What’s behind Tunisia’s growing military?

In post-uprising Tunisia, the western backed military is hampering the country's transition to democracy.

Tunisian Army commander participating with US Army in 'Exercise Allied Spirit.' Image credit Sgt. Karen Sampson via US Army photo.

The Tunisian military has been heralded in international media for stabilizing the country after the 2010 uprisings, leading some to argue that it is responsible for the transition to democracy. However, this logic sidelines the role played by the ordinary Tunisians who challenged the former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and hides the sinister role played by the military. In reality, economic instability and austerity have led many Tunisians to continue protesting for better living conditions. Many protestors are disillusioned by the intimidation and suppression of the Tunisian military given the army crackdown on demonstrations.

The authoritarian role played by the military is apparent in the country. For instance, Human Rights Watch confirmed the military brought a case against Yassine Ayari, a Tunisian blogger (he had also just won a seat in parliamentary elections) — after he criticized the armed forces. Tunisia’s military funding has dramatically increased over the past eight years despite economic crisis and austerity in the country. Most recently, the Tunisian Ministry of Defense introduced a bill to enforce military conscription, which would increase the size of Tunisia’s armed forces.

These set of events have to be understood more broadly as part of the historical role of the military (which was often minimal) in the increased effort to solidify Tunisia’s role in the “war on terror,” the United States’ role in the ongoing militarization of African countries, and the crystallization of borders between Africa and Europe.

Historically, the Tunisian military had less of an overt political role than neighboring countries, thus minimizing their power on a national level. During the French colonial period, Tunisia did not have an active army. This was distinct from, say Egypt, where a functioning army and clandestine military officials — the Free Officers movement — were part of the anticolonial movement. Shortly after independence, then President Habib Bourguiba established the Tunisian armed forces in June 1956. His 30-year reign (1957-1987) prioritized the national budget on social services leaving the military budget at less than 1%. At the same time, he used the Tunisian National Guard to protect his interests — often fearful that a strong, independent military would lead  a coup. During the 1980s, neoliberal policies and an upturn in arms imports increased the military’s capacities. Bourguiba’s suspicions weren’t far-fetched. In 1987, he had appointed General Ben Ali as his prime minister. Later that year, Ben Ali engineered a bloodless coup against Bourguiba. Ben Ali would go onto govern Tunisia until the 2010 uprising.

If Tunisians thought the role of the military in political life would decrease, they were wrong. The recent trajectory of Tunisia’s military is grounded in increased spending and crafting political alliances with regional powers and capital. Former president Ben Ali received military intelligence training abroad at the Special Inter-Service School and the Senior Intelligence School in France and the United States, respectively. He established the Military Security Department, for which he oversaw and eventually served as the minister of defense. In his roles as ambassador, military official, and prime minister, he was able to maintain close connections with foreign and Tunisian elites while also solidifying his role within civil and military society. According to the Carnegie Middle East Center, militarization has increased significantly since 2011. As of 2015, Tunisia’s military expenses amounted to $1.1 billion dollars compared to $528 million in 2010, the year preceding the Arab Spring. Tunisia went from spending 1.51% of its GDP on the military at that time to 2.32% in 2016. The current leader, President Beji Caid Essebsi, has also vowed to use the Tunisian military to defend industrial sites from protests. He claims that it will protect national resources, but in reality they serve to undermine the average workers, who have been fighting for job security and fair wages.

From 2012, the Tunisian military became more decentralized, meaning that parliament, the president and the prime minister could weigh in on decisions. This was also linked to the shifts in international networks, so not just operating in isolation but part of political agreements — with Qatar (2014), Turkey (2013), United Arab Emirates (2011) and the United States (2014) — tied to post 2011 assassination and terrorist attacks in Tunisia. An onslaught of violence directed at political leaders and tourist sites has muddied the political landscape, causing some camps to advocate for increased militarization. In 2013, the assassination of Chokri Belaid, the former leader of the Unified Democratic Nationalist Party (UDNP), sparked anti-government demonstrations. His death marked a blow for the UDNP given that they were central to forming a leftist coalition — which included socialists and Green Party members. Relatedly, the shootings at the Bardo Museum in the capital in 2015 and in the resort town of Souse became grounds for the United States government to distribute $100 in military aid to Tunisia. In March 2016, Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for an attack in Ben Guerdane, a small city near the border with Libya, which killed 54 people. This led to a further increase in military expenditures, including the purchase of helicopters, machine guns, and missiles.

The United States and the European Union have played in active role in the militarization of African nations like Tunisia. The United States Africa Command (known as AFRICOM) plays a key part in a wider strategy that focuses not only on material aid, but also the training of African troops. Already in 2018, the US government coordinated “Exercise African Lion” in Morocco. Sixteen countries including Tunisia, Britain, France and Germany took part. The EU signed an agreement for joint military exercises, investing €5 billion to conduct military operations without consulting NATO. France, for example, is expected to use this newly EU-military formation to expand its forces in Mali.

The increased militarization of Tunisia is linked to European countries preventing non-EU asylum seekers and migrants from entering their continent via the Mediterranean Sea. Borders are constructed, but not everyone is monitored in the same way. Non-European Mediterranean countries have served as the border zones insofar that they actively prevent asylum seekers and migrants from entering into Europe. Military tools, from organizations such as Frontex, are key to monitoring migrants and fortifying the area’s constructed borders. The militarization of Europe’s borders in the southern Mediterranean has led to the death of thousands of assylum seekers and migrants. Under “Operation Sophia,” NATO, Libyan Coast Guards, and the Tunisian military officials halted migration flows and returned refugees, despite many of them fearing for their lives. This is not only disastrous for migrants but mushrooms into the increased trafficking and exploitation of migrants from the African continent.

The US-Tunisian military alliance began under former President Barack Obama and it has contributed to a decade-long militarization of the African continent. Furthermore, Tunisia’s plans to build a border wall with Libya deepen the boundaries that were imposed during the partitioning of the continent.

Decolonizing the Tunisian military is essential if we are to reduce border violence, while tackling the migration crisis, and state repression. In concrete terms this means siphoning money away from the military and investing in jobs and social services. A democratic transition for Tunisia does not call for strengthening an oppressive force, but to place decisions and power into the hands of people who have been fighting for employmentLGBT rights, and gender parity. Nearly 800 Tunisians were arrested in January 2018 when they exercised their right to collectively gather and challenge austerity, showing that the Tunisian military is actively participating in undermining democracy. Reform from below is only possible when there is the space to collectively organize — free of militaristic scrutiny.

Further Reading