Privatizing security and authoritarian adaptation in the Arab region since the 2010–2011 uprisings

In a new article, Engy Moussa studies the rise of private security companies in the Arab region since the 2010-2011 uprisings. She finds that this development offer new venues to enrich and strengthen the ruling elites.

Regardless of where you look in the Arab region, the uprisings didn’t lead to democratization. Instead, authoritarian systems prevailed through enhanced strategies of public security, political co-optation and social control. This ongoing authoritarian adaptation features considered input from private security actors amid intense security market diversification and considerable outsourcing of domestic security and guarding services.

Addressing ‘how privatizing security contributes to perpetuating authoritarian practices post-2010,’ my recent article argues that contemporary security privatization and outsourcing provide alternative agents and strategies for social control, while offering new venues to enrich and strengthen ruling elites. Supplementing the continuous dominance of repressive state security forces, privatizing and outsourcing security essentially support practices of authoritarian adaptation by cultivating networks of patronage; diversifying ruling elites’ bases of security; and curbing constant sources of unrest.

Ongoing security privatization across the region is multifaced, with notable variation among cases, particularly privatizing security in conflict zones versus under relatively stable regimes. Alongside the military facet of the private security industry (PSI), widespread in conflict zones as in Libya and Syria, the steady rise of private security, rather than military, companies (PSCs) across the region is remarkable. From an international perspective, the PSI development in the region, starting in the 1980s, follows the global move toward neo-liberal governance, which advocates replacing public provision of welfare and social security with notions of privately purchased security.

While predating the uprisings, the latter hastened PSCs’ growth in terms of profit-making, scope of activities, suppliers and clients, among other factors. On one level, the contemporary heightened resort to PSCs within the private sector responds to turbulent security environments shaped by post-uprisings developments. Immune to the general decline in domestic economies, PSI has thus steadily expanded to meet increasing demands from different social sectors, being simultaneously boosted by growing outsourcing of public security functions. As it continuously prospers, PSI opens wide venues for employment and business growth; thus, indirectly enhancing some authoritarian systems’ economic viability by helping to alleviate widespread economic hardships.

Amidst the patrimonial networks within the post-2010 security markets, PSCs’ status is noteworthy. While attracting many newcomers, and enabling old players to flourish, a close look at PSI’s structure and members suggests a considerable share of the industry belongs to already powerful actors: state personnel and institutions alongside established businessmen. Yet, the dominant position occupied within the expanding PSI by security personnel alongside different state institutions and business elite is not what makes Arab states distinct. Across cases, private security actors are well-connected with state actors, with PSCs commonly owned or run by ruling elite members or state institutionsand ex-security officers working as private guards.

Instead, it is the role these actors have played, before and after 2010, in perpetuating authoritarianism and preserving ruling elites’ security that raises concerns about their prevalence over the mounting provision of private security. In this light, including PSCs in networks of patronage and entrusting private security provision to business and security elites, who are loyal to and dependent on autocratic ruling elites, provide the latter with substantial influence over private security and diffuse the distinction between public and private security agents as the latter become closely linked to ruling elites and potentially implicated in authoritarian strategies and policies.

Beyond nurturing networks of patronage, outsourcing security mirrors the tense relationship between ruling elites and state security institutions. The uprisings’ early phase severely shook the mutual dependency between some Arab ruling elites and their coercive institutions. After all, the police forces’ retreat from the streets, as in Egypt and Tunisia, alongside the military leadership’s decision to abandon the presidents, gave substantive ground to the uprisings and marked a reshuffle of power relations among ruling elites. In this regard, state preference to employ PSCs, instead of police or armed forces, to fulfil certain public security functions, arguably implies a diversification of the ruling elites’ coercive allies and an attempt to decrease dependence on state forces.

With many PSCs closely linked to ruling elites, they exhibit great loyalty to them and consider the authoritarian system’s security and stability among their main priorities. Compared to a recurrently inefficient police force, internally fragmented and whose loyalty is considerably uncertain in some Arab states, PSCs arguably represent more secure and reliable agents for selected public security tasks. Moreover, PSCs’ competitive nature and private dynamics of operation offer an advantage with respect to their performance: being presumably more professional, effective and cost-efficient; while the need to regularly renew contracts with the state boosts their incentive to enhance performance and reassert loyalty to secure new contracts and remain strong in the market.

Ultimately, privatizing and outsourcing security in some Arab countries reflect broad transformations in governance where public and private sectors are continuously reconfigured. Outsourcing security is profoundly shaped by domestic politics, especially the impact of authoritarianism on state security forces and the damaged state-society relationship it produces. Particularly, mistrust in the state’s ability or willingness to provide protection alongside public fear from the state’s abusive and arbitrary power are central to examining PSCs expansion in the Arab region amid a lack of serious public debates on the repercussions of growing privatized violence.

Engy Moussa is Teaching Associate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and James Buchanan Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She lectures on Middle East Politics and pursues a multi-disciplinary research agenda covering the politics and economics of authoritarian systems, critical security studies, and international relations. She is the author of “Privatizing security and authoritarian adaptation in the Arab region since the 2010–2011 uprisings”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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