for decades the most militarized and securitized region in the world, as indicated by total spending and spending as a proportion of GDP on defense, equipment and weaponry, and security personnel. Security forces (army, police, militias, paramilitary) have played a key role in the region for internal security, often by means of brutal repression, for interstate security, or both.
For example, as police in Tunisia became notorious for their abusive behaviour and arbitrary enforcement of the rule of law, their function changed in the public consciousness from the protection of citizens to the protection of the regime and the suppression of internal dissent. In a similar vein, Egypt and Libya prioritized for a long time the role of the security forces within the society, roles now challenged and facing scrutiny. In Libya, a massively equipped army coexisted with numerous other security agencies, such as the Revolutionary Committees, Guards, and People’s Militias, comprising a group of institutions that were fragmented, opportunist, and generously rewarded to uphold the regime.
Similarly, reform in the Middle East and North Africa must be closely assisted by the international community, especially the United Nations and the European Union, as legal and structural readjustments (including security sector downsizing) take place. Political will and openness remain, once again, the keys to successful reform. In times of turbulence and unrest when new leaders might be tempted to resort to their predecessors’ authoritarian practices, such political will must manifest itself not in ruthless conduct but instead in committed and resolute leadership.