How the military changed during Tunisia’s democratic transition


Five years after the Arab Spring, only Tunisia remains on the path to democracy. To explain the Tunisian success story, scholars often point to the Tunisian military, which, unlike other militaries in the region, supported its country’s revolution and subsequent transition to democracy, notes Sharanbir (Sharan) Grewal, a PhD candidate in Politics at Princeton University. Having been sidelined in the police state of now-ousted leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the military had little incentive to stand by or return to Tunisia’s authoritarian past, Grewal writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:

While much ink has been spilled on how the Tunisian military has influenced the democratic transition, little has been written on how the transition has influenced the military. New research published for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace finds that the long-marginalized Tunisian military has begun to see its position improve after the revolution. These changes point to a gradual restructuring of the polity away from Ben Ali’s police state and toward one in which the various security apparatuses are more evenly balanced. This rebalancing may have important implications for Tunisia’s capacity to confront its grave security threats, for the prospects for security sector reform, and for the likelihood of democratic consolidation.

Tunisian troops killed seven extremists in Ben Guerdane, a town on the Libyan border, this week, Foreign Policy reports. Dozens of militants stormed through a town in eastern Tunisia early Monday morning, attacking police and military posts and starting a firefight with security forces that left at least 53 people dead, The New York Times adds:

The clashes at Ben Gardane, 18 miles from the border with Libya, were the second in the district in a week and came at a time of growing concern that the war in Libya, where the Islamic State has aggressively expanded, was spilling into Tunisia.

Reforming Tunisia’s internal security sector, not the military, needs to be a priority, but reform faces major challenges, according to a recent discussion at the Project on Middle East Democracy:*

First, the security apparatus…is “Byzantine in its complexity.” The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is the “black box” of the security sector, where there is excessive duplication of duties and departments. The structure is so complex that most Tunisians do not know how all the sector and divisions work, and more importantly, the information is not publicly available.

Second, there is limited to no coordination among and between institutions. Serious tensions exist between the military and police..

Third, there is the fundamental problem of the mission. The security sector in Tunisia does not operate on the idea of civilian protection. There is no understanding, particularly in the police force, of what it means to serve the population.

Fourth, there is a culture of secrecy and distrust. There is no real and practical way for civil society organizations to request a meeting with anyone from the MOI.

The potential threat to democracy in Tunisia is less a coup emanating from the armed forces and more that the current president, Beji Caid Essebsi, could coopt the strengthened military and security forces to repress Tunisians on his behalf, allowing him to govern autocratically, Grewall adds:

Growing disillusionment with the transition and a yearning for a strongman to impose order make this a distinct possibility, but the strength of Tunisia’s civil society and the commitment of its major political parties to consensus and compromise give hope that this scenario will remain just a possibility.

This post is adapted from “A Quiet Revolution: The Tunisian Military After Ben Ali” published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter @sh_grewal. RTWT

*A grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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