Tunisia’s military is widely perceived as having successfully maintained its historically non-political role in Tunisian society throughout the country’s 2011 revolution.
In a region where national armies and political struggles have made for not-so-strange bedfellows, this nonpartisan mindset makes the Tunisian military something of an anomaly.
The Egyptian army, for example, has historically played a decisive role in determining the country’s political and social landscape. Egypt’s past three presidents emerged from military posts, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which governed Egypt until the election of President Morsy in June of 2012, continues to exert influence today.
By comparison, the Tunisian Armed Forces (Forces Armees Tunisiens), have remained largely removed from political infighting. Kept within their barracks and out of the limelight by former Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian Armed Forces have only recently come to center stage in the context of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.
Arab and international news sources reported that it was the refusal of General Ammar, Chief of Staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces, to fire on civilians that led to the final exit of Tunisia’s former President Ben Ali. Although such reports remain unconfirmed, most local and international analysts affirm that the Tunisian Armed Forces served as a pivotal force supporting the country during its fragile transition.
As the Tunisian Armed Forces celebrated their 57th anniversary yesterday with fanfare and musical performances, the army continues to enjoy popular credibility – a legitimacy perhaps lacking elsewhere in the region.
However, in the three years since the Tunisian revolution, difficulties have emerged, and it appears that the new challenges faced by the Tunisian Armed Forces pose a historic test for the institution’s popular credibility.
A Marginalized Military
In celebration of the 57th anniversary of the Tunisian Armed Forces, the army released a statement on TAP yesterday reiterating the military’s “apolitical nature.”
This nonpartisan mindset is the result of policies enacted under Tunisia’s last two presidents, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba.
According to Amine Ghali, program director at the Kawabiki Democracy Transition Center in Tunis, both Bourguiba and Ben Ali forcibly kept the military relatively weak, relegating it outside of the political realm as a means to solidify their own power.
During the years of nation-building and “African coups every week,” Ghali explained, “They [Ben Ali and Bourguiba] would rather have had a weak military, and to not have it represent a threat to their existence.”
Political-military relations deteriorated in 1962 after an attempted coup against then-President Habib Bourguiba, which resulted in the imprisonment or execution of key officers. In 1968, Bourguiba further restricted the role of Tunisia’s military by giving the National Guard (technically a civilian force) oversight over it.
Following in Bourguiba’s footsteps, President Ben Ali further marginalized the military and monopolized his own power by reducing the number of military personnel to 40,000. He also delayed promotions, reduced the Ministry of Defense’s budget, and introduced compulsory retirement for the most competent officers, according to Badra Gaaloul, a PhD candidate in military sociology at Tunis University.
Having formerly served as minister of the interior himself, Ben Ali chose to build up the capabilities and resources of the Ministry of Interior once he became president, while geographically isolating the Tunisian Armed Forces.
“Conscript-filled military ranks were deployed to less populated regions of the country to do public works projects. Deployments were chiefly for peacekeeping missions in Africa, which kept the armed forces engaged elsewhere,” a publication by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) reported.
Senior officers of the armed forces interviewed for the same USIP report affirmed that they and their colleagues had been relegated to the bottom rungs of Ben Ali’s security apparatus.
“We were always last,” one senior officer noted. “The regime did not like us,” another said.
As a result of this forced marginalization, Tunisians view the military as neutral and as disconnected from the dictatorship of the former regime, according to Ghali.
In such a context, the Tunisian army was poised to take on an unprecedented role in the days leading up to, and following, the 2011 revolution.
Emerging from the Barracks
In the immediate aftermath of the departure of Ben Ali, the Tunisian state was faced with a security vacuum.
Criticized by many for its links to the former regime, the Ministry of Interior could not play its regular role of maintaining internal security in Tunisia. Instead, the Tunisian Armed Forces took on this role.
“When the revolution came, and the Ministry of Interior was in the eye of the cyclone, the military stepped in and took a stabilizing role, and people perceived this as very positive,” explained Ghali.
Due to its historical marginalization from politics, the Tunisian military enjoyed popular credibility and legitimacy at this crucial moment, especially compared to most other institutions.
“The military protected the revolution. The neutrality of the army has been one of the key elements that led the revolution to overturn the Ben Ali regime,” explained Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, senior adviser to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), an international foundation established to enhance security sector governance.
“It wasn’t the role of the army to overthrow Ben Ali, but they didn’t intervene, and this was a chance for the people to do it themselves,” Mahfoudh expained to Tunisia Live.
In the midst of the instability and insecurity following Ben Ali’s departure, the military remained on duty and played a non-traditional military function.
According to Gaaloul, some of the activities of the Tunisian Armed Forces at this time included: protecting public property, controlling looting, protecting people from police violence, manning checkpoints, monitoring public buildings, allowing the country’s university baccalaureate exams to continue on schedule, and even guaranteeing security during Tunisia’s historic 2011 elections by deploying 22,000 troops to polling and vote-counting centers.
All the while, the military refrained from playing a visibly political role.
According to the USIP report, instead of “exploiting” this opportunity for power, the Tunisian Armed Forces left open the Tunisian political space for the civilian bureaucracy, nascent political parties, and civil society groups.
A Regional Exception
As a result of its smaller, historically apolitical position, the Tunisian military has played a less overt role in rebuilding the country post-revolution than its counterpart has in Egypt.
Unlike in Egypt, where military officers have recently been implicated in the torture and killings of protesters during the 2011 revolution, Tunisia has yet to convict army personnel for carrying out any instances of violence against protesters during the revolution.
Instead, the Tunisian populace in general believes that the military protected the revolution, according to Mahfoudh. The army’s first loyalty, it appeared, lay with their fellow citizens.
In a New York Times article from shortly after the January 2011 revolution, Tunisian soldiers were quick to compare their fellow soldiers to their Egyptian counterparts. The Egyptian army’s loyalty, they said, was primarily to itself, not to the people.
The USIP report drew another contrast between Tunisia and Egypt regarding the economic role of the military in society.
Unlike Egypt’s army, which has remained economically entrenched in the old regime, Tunisia’s army does not “receive any special compensation or material advantages for their service to the state,” according to the report.
Compared to the Egyptian military, the Tunisian Armed Forces also spend noticeably less. The USIP publication reports that in 2009, the Tunisian military expenditures were 1.2 percent of the country’s GDP, compared to 3.3 percent in Egypt.
Moreover, in a report published by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Ellen Knickmeyer stated that the Tunisian military often resists foreign aid.
Knickmeyer reported that Tunisia has been earmarked $4.9 million in U.S. military aid this year. Egypt’s military, in comparison, takes in approximately 260 times as much U.S. military aid, amounting to $1.13 billion annually.
Despite the consistently positive light in which Tunisia’s military has been viewed until now, shifting post-revolutionary security conditions continue to pose challenges.
Moreover, an institution that was established with the aim of defending borders and guaranteeing regional security has now been stretched thin with the additional task of maintaining internal order.
In his statement at Carthage Monday, President Marzouki listed the military’s many tasks, stating that the institution has “ensured the smooth running of various national exams, secured crops, fought against forest fires, rescued victims of floods and blizzards,” adding that at the same time the military is “today in the front line to fight against terrorist groups.”
Because of the military’s historically forced marginalization, it also lacks political experience to deal with these added duties.
“It [the military] has to contribute to public safety concerns, keeping order. They were never trained for that in the army,” explained Haykel.
“It is not the job of the military to patrol the streets or to go after thieves,” Ghali agreed.
“After three years, they are failing to do even their own job, which is to protect the country,” Ghali added. “They are facing double blame, both against what is their duty and what isn’t their duty.”
Here, Ghali referred to emerging security threats, such as soldiers operating out of Chaambi Mountain along Tunisia’s border with Algeria, as well as weapons smuggled in from Libya.
For Mahfoudh, such a situation necessitates that the military refocus its post-revolutionary role to the more traditional one of defending the country’s borders from infiltrators.
“They [the military] have other things to cope with that they need to focus on, in terms of terrorism,” he claimed.
Addressing these heightened security risks also poses a new set of challenges for the Tunisian army – one of resources.
According to Knickmeyer’s report published on the Pulitzer Center site, Tunisia’s military currently numbers only 27,000.
The USIP publication added that the Tunisian Armed Forces possess fewer than 27 working helicopters and have no deep-water ships.
Ghali agreed that the military is currently under-equipped and under-financed.
“I’m not talking about F-16s. I’m talking about border security, like patrol cars, helicopters, new strategies of intelligence – all of these things that aren’t that high tech, but are necessary for our new environment,” he stated.
For Mahfoudh, in the context of Tunisia’s nascent democratic society, it is about quality, not quantity.
Instead of focusing on the need for increased manpower or resources, Mahfoudh highlighted the need for parliamentary oversight of the military.
“An army which serves under a democratic transition doesn’t have the same mission as an army that serves under a dictatorship,” he stressed.
“Within the next constitution, there should be a provision to entitle the parliament to oversee military activity,” Mahfoudh explained, adding, “This will strengthen the lawfulness of its [the military's] work and the legitimacy of the institution itself.”