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Tunisian crisis: What role for the military?

September 20, 2021

The Tunisian army has remained apolitical throughout its modern history. But now, some locals fear the military is getting too close to President Kais Saied's increasingly unconstitutional regime.

Tunisian army soldiers hold guns and stand to attention.
The Tunisian army has hardly ever interfered in its country's politicsImage: dpa/picture alliance

The video, shot late at night, shows a group of mostly men in suits approaching a metal gate in Tunis. Beyond the gate stand several soldiers guarding the country's parliament buildings.

Politely, it is explained that the gathering includes some of the most senior politicians in the country, including Rachid Ghannouchi, Tunisia's parliamentary speaker and chairman of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.

However, the young soldiers beyond the gate deny the lawmakers entry, explaining only that "the army has been given orders."

This was in mid-summer, at the start of Tunisia's current political crisis. On July 25, the country's president, Kais Saied, froze the country's parliament, dismissed sitting Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and granted himself emergency powers. The video shows Tunisian politicians trying to defy Saied's decree and hold an emergency session.

Army's new role?

Almost two months later, the crisis has yet to be resolved. Saied's supporters argue that what he did was necessary to put an end to political gridlock. Saied's critics claim his actions are unconstitutional and that he is a potential dictator endangering Tunisia's nascent democracy. Over the past weekend, the two groups protested on the streets of the capital, Tunis.

But one of the big differences between a potential dictatorship in Tunisia and those existing elsewhere in the region is the role played by the national military.

For decades, the Tunisian army has been mostly apolitical. However, its actions in July are now causing concern.

In modern Tunisia, "the army has never before controlled the exit and entry of the parliament buildings like this," local photojournalist Hammadi Lassoued wrote on the independent media platform Nawaat in August. "It makes us question the current relationship of the army to politicians in Tunisia."

Supporters of the Ennahda party in Tunis protest in front of soldiers.
Supporters of the Ennahda party were angry the Tunisian army had closed off parliamentImage: Fauque Nicolas/Images de Tunisie/ABACA/picture alliance

The incident at parliament's gates "was the first time in Tunisia's recent history that the military became involved in political matters, and it was clearly unconstitutional," Radwan Masmoudi, the head of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington and a member of the ousted Ennahda party, argued in an editorial in Foreign Policy magazine this month.

Underfunded and impartial

The Tunisian army is one of the smallest in the region. It is ranked 73rd in the world in terms of firepower and 11th out of 16 Middle Eastern militaries. Since the 1950s, it has been deliberately neutered by Tunisia's authoritarian leaders, who saw it as a potential threat to their authoritarian leadership.

Tactics included underfunding, ensuring that military leaders were diverse and not allowing soldiers to vote. The latter only changed in 2017.

The Tunisian military's neutrality is widely seen as one of the reasons why the country's 2011 revolution was successful. Instead of firing on anti-government protesters, soldiers simply protected state property.

"Underpaid, underequipped and deprived of political influence, the bulk of the officer corps resented [authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali," analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a 2016 analysis of how Tunisia's military has evolved. "When a popular uprising … eventually ousted Ben Ali, the majority of the officer corps felt no remorse."

Tunisia's most trusted

That they didn't turn on demonstrators is partially why the local military is so popular. In a survey asking Tunisians who they trusted, the Afrobarometer poll found that the Tunisian army was seen as the most reliable institution in the country. Tunisians — 85% of them — trusted their soldiers more than their police, religious leaders, the judiciary or local and federal politicians.

"Perhaps sensing this public feeling, the Saied government is starting to wrap itself around the Tunisian armed forces," said Olfa Hamdi, co-founder of the Washington-based Center for Strategic Studies on Tunisia.

Hamdi, who became somewhat of a controversial figure in Tunisia herself after a short stint running the national airline and who has also been criticized for being close to the ousted Ennahda party, argued that Saied has increasingly mixed politics and the military. He has made speeches at military sites or with high-ranking soldiers by his side, involved the army in public works projects such as the pandemic response and promoted military leaders to civilian positions. In August, Saied made Ali Mrabet, a general who had been in charge of vaccination campaigns in southern Tunisia, the new minister of health.

A soldier administers COVID-19 vaccine to a man at the Assad Iben El Fourat school in Oued Ellil, outside Tunis.
Military support during the pandemic has made soldiers even more popular with TunisiansImage: Hassene Dridi/AP Photo/picture alliance

'Dangerous precedent'

One of the most worrying aspects of increased army involvement is also the potential use of military courts to prosecute political opponents. Tunisia's three military courts have already been used to target a number of civilians, including political opponents and bloggers, the Brookings Institution reported in 2019.

Earlier this month, the lawyers of Tunisia's National Bar Association said they would refuse to refer lawyers and civilians to military judiciary.

Despite all of the above, trying to predict the role the Tunisian military will play in the country's future is just as difficult as working out whether Kais Saied is Tunisia's next authoritarian leader — or whether he is simply doing the only thing he can to deal with the country's political deadlock and economic crisis.

As Timothy Hazen, a professor of political science at Elmhurst University in the US state of Illinois, pointed out about the military courts, "from Saied's perspective, if political institutions are perceived as irreparable then it would make sense to use the 'military courts' rather than the 'corruptible' civilian courts in the short term."

Tunisians hold placards during a demonstration demanding the release of writer Yassine Ayari, who was judged by military tribunals in the capital, Tunis.
Outspoken Tunisian writer Yassine Ayari was jailed by a military tribunal in 2015Image: Amine Landoulsi/AA/picture alliance

But as the author of the 2016 study Defect Or Defend? Explaining Military Responses During the Arab Uprisings also noted, that is "a dangerous precedent."

Violence against civilians?

The military's role is "acceptable and necessary," Abdel-Majid Bettaieb, a retiree in Tunis, told DW. Due to "the failure of the political system and the mafia-like parliament, Kais Saied was obliged to seek the army's assistance in order to save the country and its people," Bettaieb said, praising the way the Tunisian military had helped in the pandemic.

However, Imed Ben Faraj, a private sector employee, thinks the opposite. "The most dangerous thing that the president has done is to intensify the presence of the military in civilian affairs — for example, during this fight against COVID-19. Kais Saied's attempt to drag the army into the political battlefield could be a huge danger for our emerging democracy in the future," he said.

"Some might find it hypocritical that the Tunisian military violated the constitution this summer with some soldiers supporting Saied's dissolution of parliament," said Hazen. However, because of the way it is organized, Hazen doesn't think the military will be loyal to one politician if the situation deteriorates somehow.

"There is a limit to how far the Tunisian military will go in following Saied," Hazen told DW. "If Tunisian protesters take to the street in critical mass, history suggests that the Tunisian military would back down and not cross the line of high levels of sustained violence against civilians."

Tunisia analyst Mariam Salehi speaks to DW

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.