From its founding, the Tunisian military has long been marginalized under the dictatorial regimes of the former presidents. However, the revolution turned the tide, transforming it from a weakened military to a modern capable force with enhanced international links and influence.
The Tunisian Armed Forces were founded on June 30, 1956 by then Prime Minister Habib Bourguiba. Initially made up of only 850 men from the Beylical Guard, 1,500 from the French Army and 3,000 conscripts.
The Tunisian Navy followed in 1958, receiving its first ship in 1959. And later the Air Force, acquiring its first combat aircraft in 1960.
Under Bourguiba: 1956-1987
The coups in Egypt, Syria and Iraq had a big impact on the thinking of Tunisia’s founding father Habib Bourguiba. He tried to make sure that the military would be unable to carry out their own rebellion in Tunisia. However, the assassination of Salah Ben Youssef and repression of his supporters had caused growing discontent among the public which eventually led to the failed coup of 1962. This event shocked Bourguiba and led to executions of military personnel involved and tightening of the regime’s hold.
The president cut major funding to the Armed Forces and took on a series of measures to prevent another attempt. He prohibited military officers and soldiers from voting or joining political parties and rewarded loyal officers (such as Ben Ali) with promotions and training in western military academies. This kept the military loyal to the regime and removed from politics. When asked about the event, retired Colonel Major Mokhtar Ben Nasr said “The 1962 revolt caused some fear in Bourguiba’s government, so he tightened the laws for them more and more and precised their tasks such as national and international security, help with police development, etc. Civil society was also not allowed to interfere with the military missions and this also includes governors or any political figures.”
As unrest in the country grew in the late 1970s and 1980s after a nationwide strike by the UGTT in 1978 and the infamous bread riots of 1983, Bourguiba was forced to modernise the Armed Forces as the police and National Guard were overwhelmed. This is when military spending quadrupled and arms imports soared.
Under Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali: 1987-2011
Many people thought that the rise of Ben Ali, a military officer, to the presidency would bring justice to the military. And it did, but only for a short period. The new president promoted four officers to the rank of general and appointed senior officers to ministerial positions. This meant that military officers held a dominant voice in policymaking.
The ruling party (the Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD for short) and the police saw this shift of power as a threat. And as such they came up with a plan to take down two of their rivals with one stone, the military and the political movement of Ennahdha. Interior minister Abdullah al-Qallal accused elements of the military of meeting with Ennahdha leaders in the coastal town of Barraket Essahel near Hammamet. The Interior Ministry tortured and then removed around 244 officers, in what became known as the Barraket Essahel affair.
Ben Ali then began to marginalize the military. The president forced the officers he had appointed as ministers into retirement. Members of the military would no longer receive political positions and the defense budget stagnated. This is in contrast to the Interior Ministry, by the time Ben Ali was ousted in 2011, its budget had doubled. General Said el-Kateb, former chief of staff of the Armed Forces said “The military under Bourguiba were treated better than the police, as far as budget, equipment, and training.” He complains, “under Ben Ali, the budget allocated to the police was higher than the military’s; the number of police officers increased dramatically. We could feel our marginalization.”
Another way the armed forces were sidelined was that Ben Ali refused to appoint a new chief of staff, depriving the military of its most senior position, instead taking on the role himself. Ben Ali also rewarded officers from Tunis and the Sahel, further adding to the North-South divide. Retired Major Colonel Mohamed Ahmed observes: “If you are from Kairouan, Gafsa, or Kef, you are just an average officer. But if you are from the Sahel, you have a big chance of being promoted more quickly.” Underfunded, under equipped and far from political power, the majority of military staff despised Ben Ali and felt no remorse after his fall.
The revolution changed everything. The military became hugely popular for their support for the revolution, ensuring peaceful transition to democracy. Tunisia’s new leaders were now forced to strengthen the armed forces after instability and attacks on the country. The budget of the Defence Ministry has risen by 21 percent every year. The military has also enjoyed a steady stream of new weapons contracts (including 12 Blackhawk helicopters, 2 C-130J planes and Humvee trucks) and operational support from the United States. As well as Turkey, which signed off a weapons contract for 100 MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles in 2014, critical in protecting soldiers stationed in the south who are vulnerable to attacks by Daesh. Tunisia has so far received 45 of the vehicles, however deliveries have temporarily stopped after the recent Turkish coup.
Tunisia ratified security cooperation agreements with Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and has recently received training from UK troops on border control. Plans were announced in July to establish a NATO-Intelligence ‘Fusion Center’ in the wake of the organisation’s Warsaw Summit. The increased military-to-military cooperation has enhanced the Armed Forces international links and capacity to tackle current threats.
These improvements have brought about increased political influence. For instance, The Troika government created the position of military adviser to the president and reactivated the National Security Council, which was largely abandoned after the Barraket Essahel affair. Leadership of the military was also replaced in order to reflect the transition and fairly represent all regions. Retired officers have formed their own civil society organisations such as the “Association of Justice for Military Veterans,” which contributed to the drafting of the new constitution and lobbied successfully for transitional justice for officers falsely charged in the Barraket Essahel affair. The military has changed from one-man autocratic rule to decentralised, democratic civil control.
There’s more to work on however. In an interview with retired Colonel Major Mokhtar Ben Nasr on the issues that remain, he told Tunisia Live “We are asking for more transparency from the MoD, maybe a reform and a democratic watch of what the ministry does. We changed the court structure to keep up with the international military system. The constitution specifies our tasks and emphasizes on our neutrality.”
The enhancement of the strength and influence of the military in the last five years suggests that the historical imbalance between the military and police is beginning to be corrected. The current President, Beji Caid Essebsi seems to support this progress, and with further cooperation between civil society, the government and international partners, Tunisia may mend its security issues and international status.