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Tunisia’s armed forces are no longer neglected, but will they take power?

Unlike many Middle East and North African states, the Tunisian military has for political purposes been neglected since the country’s independence in 1957. However, the 2011 revolution has brought a change of political strategy. Middle East Monitor spoke to researcher Sharan Grewal about the country’s armed forces pre- and post-revolution and the obstacles on the horizon.

The country’s first President was Habib Bourguiba. “His goal was to deprive the military of the capacity to carry out a coup,” explained Grewal. “Post-revolution, it has been to deprive the military of the will to carry out a coup.” The researcher published A Quiet Revolution: The Tunisian Military After Ben Ali recently, in which he takes a close look at the Tunisian military before and after the revolution. While a lot of research has been focusing on how the military affected the revolution and the democratic transition in Tunisia, little focus, argued Grewal, has been on how the transition in turn affected the military.

Tunisia’s relatively successful democratic transition is in part attributed to the role of the military, which unlike its regional neighbours has historically been militarily and politically weak. The armed forces are the smallest in the region, estimated at about 40,500 active personnel; they have never fought any major wars. However, according to Grewal’s report, since the revolution there have been profound changes in civilian-military relations, which, he says, indicates a restructuring away from ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s police state towards a more balanced relationship between the different security agencies.

Grewal notes that the Tunisian military has increased its military production capabilities significantly since the revolution. In addition, the country’s defence contracts have increased, including the degree of military-to-military cooperation with foreign states such as the UAE, Turkey and Qatar. Tunisia’s relations with the US have also improved with, for example, the tripling of its military aid. However, the armed forces still lack a chief of staff. “As of today, the position of chief of staff of the armed forces, the highest position in the military responsible for coordinating the army, navy, and air force, remains vacant,” Grewal pointed out. “While its absence may mean the armed forces are less effective, this is a trade-off that successive governments have been willing to make.”

Keeping the military underfunded and under-equipped, separated from political and economic power, has been a long-lasting political strategy, which began during Bourguiba’s tenure. When he came to power there was no Tunisian armed forces to inherit from the colonial era and troops had only a limited involvement in the nationalist movement. Witnessing and fearing coups in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Bourguiba “pursued a variety of coup-proofing strategies, most notably keeping the military weak and counterbalanced by the police and National Guard,” Grewal noted. Bourguiba positioned the National Guard, a paramilitary force normally accommodated within the Ministry of Defence, under the orders of the Ministry of the Interior so as to prevent collusion between the National Guard and the military.

With increasing internal and external threats, though, Bourguiba was forced to empower the armed forces in the late 1970s and 1980s, which led to military officers increasingly assuming high-level political positions. As Bourguiba feared, the move paved the way for a coup orchestrated by former Brigadier General Ben Ali, who had been able to climb through the civilian ranks. Whilst Bourguiba simply neglected the armed forces, Ben Ali also empowered the Interior Ministry, ultimately turning the country into a police state. The former officer also tightened his control over the military, which in practice meant that he took on the role as the new chief of staff of the armed forces after General El-Kateb retired in 1991, thereby depriving the institution of its independent leadership.

Consequently, after years of deprivation, most military personnel harboured little regret when the popular uprising started in December 2010. The post-revolution phase has seen a shift towards restructuring and empowering the armed forces, moving away from the police state. In addition, the growing terrorist threat has forced the government to strengthen the military by, for example, increasing its budget alongside improvements in weaponry and other military hardware. Grewal’s report highlights the fact that the management of the military has become a shared responsibility between numerous actors. As one retired major colonel put it, the situation has gone “from personal rule to institutional rule.”

The development also indicates the beginning of the end for the historical imbalance between the military and the police. Whilst the Interior Ministry’s budget has grown by an annual average of 15 per cent since 2011, the Defense Ministry’s has grown by about 21 per cent each year. This development may be necessary in the long-run but it may initially create some resentment between the sectors. “The concept of relative deprivation is applicable here,” suggested Grewal. “In absolute terms, the police budget and salaries have improved significantly since the revolution and indeed still remain higher than the military’s, but relative to the military’s quicker rise there may be cause for envy and rivalry.”

Grewal finds it interesting how Tunisia’s post-revolution leaders have pursued a path opposite to that of Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s coup-proofing strategy, but despite the military’s empowerment it is important to remember that the position of chief of staff of the armed forces remains unfilled. “Part of the motivation for leaving it vacant is fear that granting this much power to one military figure would increase the likelihood of a coup,” he told me. Whilst Grewal points out that, historically, democratic transitions tend to break down into a scenario either where the military holds a coup or a newly-elected leader is able to recreate an autocratic regime, he considers a military coup in Tunisia unlikely, at least in the short-term. “The possible threat to democracy in Tunisia is less a military coup and more that President Beji Caid Essebsi could coopt the strengthened military and security forces to repress Tunisians on his behalf and allow him to govern autocratically,” he concluded.

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