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Is there a new role for intelligence services? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Saddam Hussein, the ex- Iraqi dictator is not the only one who has stripped off recently. The security services in two neighboring countries have also suddenly shed their protective garb, as the political system in each of them tries to improve its image with the international community. In the case of Lebanon, the attack on Lebanese security and intelligence institutions has resulted in the leadership resigning and a change to their structure, with attempts to subject them to the civilian authorities currently underway. The

workings of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon have been used, on the

international arena, especially in the wake of the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as an excuse to force the Syrian Army to withdraw from its &#34brotherly country&#34. To avoid embarrassment, indirect and light criticism of the intelligence apparatus is being permitted by the Syrian regime- to let off steam. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Asef Shawkat, President Bashar Assad”s bother in law, with all what he represents socially and militarily, was promoted to head the Syrian Military Intelligence that used to be responsible for the Lebanese file.

What I call &#34the stripping of the security services&#34 is happening across the Arab World. The Shia in Iraq are busy replacing the security services that were loyal to the deposed Saddam. Jordan is establishing a new intelligence agency while, in the Palestinian Territories, the new Prime Minister Abbas has reduced his predecessor”s quarrelling 11 intelligence agencies to only three chaotic ones. In Libya, the security services have stopped

assassinating opposition figures abroad. Instead, they content themselves, in consideration to democracy, with stripping them in local prisons. In Morocco, after the exposure of its former leader Idris Al Basri, the intelligence institutions are urged to practice self-guilt for its past, with no attempts to punishing anyone responsible.

What wrongs could the intelligence services across the Arab World have committed to deserve to be so suddenly undermined? Newly independent Arab states inherited the institution of the military for the colonial powers. Each newly emerging country then had to hastily create its own security and intelligence institutions. However, Jamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and Adeeb Shishakli in Syria managed to establish strong security apparatuses in their

respective countries that would guard the regime. This did not preclude the military from engaging in several coups. However, after the 1973 war, the surviving regimes discovered that a strong military was no longer required, and therefore, marginalized it by placing it under the control of the intelligence apparatuses. As such, these regimes ensured they were protected by tightening their hold on security and intelligence matters.

With the beginning of an era of confrontation between Arab governments and fundamentalist forces, the inteliigence leadership was promoted and assumed a new role in more than one country. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, the security apparatuses underwent a dramatic expansion with their authority increasing and prisons and detention centers multiplying; a process made easier by the absence of a critical media. Victory against armed Islamic

fundamentalist groups boosted the intelligence community”s self confidence and faith in its methods in investigating and detaining suspects, so much so that, in the case of Iraq, security forces resorted to using mass graves.

In the first decade of this century, the rise in suicide bombings caused a setback to intelligence organizations globally, and not just in the Arab world. Security institutions Western democracies, starting with the USA, were rattled. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, exposed major gaps in the security and intelligence capabilities of the world”s only superpower. The US government reacted to this shock by occupying Afghanistan and Iraq and destroying the existing state organs in each country.

Ironically, the US reacted to attacks in New York City and Washington DC by on the one hand, calling for freedom and democracy in the Arab World, while on the other, it imposed a series of undemocratic restrictions in the US itself, with regard to immigration, personal freedom, foreign residency and tourism, in

addition to restructuring the intelligence institutions that

failed to predict the attacks. Under new laws, the security apparatuses were accorded the right to pursue terrorist suspects around the world and kill them, or hire others to do so.

The Arab World, in the face of US efforts to promote democracy in the region, begrudgingly accepted that reforms will have to take place. In a bid to improve their image, Arab governments also loosened the grip on their intelligence institutions. One question now arises: Will Arab regimes be able to reign in their security services? Can they then hold on to power without support from these institutions? What is currently happening, across the region, is that regimes are tightening the grip on an opposition emboldened by US demands. Security is becoming paramount for Arab governments who look at the horrors in Iraq and see the result of democracy at work.

Yet, despite all of this, security institutions have already lost

credibility in a world with changing priorities. After their rise and participation in national and international political decisions, sometimes even surpassing the powers of the political leadership, Arab security services lost their ability to analyze regional and global political trends because the Communist model they were used to following, with its use of torture and repression, is no longer applicable.

In my opinion, Arab regimes need to continue to liberalize and respond to the needs of a changing era or else they will remain dependent on their security and intelligence. These regimes are also endangered from the increasing demands of the Arab masses. In the face of continuing American pressure, they might find themselves obliged to undermine their own security and accept the opposition”s challenge to stage fair and democratic elections. This will draw a line between the current differentiation between state and government and will end the need of Arab regimes to rely on a

repressive institution to secure its hold on power. Let e conclude this overview with one final question: Is there a role for the security and intelligence services across the Arab World, at a time when their respective governments are gearing themselves for openness and a rotation of power?

My answer is: yes! The security and intelligence services need to become neutral and assume a non- partisan position in the political structure. This is, I believe, more important than regime change. The role of these institutions needs to be restricted to include fighting spies, observing, processing information, and analyzing it. Security and intelligence shouldn”t, under any condition, detain torture and investigate anyone. As such, the judiciary will need to reclaim the authority to conduct trials and investigations. A purge of the security institutions will also be necessary to rid the intelligence organizations from the monsters inside them who have

lost their humanity after carrying out torture. Implementing restrictions on the role of the security services will require rational individuals who are well aware of their country”s situation and international politics.

I will go even further and request the total subjugation of the security and intelligence services to the existing civil and political institutions. I call for a return to the rule of law, where lawyers, judges, and attorneys, will administer the Ministry of Interior instead of the police officer. Such was the case during the presidency of President Shikri Quwatli in Syria, elected for the first time in 1943. After several short-lived military coups, the security forces became attached to the Ministry of Defense. When

the civilian government requested the intelligence and security institutions return under its wing, Colonel Adeeb Shishakli overthrew it. When a civilian government returned to power, between 1954- 1958, it regained control over the Ministry of Interior and the security forces. Unfortunately, however, when Nasser declared unity with Syria, he imposed the militarization of the

Ministry, which remains to this day.

I fear I have become an idealist living in a fantasy world. I will,

therefore, return to more realist surroundings and express my worry and reservation of the possibility of establishing democratic or quasi- democratic governments across the Arab World. My fears are based on the absence of democratic forces in the region, in addition to the stubbornness of the fundamentalist Islamic groups who are keen to sabotage any experience of democracy with accusations of blasphemy and heresy. It seems to me, these groups are intent on facilitating global interference in affairs of the Arab World, even when this meddling violates states” sovereignty and reaches

unacceptable levels.

Ghassan Al Imam

Ghassan Al Imam

Ghassan Al Imam is a Syrian writer and journalist based in Paris.

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