Youssef Cherif
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on : Thursday, 20 Jun, 2013
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Neo-Tunisian Army

The changing role of Tunisia's military

SIROCCOThe Mediterranean wind whipped up in the Sahara and blown across the Maghreb region. In North Africa, it is known by its Arabic name, qibli. ‘Sirocco’ provides a blow-by-blow account of events occurring in the Arabic-speaking countries west of Egypt.

A Tunisian soldier looks towards Mount Chaambi in the Kasserine region on May 1, 2013.  ABDERRAZEK KHLIFI/AFP/Getty Images

A Tunisian soldier looks towards Mount Chaambi in the Kasserine region on May 1, 2013. ABDERRAZEK KHLIFI/AFP/Getty Images

To any observer, the drastic change to Tunisia’s public sphere pre and post Arab Spring, lies in the introduction of politics and uncensored speech. Another change, less documented, is in the presence of the Army. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in January 2011 the Tunisian military was freed, along with the Tunisian people.

This change is visible in the vanishing of the Military Police checkpoints. During the Ben Ali era it was common to see Military Police patrolling the national roads. Their mission was to control the soldiers’ movement, in case some of the troops were moved out of their barracks without political approval. Today they have almost disappeared. Instead, you encounter humvees and other military cars.

Just after Tunisia’s independence from France, it was the choice of the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, to keep the army compact and away from politics. Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, his successor, continued along the same line. Tunisia’s military has less than 50,000 men on duty, and very basic armament. When the uprising against Ben Ali reached its peak, the army was perceived as different from the regime forces and apparatus. Its neutrality, and symbolic siding with the demonstrators, gave it unprecedented popularity.

Beyond the beautiful myth, however, lie some forgotten truths. Salah Ben Youssef was one of the main leaders of the 1956 Tunisian national movement. In 1962, a few years after independence, the army’s leadership was accused of preparing a Youssefist-Communist coup. This allowed the new nationalist government to remove the possibility of a future military threat, castrating the army by killing its leaders.

Another round of arrests occurred after Ben Ali took over. In 1991, in what is known as the Barraket Es-Sahel affair, 244 officers in the Tunisian military, said to belong to the Ennahda Islamist movement, were accused of plotting a coup and were stripped of their titles and imprisoned. Hence, the second generation of military leaders were removed.

Finally, in 2002, thirteen members of the general-staff were killed in a helicopter crash. Investigations, led by the state, both before and after the fall of Ben Ali, concluded that it was an accident. Popular opinion, however, points elsewhere. As a matter of fact, a number of generals and colonels disappeared in the crash.

The army was, on the other hand, called upon to crack down on three major uprisings before the Arab Spring: the 1978 Labor Union Strikes, the 1984 Bread Riots, and the 2008 Miner’s Revolt of Gafsa. In the absence of an independent inquiry, one can only speculate, but hundreds of civilians were shot and killed, especially during the 1984 crisis.

All these affairs remain unresolved, and the army has yet to come up against any strong criticism.

All these affairs remain unresolved, and the army has yet to come up against any strong criticism. Among its current leadership, there are those who were involved in the previous bloodsheds, and who need to be questioned about what happened. The higher generals have a very clear opinion that the 2002 incident was an “accident”, but they were the ones who survived. And, true to its name, La Grande Muette remains mute.

In Tunisia’s new sphere of freedom, the army is facing some limited criticism. Many Youssefist descendants, Islamists, some leftists and unionists have not forgotten the past. Freedom advocates and youth groups are also angry with the army. But it is mainly from the Islamists that criticism arises. They consider the army to be, as it is portrayed by their counterparts in Turkey, a secular enemy. It is therefore an issue for non-Islamists to publicly criticize the establishment, especially given this polarization. But this is not the only reason for their reservations.

Gradually, with the semi-permanent state of emergency, the army has become almost sacred by law, and it is now risky to criticize its work. Currently one blogger is being tried by the Military Tribunal for writing an article criticizing the institution. This holiness has allowed the generals more freedoms than officials in other so-called liberated state institutions, such as those in the ministries or the police, who regularly face tough questions and are often implicated in public scandals.

It is true that Tunisia is facing many security issues: growing religious fundamentalism, smugglers and terrorist groups breaching the borders, Libya’s disintegration, Algeria’s political crisis, and now the war in Mali, as well as the changing geopolitical situation of the region. However, power corrupts. If the situation does not change, the country may turn into a military dictatorship; if not a Mauritanian model, possibly an Algerian one, with the army controlling events behind the scenes. Tunisia’s top general, Rachid Ammar himself, warned about this in 2011, when he called on people to stop demonstrating and to go home.

In its third year of freedom and democratic transition, Tunisia should avoid falling in to the hands of radical Islamism, and most importantly distance itself from the looming chaos. This does not mean, however, moving from a police state to a military camp. The state of emergency should be lifted, it cannot stay indefinitely. Old cases should be opened. As the country is being built anew, it is legitimate to strengthen the army, but as an army serving the public, not as a higher authority controlling it.

Youssef Cherif

Youssef Cherif

Youssef Cherif is a consultant in North African Affairs based in Tunisia. He is an award-winning Tunisian blogger, former consultant for the Carter Center, former manager of the New Arab Debates in Tunisia, and observer in the 2012 presidential elections in Egypt. He has a Fulbright scholarship MA in Ancient History from Columbia University and an MA in International Relations from King's College, London. You can follow him on twitter at @faiyla.

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  1. [...] the rule of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, the Tunisian military – understaffed and underequipped – remained confined to its barracks and was kept away from the political arena. Since the army has been called upon to secure the restless region of Chaambi, its many [...]

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