Following the landmark elections of October 23, all eyes are on the formation of the new government that will amend the constitution and redefin the rules of the political game in Tunisia. Given that the military has played a key role in ensuring a smooth transition to date, what role will it play in the elections’ aftermath? Some Tunisians have expressed concern over increasing the military role in political decision-making—especially considering the deep split in the constituent assembly between Islamists and secularists. However, the question is not necessarily a central part of the current debate, and the possibility of the military dominating Tunisia’s politics is far-fetched: There are powerful assurances that the Tunisian military will return to barracks after supervising the elections and outlining the political framework.
The political and social prominence that the military has assumed over the last year is unprecedented in Tunisia’s history. Unlike Egypt or Algeria—where the military beds with both politician and businessman and seeksthe protection of its own economic interests—the Tunisian counterpart lacks political experience, as former regimes have deliberately kept it far away from the political sphere. This strategy dates to 1962, when the military fell out of favor with the first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, after a Lazhar Chraiti’s attempted coup. After the imprisonment or execution of key officers, Bourguiba restricted the army’s power through institutional mechanisms; in 1968, he gave the paramilitary National Guard (technically a civilian force) oversight over the army—and this arrangement has generated a long-standing antagonism ever since.
Zein El Abidine Ben Ali followed Bourguiba’s footsteps. His crackdown on the military was the harshest in its history. Ben Ali (himself from a military background) focused on preemptively weakening the army and monopolizing power by marginalizing the military establishment: in 1991, he accused a group of officers of plotting a coup. The officers maintained that the charges against them were fabricated to discourage others from thinking about a rise to political power through the military. Officers accused of involvement or belonged to Islamist groups were imprisoned, placed under house arrest, or forced into early retirement. Between 1991 and 2011, the total number of personnel was reduced to about 40,000. Ben Ali reduced the ministry of defense’s budget, delayed promotions, and introduced a compulsory retirement for often the most competent officers. The military’s role was strictly defined as defending the country, contributing to economic development, dealing with natural disasters, and taking part in UN-led global peacekeeping efforts. Today, it is apparent that the strategy of marginalization also unintentionally facilitated the transition from Ben Ali’s rule.
The Tunisian military also differs starkly from many Arab militaries in its composition: religious, ethnic, and regional considerations do not determine standards of membership. Instead, performance standards dictate recruitment—such as level of academic achievement (where the minimum score on the baccalaureate exam to enter a military school is 15 out of 20).
More convincingly political power was certainly well within reach of the military during the uprisings—yet it did not exploit the opportunity. In the wake of Ben Ali’s departure on January 14, there was much popular support for the military to assume control of the country under the leadership of the Tunisian armed forces’ chief of staff Rachid Ammar, who refused to follow Ben Ali’s orders to fire on demonstrators. Even before this refusal, the military enjoyed great popular credibility and legitimacy, in sharp contrast to most state institutions—among them, the internal security forces that served as Ben Ali’s main tool of repression were notorious for their corruption. The people also perceived the judiciary as corrupt and lacking autonomy: protected only the interests of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families. Later, the public was also skeptical of the interim governments because of ties to Ben Ali’s regime; two governments led by former Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi were largely composed of ministers from the deposed regime and were eventually dissolved due to popular outcry. The interim government of Beji Caid Essebsi also failed to live up to its promises.
Rampant abuses have continued. But the army has limited its role to providing security and protected citizens from in the security vacuum that ensued when police fled their posts. Military structure remained intact; soldiers have stayed on duty and protected public and private property, and Ammar pledged to “protect the revolution and the country.” The ministry of defense has stated repeatedly that that its objective was to secure a civil democratic process and not to impose military rule. And since then, the Tunisian military has continued to provide the necessary security to allow diverse, crucial tasks to continue on schedule (for example, national baccalaureate university exams). It has also safeguarded wheat and date harvests by storing it in military barracks, and later played a crucial logistical role in constituent assembly elections: deploying 22,000 troops to polling and vote-counting centers across the country.
The military officially declared its support of the electoral protests, signaling it will accept the outcome even before the Islamists emerged on top. After the elections, the representative of the defense ministry, Major-Colonel Mokhtar Ben Nasr remarked: “As a military institution, we are proud of the Tunisian people. We have fulfilled our promise and participated in securing the elections…the Tunisian army will return to its military bases after the elections, and it will carry out its normal business, while rethinking its mission, and working to employ many of the youth.”
Badra Gaaloul is a PhD candidate in military sociology at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tunis University-1. She teaches at the Higher Institute of Applied Humanities. This article was translated from Arabic.