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Clement M. Henry Headshot
Robert Springborg Headshot

The Tunisian Army: Defending the Beachhead of Democracy in the Arab World

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A litmus test of democracy is civilian control of the military exercised through representative institutions, a test which to date no Arab state has passed. Tunisia appears to be on the verge of achieving this historic breakthrough, an outcome that paradoxically the military itself has made possible.

The Jasmine Revolution has followed a course heretofore unknown in the Arab world, but common in transitions to democracy elsewhere, especially in Eastern Europe. Mass protests in those countries, for example, typically exacerbated tensions between security forces, on the one hand, and militaries on the other. Tunisian ex-President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, just as many of his East European dictator equivalents, relied on the security forces to maintain control, while politically neutering the military, in part by encouraging development of professional norms. To achieve this end he dispatched a remarkably high percentage of Tunisian officers for training in US military institutions, while inviting numerous US military training missions into the country. A standard objective of such US military training is development of professional norms for officers, a component of which is civil-military relations in democracies. By contrast, the primary external source of training and supply for security forces was France, a fact possibly related to President Sarkozy's loyalty to Ben Ali virtually to the moment his plane appeared in French air space.

Ben Ali took the further step of keeping his military small -- about 45,000 in total -- vastly outnumbered by the politically vital security forces, which disposed of somewhere between 120,000 and 180,000 troops, militias, and thugs, that is, up to one police/security officer for every 55 Tunisians. The Ministry of Interior's police force, for example, is about the same size as Britain's police, a nation six times larger than Tunisia. As spending on political security escalated, allocations to the military dwindled, falling from two per cent of GDP in the 1990s to less than 1.4 per cent at present. By contrast, Algeria and Libya spend annually six and four per cent of their GDPs, respectively, on their militaries. The Tunisian National Guard, the backbone of the security forces, was allocated last year 50 per cent more funds than the Tunisian army, navy and air force combined. Meanwhile, the annual budget for military procurement in 2010 was $70 million, the lowest in the Arab world.

So when the moment of truth came and Ben Ali ordered Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar to deploy the military to reinforce beleaguered security forces, the latter refused. Realizing that the end was near, Ben Ali fled, leaving some members of his family in the lurch and unleashing his praetorian Presidential Guard as well as the other security forces to confront the swelling ranks of demonstrators. The military quickly inserted itself to defend the protesters, and then carried on the battle with the Presidential Guard around the presidential palace in Carthage and elsewhere. Although disposing of only a dozen operational helicopters and confronting the praetorian Presidential Guard which itself possessed armored vehicles, the more professional and united military managed to subdue its opponents over the course of several days.

The second moment of truth then arrived, the one in which the military, now associated with its hero, Lieutenant General Rachid Ammar, had to decide its future political role. Should it seek to exercise power in its own right, presumably at least nominally in a caretaker capacity, awaiting a new civilian order to emerge and elections to be held? Its enormous popularity might well offset widespread reservations among civilians about such a role for the military, even a temporary one. Or should it reject any temptation to govern and hand over power forthwith to civilians, however divided and inexperienced they might be? In much of Eastern Europe, including Romania, the handover to civilians was implemented immediately, while in Portugal's 1974 revolution, the military clung onto power for another year, until its internal divisions finally enabled a full transition to democracy and civilian political supremacy. The Tunisian army has unambiguously decided to stay out of politics and support the Tunisian people, as General Ammar shouted over a bull horn to crowds in Tunis on Monday.

The military is protecting the civilians as they renegotiate the formation of a more representative transitional government under the interim president, Fouad Mebazza, who serves as the constitutional figurehead. This arrangement is intended to provide the breathing space necessary for the contending civilian political forces to reach agreement on such key matters as revisions to the constitution, the timing for and conduct of elections, the treatment of members of the ancien regime, and so on.

Momentous and positive as these events have been for Tunisia and possibly other Arab countries, at least two serious challenges remain before it can be affirmed that Tunisia, like so many counties in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, has successfully transitioned to democracy. Both involve the military. One is that its capacities to defend the Jasmine Revolution from foreign meddling have to be developed. Libya's mercurial leader, Muamar Qadhafi, has apparently already been infiltrating mercenaries to bolster the badly fragmented security forces. With its tiny fleet of aging helicopters, the Tunisia air force simply cannot patrol its borders adequately. The US, Tunisia's principal arms supplier, needs to expedite delivery of already agreed to transfers of further helicopters for close air support and night vision equipment for the army's special forces, in order to mop up the remnants of Ben Ali's goon squads. The United States should also step up its program of military support and training, so that the small and relatively efficient Tunisian armed forces can defend the nation and sustain its professionalism.

The second major challenge is to consolidate the present ascendancy of civilians over the military. Institutions and processes of civilian control, whether parliaments, NGOs and other elements of civil societies, and governmental audit agencies only fully develop over years, and even then they are subject to backsliding. Again the US can and should support the efforts of Tunisians to develop these capacities and recover their role in the region as pays pilote, a model for others in the region to emulate.