Post revolt South Korea engaged in meaningful security sector reform/Tunisia needs to learn lesson: SSR ahead of economic giveaways
Now it has become fashionable to say that the US is helping the Tunisian army and security services BUT that it is not helping on the economic side… and that this is a looming disaster.
It is true that Tunisia faces severe financial and economic problems – but throwing more money at the problem will not work as long as the security sector and the legal framework of rights and doing business in the country – and the many ways in which the SS controls or limits the economy – is addressed.
This argument also holds true, in my mind, when it comes to effective counter-terrorism as well – a perhaps even more pressing concern.
By James M. Dorsey
The Economist recently highlighted the contrast between post-revolt Asian societies and Middle Eastern and North African societies in the woes of a pro-longed, messy and bloody transition that is pockmarked by revolt and counter-revolt, sectarianism, the redrawing of post-colonial borders, and the rise of retrograde groups as revolutionary forces.
Almost 30 years after they brutally crushed pro-democracy student protests, Korean police are projecting themselves as K-cops, the counterpart of K-pop, South Korea’s most popular cultural export and successful soft power tool. Korean police are largely today everything Middle Eastern and North African security forces are not.
Restructuring Korean police and ensuring that its legitimacy and credibility was publicly accepted was no mean task. Much like Middle Eastern and North African security forces, Korean police emerged from regime change as the distrusted and despised enforcer of repression that had brutally suppressed dissent, killed hundreds if not thousands, and tortured regime critics.
It took almost, a decade for the Korean police to launch deep-seated structural reform that gave substance to a public relations campaign designed to recast the force’s image and engender public trust. By contrast, transition in the Middle East and North Africa is in its infancy and given state and institutional resistance will likely take far longer than it did in Korea and Southeast Asia.
Even so, there are lessons to be learnt from the Asian experience in political transition that has progressed to the point where Korea is projecting its K-cops internationally as models of professionalism in crowd control and the management of protest. The Korean police force has ditched the use of tear gas in favour of the lipstick line, unarmed female officers deployed as a front line defense to defuse tensions with protesters. Big-eared cartoon mascots are ubiquitous on all the police’s insignia, including traffic signs.
The message underlying the approach to policing as well as the marketing campaign is as much driven by a desire to capitalize commercially on Korea’s success as it is by a desire to enhance the country’s prestige is the notion that policing in line with standards of freedom of expression, protest and dissent and adherence to human rights is more likely to ensure public order than brute force. Despite the fact that regimes in the Middle East and North Africa largely see heavy-handed repression of dissent as key to their survival, some like the United Arab Emirates and Oman, have engaged the Koreans’ advisory services in a bid to put a better face on what remain autocratic regimes.
The appeal to autocracies is that smarter policing reduces the risk of repression boomeranging with resentment of security forces becoming a driver of protest as it did for youth groups in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. By the same token, the risk for activists is that failure to reform security forces in the immediate aftermath of the toppling of an autocrat by a popular revolt, could create the circumstances conducive to a reversal of hard-won political change. Early stage security sector reform would also help enhance the credibility of a post-revolt government and confidence in its sincerity and willingness to initiate structural changes aimed at breaking with the autocratic past.
Failure to reform security forces in Egypt was at the heart of the reversal of the gains of anti-government protests in Egypt in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The police and security forces two years later played a major role in persuading the military to overthrow Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and introduce a dictatorship even more repressive than that of Mr. Mubarak.
Political scientist Terence Lee in his recently published study of military responses to popular protests in authoritarian Asia used the examples of the brutal repression of protest in Korea in 1987, Burma in 1998 and a year later on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to argue that the military is the ultimate arbiter of whether a popular revolt will succeeds. In doing so, Mr. Lee appears to assume that the role of the role of the military and security forces is interchangeable. That may be true for Asian countries like China and Myanmar where police, security forces and armed forces are effectively branches of the military.