During the revolution, the army did not dirty itself with crimes, unlike the police, which killed protesters in public squares while police snipers fired from surrounding buildings. To the contrary, in the chaotic period of transition following Ben Ali’s escape, the armed forces acted as a guarantee against both unrest incited by regime members and against looting and vandalism.
What, however, is worth highlighting is that once the democratic process was under way with the first open elections for the Constituent Assembly in October 2011, the armed forces returned to their barracks and did not interfere with the country’s political life. For this reason, Tunisia is an exception, considering what happened in Egypt and Algeria, where the army seized power, or in Libya and Syria – not to mention Iraq – where the democratic processes quickly fell apart, as a result of tribal and ethno-sectarian tension. In view of the relations between political power and the military, Tunisia represents a positive exception and you it is possible to say that the role of the army was one of the main elements that steered Tunisia clear of civil war.
The reasons for this regional exception are diverse and result from the country’s recent history, as well as the peculiarities of Tunisian society and its armed forces.
President Habib Bourguiba was removed from office following a soft coup d'état in 1987. At the time, one of the main concerns of Ben Ali was to marginalize the armed forces: he feared that the most serious threat to his authority could come from the military. Various high officials connected to the former president obtained civilian positions but, in general, officials were forbidden from holding public office and defense funding was reduced. Furthermore, Ben Ali nominated himself chief of staff of the armed forces, depriving the military of a leader. His most successful strategy involved transforming the police into the main player in the security network of Tunisia and the regime: Tunisia became a police state. The plan worked and the regime secured the loyalty of the security forces – police and intelligence personnel – who became the Praetorian Guard of the dictator, an instrument of repression against both Islamic radicalism and every popular movement of dissent of the people and of civil society. The armed forces, structured to defend against any possible external threat but lacking any political role and with limited funding, nonetheless remained an efficient, highly professional, and cohesive force, that had Tunisian society’s respect as it was not seen as working in collusion with the regime.
To get a sense of Ben Ali’s strategy, just look at the fact that under his regime the strength of security forces grew to be five times greater than that of the military. Indeed, in 1991, with the excuse of suppressing an alleged conspiracy hatched by the military and by the Islamists of Ennahda, the army was radically purged and was even further marginalized. Therefore, for the Forces armées tunisiennes, without a supporting role to the dictator and no corporate interests or political and economic collusion with the regime, it was easy to side with the rioters. What facilitated a transition of power in favor of civil and democratic institutions was the fact that the political void left by the collapse of the regime was swiftly filled by representatives of the civil society, judges, activists, mayors and political parties.
The Tunisian exception also stems from a second line of thought linked to the peculiarity of the Tunisian armed forces. With less than 50 thousand members, the Tunisian military is the smallest of the Arab world, but they have always maintained a high level of training and today they are the subject of extensive renewal. From Ben Ali’s personalized rule over the military, it has since transitioned to being subordinate to civil and democratic power: in various ways, they respond to the President, the Prime Minister, the Parliament, the Minister of Defense, and the National Security Council. Furthermore, today the army is the protagonist of the fight against Islamic terrorism, especially along the borders with Libya and Algeria. It received more funding and materials, and international cooperation and training agreements have been reached with the UAE, Qatar, Turkey and the United States. Finally, the executive branch has nominated different members of the armed forces to civil positions and to positions in the security sector, including numerous governor positions.
Although the situation has changed dramatically, doubts linger regarding the future of the relationship between civil society and the military in Tunisia. In fact, with its regained strength and a central role in society, the armed forces could be tempted by coup-related movements; when, in 2013, the agreements between the government’s political forces faltered and the country was shaken by the murder of secular leaders and the Tunisian society’s ensuing popular protests against the alleged Islamization of Ennahda, it is no secret that the armed forces was a step away from a coup. Today, in part thanks to the evidence of Ennahda’s political compromise, the situation has improved, but the very serious economic crisis and the threat of terrorism remain two variables capable of putting an end to the Tunisian exception.
*Translated from the Italian original
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal