This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More …


This article discusses the fundamental shortcomings of US and UK-promoted police reform in Lebanon. First, it presents two separate community policing projects implemented in Lebanon supported by the United States and Britain. Then, drawing on recent experiences with community policing in the United States, it argues how, why and to what extent these projects in Lebanon are not contributing to human security, but rather increasing the insecurity of local communities.

Police Reform as Statebuilding Lite

Internationally assisted security sector reform (SSR) has gained wide currency in Lebanon since 2005. The goal of what some have termed “statebuilding lite”[1] in Lebanon is to strengthen and empower the supposedly weak Lebanese state through increasing the capacities of its police and army to provide security to citizens, maintain order, and ultimately impose the state’s violence monopoly. The country’s national police force, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), have received special attentions since at least since 2008. International assistance in police reform, particularly from the UK and US, works towards achieving the state-building goals detailed above. In addition, this assistance also serves to equip and prepare domestic security forces, in Lebanon or elsewhere, to control threats against the national security interests of intervening countries, such as terrorism or organized crime.[2] Against the background of these objectives, intervening countries, such as the US and UK, seek to transform the police forces of ‘weak states’ from being unaccountable and corrupt to democratic policing organizations. After all, the police are often considered to be “the ace of the state to citizens and the institution that most affect their lives.”[3]

One key element in such “statebuilding lite” endeavors is the improvement of police-citizen relations, particularly through the promotion of community policing approaches. Community policing is often understood as “policing with and for the community rather than policing of the community.”[4] Accordingly, communities are encouraged to define their own policing needs as well as shape, and sometimes even participate, in the police’s response. The police, in turn, are encouraged to interact more with civilians and build closer ties with communities with the aim to increase police responsiveness and proactive engagement with causes of crime and disorder. Accordingly, policing practitioners in the United States describe community policing as an “innovative law enforcement philosophy and organizational approach to providing police services,” which takes community needs seriously.[5] British policing practitioners usually speak of ‘community-based policing’ to accentuate that policing should be based on community partnership and consultation, transparency, and public accountability.[6] Both, however, emphasize the need for police proactiveness and community partnership as well as consultation, not least to facilitate the flow of information regarding criminal or in other ways suspicious activities.[7]

However, and regardless of the good intentions, community policing and similar reforms are fundamentally flawed as they do not necessarily tackle deeper underlying problems of policing in the intervening countries where they originate, let alone in Lebanon. Many of the reforms implemented in Lebanon had had rather limited success in intervening countries as they did not engage with the political roots of policing.

How Community Policing is Implemented in Lebanon

Community policing in Lebanon was first implemented as part of the post-conflict reconstruction process in the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in North Lebanon. Established in 1949 near the northern city of Tripoli, the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp became the scene of an armed conflict between the Lebanese security forces and the militant Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in May 2007. Even though fighting began outside of the camp, Fatah al-Islam fighters eventually retreated into Nahr al-Bared, spurring Lebanese security forces to launch a four-month-long siege under heavy artillery fire.[8] At an international donor conference in Vienna in June 2008, the Lebanese government reiterated the need to re-establish security and order in the camp through community policing. The government’s proposal met the common criteria for community policing as it emphasized the need to deploy a police force to the camp that would be culturally and politically sensitive to the plight of Palestinians, and hence be able to build close ties with camp residence and offer proactive policing services.[9] Yet when considering the conflict-ridden history of the Lebanese state and its security forces in Palestinian refugee camps, the Lebanese government’s inclination towards community policing appears in a wholly different light.

The Lebanese state has historically treated Palestinian refugees as threats and disruptions to Lebanon’s sectarian balance and political order.[10] Since the 1960s, Lebanese state security forces have controlled entry and exit to refugee camps across the country. Following the Civil War, Palestinian refugee camps were often regarded as unruly ghettos or save havens for criminals and terrorists,[11] hence leading to calls for bringing the camps under the Lebanese state’s control. Indeed, the Lebanese government argued that community policing would create a “prototype for a new kind of [Palestinian] camp”[12] in Nahr el-Bared under firm control of the Lebanese state. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nahr el-Bared residents were rather suspicions of the new community police in their camp. US involvement in funding the program led to the impression among residents that community policing was an international plot under the guise of a program designed to serve them that would ultimately bolster the Lebanese state’s control over the camp populations.[13] Still, community policing was further integrated into police trainings, despite an evaluation of the US assistance program concluding that the ISF is structurally ill-suited for community policing, as its organizational culture and strict hierarchies would impede officers to properly engage with the community.[14] The implementation of community policing in a West Beirut precinct aimed at challenging this verdict.

The Policing Pilot Project (PPP), jointly funded by the American and British Embassies in Lebanon, was set to showcase how proactive community policing can be successfully implemented to improve police-citizen relations in Lebanon beyond the Nahr al-Bared experience. The West Beirut neighborhood of Ras Beirut was chosen as a project site for two main reasons. First, the neighborhood would represent a microcosm of Lebanon,[15] with its multi-confessional residents and frequent visitors including university students, members of the LGBT community, migrant workers, expats, and refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Second, the police station Ras Beirut has an infamous reputation as a site of frequent human rights abuses at the hands of ISF officers.[16]

Foot and bike patrols and police participation in community events aimed at increasing interactions between the police and the population, as well as enabling the police to develop more intimate knowledge about community concerns and problems. However, this increased community engagement has arguably done little to address human rights violations at the police station.[17] One reason for this is certainly that community policing had been limited to the station’s uniformed personnel belonging to the ISF’s Beirut Police branch. The ISF’s Drug Repression Bureau (DRB) and Moral Protection Bureau (MPB), both part of the Judicial Police branch, are regularly accused of human rights abuses,[18] yet were not included in the project, primarily for organizational reasons.[19] One project consultant conceded that the DRB and MPB would still be involved in “old fashioned human rights abuses,” and, upon reflection, was critical  of the team’s failure to properly communicate the project’s limitation to uniformed police to pre-empt negative public opinion over the non-inclusion of the Judicial Police units. After all, such a project would need to rely on positive and supportive public opinion.[20] A report by Human Rights Watch[21] illustrates how physical abuse of sex workers, drug users, as well as refugees and members of the LGBT community, is normalized in the ISF as “part of the job.” These accounts of violence speak volumes for the insecurities of these already marginalized and vulnerable groups in Lebanon, as well as the continued disregard of their safety by those policing them, in particular the DRB and MPB. In fact, one study on the community policing experiment in Ras Beirut establishes a clear link between community policing and the increased policing of refugees.[22] In that study, the station commander claims that the community had identified refugees as the sources of anti-social behavior and hence would want the ISF to proceed against refugees. The police’s crackdown on unlicensed refugee street vendors would similarly follow requested by the Ras Beirut (business) community.

In sum, the effects of community policing in Ras Beirut clearly mirrors those in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camps: community policing, regardless of its intention, increases policing direct against refugees and hence reproduces their insecurity. Regarding sex workers, drug users/dealer, and the LGBT community, it might be too early to judge if community policing reproduces insecurities. Yet taking a closer look at the experience with community policing in the United States, as a measure to improve relations between the police and those in society that regularly face police violence, gives little hope. In fact, it provides some explanation for why community policing does not necessarily lead to an increase of human security.

Community Policing in the United States and How It is Failing

Public debate over policing and police reform in the United States is taking place within the context of the Black Lives Matter protest movement and wider debates over police violence against African-Americans and other ethnic or religious minorities. Community policing is among the many actions proposed as policy response to deteriorating police-citizen relation in US policing.[23] Yet the roots of community policing in the US (and the UK) date back to the 1970s and 80s, when practitioners and politicians deemed policing to be ineffective and unsuited to reducing crime and protect the ‘community’ amid rising crime rates and social unrest.[24] As a supposedly value-free, apolitical form of policing detached and independent from any economic or political interests, community policing was set to fix these problems in policing.[25] In contemporary debates in the UK and US, community policing is gaining wider currency as a remedy for police-citizen relations plagued by racialized police violence (US), as well as an element in wider counter-terrorism (UK) strategies.[26]

As promising and well-intended community policing may sound, its implementation has drawn considerable criticism, for instance from scholars and activists associated with Black Lives Matter, as community policing would fail to engage with the deeper (political) roots of the policing crisis.[27] Community policing in its actual manifestations in the United States is often dismissed as amounting to nothing more but counter-insurgency in disguise. In other words, community policing would ultimately seek to normalize police violence, rather than reduce it, and aim at harnessing communities as “conduits to spread law enforcement’s ideology of social order" and hence amount to “more effective means of civilian control for the state.”[28] Hence, the community policing discourse in the US would reduce policing problems to issues of training and professionalism, and thus ignore the political nature of policing itself.[29]

This disregard for the political dimensions of ‘broken policing’ is by no means unique to the United States. Policing in any given context is a reflection of political power relations. In a nutshell, police forces exercise and reflect the political and legal authority of the state and are hence structured by the political settlement that upholds this state.[30] Hence the same power relations that define state-society relations are also reflected and played out in state policing.[31] This means that any policy intervention that claims to be apolitical in ‘fixing’ police-citizen relations might be no more than a non-adhesive band-aid. This, I argue, is particularly true in the Lebanese case.

Politics and Policing in Lebanon

Within the context of international policing assistance, community policing is often hailed as a cure for broken policing in failed state or states transitioning from authoritarianism.[32] Given that the Lebanese state is often described as ‘weak’ or ‘fragile,’[33] it is not surprising that community policing did find its way into Lebanese policing. In fact, and irrespective of the accuracy of pejorative judgments over the state’s strength, the Lebanese state and politics is undoubtedly marked by dysfunctionalities such as clientelism and sectarianism, which in turn sets the political frame for policing in Lebanon. Yet I argue that community policing, or in fact any police reform claiming to be apolitical, has little to no prospect to altering this political frame. The Lebanese state and political system follow the logic of consociational democracy[34] whereby the highest political offices are held by the three largest confessional groups, and confessional groups are also proportionally represented in parliament and state institution. The ISF, like other state (security) institutions should be regarded as a clear reflection of the political power arrangements.[35] In fact, research has found that the ISF is strongly associated with clientelism in the Lebanese public[36], and is often seen as the concrete “embodiment of the Lebanese state’s laxity.”[37] In my recently completed doctoral thesis, I argue that the ISF, and Lebanese state security forces in general, are not just designed to serve and protect the Lebanese state. Given that the state at large is shaped to serve the interests of political elites,[38] policing clearly reflects and reproduces political power relations based on sectarianism and clientelism. In other words, apolitical interventions in policing, such as community policing, reproduce the political status quo rather than altering it. Mirroring the dilemma in US policing described above, community policing in Lebanon will have limited, if any, effects in increasing human security simply because it avoids engaging with the political basis that defines policing in Lebanon.

Palestinians in Lebanon face numerous ills, from lack of access to public healthcare and education to employment restrictions. It is hard to imagine how community policing would tackle any on these issues and improve the general living conditions of Palestinians living in refugee camps. Rather, the experiment in Nahr al-Bared shows how community policing serves the state to increase control over the camp. The Ras Beirut example paints a similar picture. In theory, community policing could increase security for Syrian refugees in the city by improving their relations with the police or making police more sensitive to the precarious situation of refugee. However, as the example shows, community policing has in fact cast refugees as social disturbances in Ras Beirut and hence legitimized police repression against them. Further, community policing has little prospects to improving relations between the police and drug users or LGBT people, both of which are regularly subject to police violence.

In sum, community policing seems to be expected to resolve problems which could probably be more effectively addressed through non-security policies. For instance, a recent decision in a Lebanese court ruling on same sex relations highlights how decriminalizing homosexuality in Lebanon might be a more effective way of reducing LGBT people’s exposure to police violence.[39] At the time of writing, the community policing model tested in Ras Beirut is being rolled out in adjacent West Beirut precincts as well as in one district in East Beirut.[40] However, it remains to be seen how, if at all, this roll-out will actually address the issues raised here.


[1] Simone Tholens, “Border management in an era of ‘statebuilding lite’: Security assistance and Lebanon's hybrid sovereignty,” International Affairs 93, 4 (2017): 865–82. doi:10.1093/ia/iix069.

[2] c.f. Stabilisation Unit. Policing the Context: Principles and guidance to inform international policing assistance. What Works Series. 2014; U.S. Department of State. The INL Guide to Police Assistance. Washington, DC, 2016.

[3] Stabilisation Unit, Policing the Context.

[4] Nick Tilley, “Modern approaches to policing: community, problem-oriented and intelligence-led,” in Tim Newburn (ed.), Handbook of policing.. 2nd ed. (Cullompton, UK: Willan Pub, 2008) 373–403. Emphasis in original.

[5] U.S. Department of State, The INL Guide to Police Assistance.

[6] c.f. Stabilisation Unit, Policing the Context.

[7] U.S. Department of State, The INL Guide to Police Assistance; Stabilisation Unit, Policing the Context

[8] c.f. Samer Abboud, “The Seige of Nahr al-Bared and the Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” Arab Studies Quarterly 31, 1/2 (2009): 31–48.

[9] Ismael S. Hassan and Sari Hanafi, “(In)Security and Reconstruction in Post-conflict Nahr al-Barid Refugee Camp,” Journal of Palestine Studies 40, 1 (2010): 27–48. doi:10.1525/jps.2010.XL.1.027.

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] c.f. Nora Stel, “Palestinian Governance Interaction in the Palestinian Gathering of Shabriha, South Lebanon: A Tentative Extension of the ‘Mediated State’ from Africa to the Mediterranean,” Mediterranean Politics 20, 1 (2015): 76–96. doi:10.1080/13629395.2014.984830.

[12] Hassan and Hanafi, “(In)Security and Reconstruction in Post-conflict Nahr al-Barid Refugee Camp,” 38.

[13] International Crisis Group, Lebanon's Palestinian Dilemma: The Struggle over Nahr al-Bared. Middle East Report 117. Beirut, 2012.

[14] Robert D. Lamb, Kathryn Mixon, and Andrew Halterman, “Absorptive Capacity in the Security and Justice Sectors: Assessing Obstacles to Success in the Donor-Recipient Relationship,” CSIS Reports (Lanham, MD: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2013).

[15] Former Senior Officer in the ISF on December 9, 2015; Security Sector Consultant on March 15, 2016.

[16] Former Senior Officer in the ISF on December 9, 2015; Senior Government Official on September 21, 2015; Officer at an UN Agency on July 14, 2015.

[17] Former Head of OHCHR in Lebanon on October 27, 2015.

[18] Human Rights Watch. “‘It’s part of the job’: Ill-treatment and torture of vulnerable groups in Lebanese police stations,” last modified March 12, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/lebanon0613_forUpload_1…; and Adriana Qubaia, “Transwomen’s Navigation of Arrest and Detention In Beirut: A Case Study,” July 30, 2015, http://cskc.daleel-madani.org/paper/transwomen%E2%80%99s-navigation-arr….

[19] David Correia and Tyler Wall (eds.), Police: A field guide (London: Verso, 2018).

[20] Consultant in Pilot Policing Project on July 16, 2015.

[21] Human Rights Watch, “‘It’s part of the job.’”

[22] Leila Seurat, Maintien de l’ordre public et community policing à Beyrouth: Le cas du commissariat de Ras Beirut. Les Études de CERI 222 (2016).

[23] Ronald Weitzer, “Recent trends in police–citizen relations and police reform in the United States,” in Dietrich Oberwittler and Sebastian Roché (eds.), Police-Citizen Relations Across the World: Comparing sources and contexts of trust and legitimacy (Milton, UK: Taylor and Francis, 2018); c.f. President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015).

[24] c.f. Michael Brogden and P. Nijhar, Community Policing (London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2013).

[25] Ibid., 9.

[26] c.f. Stabilisation Unit, Policing the Context; and Robert Lambert and Tim Parsons, “Community-Based Counterterrorism Policing: Recommendations for Practitioners,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, 12 (2017): 1054–71. doi:10.1080/1057610X.2016.1253989.

[27] Weitzer, Recent trends in police–citizen relations and police reform in the United States.

[28] Justin Hansford, “Community Policing Reconsidered: From Ferguson to Baltimore,” in Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton (eds.), Policing the planet: Why the policing crisis led to Black Lives Matter (London, UK and New York: Verso, 2016): 215-226.

[29] Alex S. Vitale, The end of policing (London, UK and New York: Verso, 2017).

[30] David H. Bayley, Patterns of policing: A comparative international analysis, 1st paperback ed. (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1985) and P.A.J. Waddington, Policing citizens: Authority and rights (London, UK: Routledge, 2014).

[31] Alice Hills, Policing post-conflict cities (London, UK and New York: Zed Books, 2009).

[32] c.f. Rohan Burdett and Georgina Sinclair. Mission Challenges, Lessons Learned and Guiding Principles: Policing with Communities in Fragile and Conflict Affected States. Scottish Institute for Policing Research/Joint International Policing Hub, 2018; Hesta Groenewald and Gordon Peake, Police Reform through Community-Based Policing: Philosophy and Guidelines for Implementation (New York: Saferworld & International Peace Academy, 2004).

[33] c.f. Nikolas Kosmatopoulos, “Toward an Anthropology of ‘State Failure’: Lebanon’s Leviathan and Peace Expertise,” Social Analysis 55, 3 (2011): 115-142. doi:10.3167/sa.2011.550307.

[34] Consociational democracy, also often referred to as consensual democracy or consociationalism, denotes a system of power sharing designed to stabilize deeply divided societies, regardless whether these divisions are ethnically or religiously rooted. In the comparative literature, consociationalism is commonly associated with the works of Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven, CT. Yale University Press, 1977).

[35] Reinoud Leenders, Spoils of truce: Corruption and state-building in postwar Lebanon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

[36] Ali Sayed-Ali, “Building Community Partnerships in Policing: Challenges & Opportunities for Potential Programming.” Unpublished.

[37] Estella Carpi, Mariam Younes, and Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghi, “Crisis & Control, (In)Formal Hybrid Security in Lebanon.” last modified August 20, 2016, http://civilsociety-centre.org/sites/default/files/resources/crisiscont….

[38] Leenders, Spoils of truce.

[39] Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon: Same-Sex Relations Not Illegal,” https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/19/lebanon-same-sex-relations-not-ille….

[40] British Embassy Beirut, “Plans afoot to improve community security in Beirut,” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/plans-afoot-to-improve-community-sec…; and U.S. Embassy Beirut, “U.S. Ambassador Richard Attends Inauguration of Refurbished Ashrafieh Community Policing Station | U.S. Embassy in Lebanon,” https://lb.usembassy.gov/u-s-ambassador-elizabeth-h-richard-attends-ina….