How an Arab Police Force Mends Its Ways

CASABLANCA -- In much of the Arab world, police are commonly regarded as agents of repression. Hopes for democracy in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere require that police take on a new role as guardians of the rule of law. That means upholding the principle that everyone, even the head of state, should be equally accountable under just laws overseen by the people.

This crucial shift won't be easy, but valuable lessons can be drawn from one Arab country that has already begun to implement change.

In 2008, I spent four months with the Moroccan police in Casablanca as a journalist. The government allowed me to shadow a unit of plainclothes detectives in their daily work, so that I could witness the street-level encounter between citizens and their regime through the eyes of a cop.

Like other Arab states over the past two years, Morocco has seen demonstrations by young people demanding political reform -- yet in contrast to neighboring countries, calls for the toppling of the king are relatively rare. One reason for the difference may be that the regime's security services tend to be more benign than those of neighboring Arab states. Brutality and corruption are still pervasive, but by the time I had arrived human rights groups were starting to note modest improvements. The Moroccan police were undergoing a home-grown experiment of reform, consisting of three key elements.

The first was an effort by the highest levels of government to redress past wrongs. In 2004, King Mohammed VI established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission to acknowledge and compensate victims of brutality meted out by the regime of his father, Hassan II. Apparently as a result, some cops manifested a keen awareness that they were newly vulnerable to citizens' grievances. "If I use violence to interrogate my suspects," one detective told me, "they have recourse and I will be punished." I did see police beat a suspect in a shantytown one night -- a display of brutality that they did not bother to hide -- but the lawful behavior I observed among others did not appear to be a charade designed for my consumption.

The second factor I observed was the beginning of an attempt to make Moroccan law enforcement more inclusive. The precinct was dominated by Arab detectives, but several of the cadets identified as Berber, an indigenous North African ethnic group. Their induction was part of a broader effort to introduce more Berber individuals into the officer corps, on the theory that a mixed ethnic force could establish better relations with, and more effectively police, a mixed ethnic urban community.

This initiative bears adopting in fractured societies elsewhere in the region. Consider the skewed composition of Jordanian police: most have roots on the east bank of the Jordan River, while the majority of the people they patrol are of West Bank Palestinian origin. This is to say nothing of Bahrain, where mainly Sunni (and sometimes foreign national) police patrol a majority Shiite population; or Syria, where mainly minority Alawites play a predominant role in the various police forces.

A third factor in Morocco is a government attempt to teach police the meaning and relevance of human rights. Not long after the present king assumed the throne in 1999, human rights education became part of police training. Younger officers whom I met occasionally spoke of these ideals in explaining their approach to law enforcement. The inculcation of human rights standards, coupled with the threat of accountability, seemed to have had some effect on police behavior.

In this pivotal moment of hoped-for transition toward democracy and the rule of law in the Arab world, reforming Arab police forces is vital. Whether governments in the region do so will be a clear indication of the genuineness of reform, as well as its prospects for success.

@Joseph Braude is the author of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World (Random House - Spiegel and Grau, June 2011). His weekly radio column in Arabic, "Letter from New York," airs on MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco.