After the exceptional and unprecedented measures taken by Tunisian President Kais Saied last month to freeze parliament functions, lift legal immunity from its members and oust the prime minister, all eyes turned to the country’s military.
Cementing the transition to democracy since the 2011 uprising has been slow process, and institutional malfunction and paralysis has aggravated the social and economic crisis.
With the army backing the president’s changes, fears are rising that this is the first step towards constructing a new military dictatorship, similar to several other Arab states.
It’s notable that Tunisia’s army has a different standing. It has earned the respect and support of almost all factions of society, sometimes exceeding popular support for the political elite.
For years it has focused on national defense and distanced itself from the political scene. Since 1957, officers are prohibited from joining political parties and they have no say in the policies adopted for the national economy. No accusations of corruption have ever haunted them.
Now many Tunisians are looking for the military to resolve non-military issues in light of the accumulating failures of the politicians.
However, this could prove detrimental for its reputation. For Tunisia’s army to preserve public respect, it needs to remain apolitical. This would allow its untarnished image to continue, which the military has always been keen to maintain. Its active participation in several UN peacekeeping missions supports this.
The president has counted on the military’s support. To this end he has toured the country visiting military bases, and delivered speeches to the officers and soldiers. By capitalizing on the army’s reputation he hopes to tilt the balance towards his aim to retain his position, and ease difficulties faced to alleviate poverty and open up new job opportunities for the population.
The army has been cooperative so far. Footage of a soldier locking the parliament gate in the face of speaker Rached el-Ghannouchi went viral.
Yet, this support cannot go unquestioned if it distorts the Army’s untarnished image as apolitical. It didn’t help when, in an unprecedented move a military court prosecuted a civilian who criticized the President on Facebook. This sparked a wave of public criticism with the consensus being that it was a shift towards limiting the freedom of speech.
Several moves made by the president to position the military in his favor have been alarming too. He promoted several officers based on political rather than hierarchical or administrative considerations.
Whether this is a move to attract the officers’ allegiance and to penetrate the army is yet to be tested because it falls beyond the regular measures taken from within the military. Instead of penetrating or corrupting the military, the focus should be cementing democratic institutions and activating long- awaited economic solutions.
Preserving the detachment to government is essential for the military’s position. This is not limited to Tunisia’s best internal interests, but also its reputation in the eyes of the country’s allies.
In a visit paid to Tunisia last October 2020 by the US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, he openly reminded his Tunisian counterpart Ibrahim Bartagi of the importance of civilian control of the military, and the importance of it being apolitical.
Tunisia is considered one of Washington’s strongest non-NATO allies. Esper signed with Tunisia a 10-year military cooperation deal. The two sides regularly hold joint exercises. Since 2011, Washington has invested more than $1 billion in its partner’s armed forces.
Put bluntly, the Tunisian army cannot resolve non-military issues. It should rather continue to safeguard the developing democratic system and impose respect for the constitution and the institutions, as it has being doing, until now.
If it is dragged into the local turmoil, it will neither be capable of providing the needed solutions, nor can it impartially preserve its original role as a guarantor for national security.
The current situation suggests that the long period of distance that the army has maintained under both Habib Bourkeiba and Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali has come to end.
It’s unfortunate because keeping the military apolitical is a win-win for all.