By Ayoub AlBahri

Almost a decade ago, the Tunisian Revolution of 2011 broke out. Seeing the outcome of it, several other Arab nations followed course in what has become known as the Arab Spring. This latter is by far the most important event in the Arab World since Arab nations got their independence after the Second World War.


Impartiality of the Tunisian Military Institution

The second most important factor to consider when studying the success of the Tunisian Revolution and the entire Arab Spring is the role of the military.

Throughout the Arab Spring countries, the military institution has been a decisive element in the success or failure popular revolutions and the subsequent democratic transition.

Before 2011, there was very little certainty that both Tunisians and Egyptians (along with the rest of the Arab World) would one day get rid of the oppressive and Western-backed regimes that ruled over them for over two decades each.

Both nations played the most impressive part of the Arab Spring in terms of peaceful change and tactful use of civil disobedience. What is equally remarkable about the two revolutions is the role that the military played at critical turning points.

In both countries, the military stepped in at the right time;at the climax of events and when their countries needed them the most. Ultimately, they functioned as the apparatus that made sure the structure and functions of the state are continued.

However, the transitional phase of Egypt did not follow the same path as the one of Tunisia’s. The military in the second helped bring about a new face of governance in conformity with democratic principles such as rule of law, transparency, and open competition.

Egypt, however, could not avoid the return of the institution that ruledthe country since the fall of the monarchy and the declaration of the republic; that is none other than the Egyptian military institution.

In this regard, only the Tunisian and Egyptian cases will be looked at as the military institutions in these countries played a political role of a certain level of sophistication.

In Libya, Syria, and Yemen, armed forces have been heavilyused for the sole purpose of exterminating and oppressing citizens who expressed discontent with the regime.

By studying the patterns of civilian-military relations, one can get to the conclusion that the image of such relations is usually standard. Especially if it was based on inputs and outputs.

This standard relationship is usually based on a civilian government and a professionalized military institution. Scholars who reached this conclusion have largely based their analysis on research that Huntington published in the 1950s.

They believe, like he did, that professionalizing the military through training and modernization leads to having a reliable army willing to intervene efficiently in times of need, but otherwise stays in camps and keeps away from politics.

However, this approach does not explain the civil-military relationship where the military is the influential factor in public life.

In this context, the military plays a direct or indirect role in the public life of countries where the political system does not resemble those of Western democracies.

That is to say, where there is lack of a functional democratic system that efficiently runs public life, the military institution steps in to fill that void and becomes the organizational force of the public space.

However, most military institutions in the Arab world came into existence after Huntington’s writings, which means that they represent a different pattern.

Therefore, understanding the role of the military forces in these countries could explain the relationship they had with their regimes the eve of the Arab Spring; whether they helped maintain their continuity or whether they sided with the people to accelerate the collapse of the regime.

In this regard, the Tunisian military, in contrast with its Egyptian counterpart, played a central role in accelerating the downfall of the Ben Ali regime when it sided with protesters.

The shape of military presence in modern political and public life in Tunisia and Egypt goes back to the birth of the republic in both countries. Modern day Tunisia got its independence from France in 1956 and declared the republic in 1957.

It was entirely initiated by civilians, has been ran by civilians, and still has no political figure originated from the military institution, except for the later Ben Ali.

However, this latter had very little reliance on the military and alienated it as he spent the better part of his career in the Ministry of Interior Affairs.

Egypt, on the other hand, became a republic thanks to the Revolution of 1952 by the “Free Officers Movement”. This military coup d’étatwas the beginning of a history of military rule dressed in civilian suits.

The only break that the Egyptian military took from being a political power was in the days of Mohamed Morsi, who did not last long as president of Egypt. Morsinow seems to be the last civilian president of Egypt, since Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sissi became president in 2014.

It is difficult to understand the nature of civil-military relations in the Arab context without taking into consideration the following factors:

1) the military institution itself in terms of size and capabilities,

2) the social background and professional training of its members as well as their political thinking, and

3) the cohesion of its personnel and whether they prioritize their own interest at the expense of national interest or vice-versa

These factors can help explain the willingness of military officers to intervene in politics or keep a distance.

Consequently, the intervention of the military in politics may very well put an end to public space and pose a real threat to major transformations like democratization.

Hence, the success of the Tunisian Revolution would not be possible if there was no consent on democracy from society, political elite, and the military institution as the center of hard power.

Without such triangular consent, democracy can be beyond reach in any country, at any given point of time. Examples are countless and can be quoted from history and present cases in various parts of the world.

The Tunisian military institution is a unique one compared to its counterparts in the Arab Spring countries. For one thing, it did not participate in any struggle for independence so as to claim legitimacy for any political role in the post-independence era.

It has been characterized as a highly-professional force with a modest size and modest equipment. However, unlike what Huntington earlier suggested, this level of professionalism and exclusive devotion to military affairs, is not what shaped the relationship of the Tunisian Armed Forces with statesmen and politics.

In fact, the history of its interaction with political figures of the Tunisian state is what contributed the most to its choice of keeping away from politics.

To begin with, the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba who was a jurist by training, set forth very strict regulations to prevent military personnel from forming any political or legal associations – including membership of the ruling party itself.

He also refused to use the military to oppress political opponents, but instead used the police, National Guard, and other internal security units.

On other occasions, Bourguiba made sure the military institution did not have a say in making political decisions in Tunisia.

Which was out of concern that any military view on the way of running public affairs would undermine “bourguibism” as a civilizational ideology for Tunisia. However, at the end of the 1970s, Bourguiba needed the military to intervene in the events of Black Thursday in what he saw an attack to his way of running the country.

The Tunisian Armed Forces had no experience in handling social unrest and protests. As a result, officers and soldiers alike felt pushed into a political game of twisting arms rather than meeting their constitutional duty of protecting the country and the people.

Black Thursday was the beginning of the military losing trust in the political elite, and high-ranking officers became aware of future attempts to engage their institution in political affairs.

Furthermore, Tunisia has had a long tradition – out of conscious political will – of keeping its military budget to a minimum to prevent coups d’état.

This consequently reflected on the modernization of military equipment and gave military personnel the impression that they are meant to stay in the corner to be later summoned to oppress political opponents.

In 1987, however, when Bourguiba was ousted in a peaceful coup d’état by his then-Prime Minister Ben Ali, this latter did not inform top-ranking officers of the military of his intentions. They were rather informed when the coup was about to take place, and was presented to them as a reality rather than a plan.

This turnover of events, along with continuous neglect funding, modernization, and training widened the gap of distrust between the command of the Tunisian Armed Forces and the political leadership.

In contrast, Egypt maintains a sizeable army that numbers 470000 personnel. Tunisia, however, has only 60 000. To put this into prospective, the difference of size of the armed forces of the two countries is not only due to the big difference in their population.

Egypt, since the establishment of the republic, lives in a hostile neighborhood and went to war several times.Consequently, an added value and considerable attention has been given to the military for legitimate security reasons.

Tunisia lives in a way less hostile environment, thus gives more attention to the quality of military personnel from soldiers to top officers.

Most of Tunisian military officers come from the coastal areas of Tunisia, and they all went to military academies in either Tunisia, France, Belgium, the UK, or the US. Hence, they are equipped with enough education to take a studied and critical look at their role in public space and the degree of military involvement in political life.

While the Egyptian military has been playing a central role in maintaining national defense, guarding borders, providing the country with presidents, ministers, and even ambassadors – it also got involved in the economy to become a business empire.In particular, it does not limit itself to military industry.

It also invests into a wide range of sectors that stretches from agriculture to the construction of roads and bridges, real estate and electronics, home electric appliances, cement, import and export, vehicle production and gasoline, sewage pipes, energy, milk plants, chicken breeding farms, calf and cow farms, vegetable and fruit farms, and even to fish farms.

In addition to all these consumer-oriented projects, the army has been investing in the Egyptian tourism industry where its top leaders own and manage major hotels, resorts, marinas, and tourist villages in SharmEl-Sheikh, Taba, and other resort locations.

In Tunisia, Rachid Ammar who used to be Chief of Staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces – until his retirement on 25 June 2013 – played a historical role in the Revolution.

On 13 January 2011, Ammar refused to follow the direct orders of Ben Ali to shoot protesters participating in the December 2010 and January 2011 protests. His answer to the presidential order was; “I agree to deploy soldiers to calm the situation, but the army does not shoot the people”.

This firm stand reflected the position of the vast majority of military personnel. It eventually weakened the Ben Ali regime to its downfall because it came at peak of clashes between the demonstrators and the internal security forces, which, all together, could not quell the demonstrations.

It is still debatable whether Ammar’s refusal to use military force against civilians was more the direct reason that pushed Ben Ali to leave Tunisia,or a mere warning sign.

However, for historical correctness the role that the Tunisian Armed Forces played at critical turns of events of the revolution, and at later stages of Tunisian democratic transition, has been the exception of the Arab Spring.

They proved to be an independent institution with the function of being a shield for the republic and the people, rather than a tool that the ruler can use to smash the public – which it was the case in Libya and continues to be in Syria.


Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies


Related Articles