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Raising Awareness about Police Brutality in the MENA Region

On February 19, 2021, AUWCL’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law held a panel discussion on Police Brutality at Home and Abroad, with a special focus on the Middle East and North African region (MENA). The session was moderated by Nora Elmubarak, symposium and education editor for the WCL Human Rights Brief, and the speakers were Professsor Sahar Aziz, professor of law and Chancellor’s social justice scholar at Rutger’s Law School; Abire Sabbagh, community engagement coordinator at the Palestinian American community center; and Aya Saed, legislative assistant for representative Cori Bush. AUWCL Professor Macarena Saez, Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, provided concluding remarks.

The discussion raised awareness of growing police brutality in the MENA region, with information on general trends as well as local or regional problems that exacerbate this form of abuse. A general observation about police brutality is the disproportionately large impact on ethnic and religious minorities, as well as political dissidents. In some countries there is also a clear socioeconomic divide, where those with less power are more in risk of suffering instances of police brutality. Oftentimes, the peculiar distribution of socioeconomic power in the MENA region societies still reflect the colonial structures of the past.

A specific problem are some of the more fragile and unstable countries, such as Sudan. In this country, the police has become militarized to a point where the differences between police and the military are not clearly defined. This situation is partially exacerbated by the U.S.’ unchecked military support. Stricter controls as to the ultimate use of military equipment by Sudanese security forces, and the limitation of the use of that material by police forces, may reduce some of the police brutality.

Another important focal point to address police brutality is the treatment of political dissent. For instance, in Egypt the police use disproportionate force against political dissidents as a way to intimidate and suppress opposition movements. As with the prior example in Sudan, foreign countries—including the U.S.—may contribute to help those affected by that violence. The panelists mentioned the complex interaction between the Western governments, the large digital communication platforms, and digital communication’s importance in the MENA region to organize political opposition and to document human rights abuses.

The panelists concluded that information sharing, awareness, and political action by the U.S. government based on a comprehensive and thorough understanding of the realities on the ground in the MENA region is paramount for a positive influence in the international fight against police brutality. At the same time, improving the actual relationship between the police and the population is something only the peoples themselves may accomplish.