For decades, the United States has structured its relations with Tunisia and Egypt around the military. Since it signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt has been the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in the world, receiving approximately $1.3 billion a year in military assistance. Similarly (but not to the same extent), the US has provided assistance to the Tunisian military. But after a volatile year, America faces the very difficult task of recalibrating the nature of its engagement with these countries. The traditional emphasis on military aid—upheld as a successful strategy for engaging dictatorships—is no longer a suitable approach.

The United States can no longer rely on autocratic forces (like the SCAF), and the recent referral of 19 American NGO workers to trial on charges of provoking and funding anti-government groups only demonstrates the military’s increasing unreliability and its intent on undermining U.S. efforts to promote democracy. 

To counteract this, the United States must bolster its relations with nascent democratic institutions like the new parliaments and start with what many of the citizens of these countries are demanding: reform of the internal security services. 

Public opinion surveys in Egypt and Tunisia have demonstrated people’s concern for internal security and a lack of confidence in their police forces to maintain that security. Nearly two-thirds of Egyptians cited “law and order” as a priority for Egypt’s future in a poll released in April 2011, and a poll in August found that three-fourths of Egyptians fear for their safety or the safety of their family on a regular basis (These polls reflect broad trends in Egyptian society, but the statistics may have changed in recent months for which we could not find new polling data). In that same poll, Egyptians also noted that they felt more concern for their safety than they did under the Mubarak regime. Many Egyptians have been troubled by the general unrest and anecdotal reports suggest that crime may be increasing. But the police’s reticence to enforce the law for fear of exposing themselves to citizens’ harassment is also an issue, and the majority of Egyptians polled felt that the police have a negative influence on the country.  Tunisians also expressed similar concerns in a poll released in May 2011; respondents listed “internal security” as “the single biggest problem facing Tunisia as a whole,” even before unemployment. Tunisians remarked that they trusted the national police less than the army and citizen groups to protect their neighborhoods. 

A U.S. effort to promote security sector reform is an opportunity to engage the populations of these countries in a way the United States has not in the past. Of course this will be a daunting task and the obstacles should not be underestimated. For one, police forces in Egypt and Tunisia have long been regarded as the enforcers of the now overthrown autocratic regimes. Egyptian police officers have expressed fear of reprisals if they return to law enforcement and a general lack of responsibility for the welfare of Egyptian society, and while Tunisian forces seem more interested in reform efforts, to date these have largely been symbolic. The United States will also have to overcome its association with supporting Ben Ali and Mubarak, and adjust its policy for police training in Egypt and Tunisia which had emphasized counterterrorism.

Despite these challenges, police reform will be a crucial component of these transitions and the United States should support the effort to change the character of the security services from organizations of political intimidation to organizations founded on the rule of law. If democracy is to succeed, police forces in Tunisia and Egypt need to have the competence to maintain order while allowing freedom of expression; they cannot be vehicles of state oppression as they have been in years past. The violence in these countries since the revolution – whether the high death toll of protesters in Egypt, the riots in July and November in Tunisia’s Sidi Bouzid, or the thoughtless brutality of police conduct in both of these countries’ transitions – only underscores the need for this reform. 

Reform will require localized approaches and public engagement. The greatest obstacle these authoritarian police forces face is their own organizational culture, which has encouraged torture and arrests without cause. Officers need to be retrained to respect human rights, and will have to learn how to conduct investigations without relying on forced confessions. The public will also have to be educated on what the proper role of the police is and how to engage them productively. This could manifest as a series of regular town hall-type meetings to facilitate public engagement and police accountability. A community-based policing model could promote engagement with neighborhoods, to increase the police’s responsiveness to people’s needs and build credibility.

Reform must also be institutional. The Ministries of the Interior in these countries are bloated with unnecessary positions that have grown to unsustainable levels; reform must involve downsizing these organizations and providing vocational training for employees being let go into struggling economies. On a more local level, though, new hires may be necessary to ensure that police forces accurately reflect the demographics of the communities they represent and to limit the influence (or the perception) of ethnic or sectarian bias. 

There would likely be a role for international actors as well, but the United States should not wait on the initiative of others to push for police reform. The effort will probably be a lengthy one; police reform programs almost always take longer than planned, and a decade-long program is not uncommon. In the interest of building engagement and long-term relationships, though, this commitment is to the benefit of both the United States and the Egyptian and Tunisian police forces. America must work with reform-minded members of the new governments who must be willing to hold intransigent officials in the Ministries to account. Already, the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement is building relationships with reformers within the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, but, unsurprisingly, some Mubarak-era officials have demonstrated resistance to reform. 

In the months and years to come, Washington will disagree with many of the policies of Cairo and Tunis, but shared democracy has never meant agreement. In this critical moment, U.S. interests and the interests of Tunisia and Egypt align on the issue of security sector reform. The United States should seize the moment and these mutual goals to support stronger partnerships and successful, stable transitions to democracy. 

Andrew Exum is a Senior Fellow and J. Dana Stuster a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. National Security Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security.