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Keep Tunisia’s Military Out of Politics

President Kais Saied has broken a 65-year taboo.

By , president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy.
Tunisian military forces guard the area around the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 26.
Tunisian military forces guard the area around the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 26. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

On July 25, Tunisians were shaken by an attempted coup against their nascent democracy when President Kais Saied suspended parliament and shuttered several government officials’ offices, introducing what he termed a 30-day “exceptional period.” Tunisia is the only country that came out of the Arab Spring with a genuine democracy, even if this democracy has not yet delivered economic growth or prosperity for its people. Ten years later, it is still possible to reverse the course of Saied’s attempted coup—but only by upholding the Tunisian tradition of keeping the military out of politics.

The Tunisian Armed Forces are the only military in the Arab world that has never been involved in domestic political or economic matters. When Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba played a major role in ensuring that the military stayed away from political and economic affairs. Tunisia’s first constitution went as far as to bar soldiers from voting—a provision that is still in effect.

This decision proved wise over the next 60-odd years, when a wave of military coups and dictatorships swept the Arab world. Tunisia was immune from the contagion and continued to be a civilian-led republic. Even the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, afraid of military involvement in politics, maintained this separation of civilian and military affairs after its bloodless 1987 coup. Though Ben Ali himself had been a general before he became president, he relied on the police, not the military, to maintain power and silence opponents.

On July 25, Tunisians were shaken by an attempted coup against their nascent democracy when President Kais Saied suspended parliament and shuttered several government officials’ offices, introducing what he termed a 30-day “exceptional period.” Tunisia is the only country that came out of the Arab Spring with a genuine democracy, even if this democracy has not yet delivered economic growth or prosperity for its people. Ten years later, it is still possible to reverse the course of Saied’s attempted coup—but only by upholding the Tunisian tradition of keeping the military out of politics.

The Tunisian Armed Forces are the only military in the Arab world that has never been involved in domestic political or economic matters. When Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba played a major role in ensuring that the military stayed away from political and economic affairs. Tunisia’s first constitution went as far as to bar soldiers from voting—a provision that is still in effect.

This decision proved wise over the next 60-odd years, when a wave of military coups and dictatorships swept the Arab world. Tunisia was immune from the contagion and continued to be a civilian-led republic. Even the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, afraid of military involvement in politics, maintained this separation of civilian and military affairs after its bloodless 1987 coup. Though Ben Ali himself had been a general before he became president, he relied on the police, not the military, to maintain power and silence opponents.

Then came the 2011 revolution. Members of the military were hailed as the people’s heroes because they refused to support Ben Ali during his final days—rejecting direct orders to bomb the city of Kasserine and shoot protesters. They also shielded demonstrators from police violence and protected public and private property. But they refused to intervene in political matters.

After the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, the police went into hiding. So the army took it upon itself to provide security, and it became responsible for the protection of people, institutions, and property until Tunisia had a newly elected assembly and a new government. It did not interfere in the process of political reform, and then it continued its role in defending the country in the fight against terrorism under the civilian command of the Ministry of Defense.

In 2017, Nidaa Tounes—a centrist secular party—introduced a motion in parliament to give military soldiers and officers the right to vote. It sparked a contentious debate, with proponents arguing that military personnel are also Tunisian citizens and are guaranteed rights under the constitution. The motion was ultimately approved, with 144 for, 11 against, and three abstentions—but only for local elections, not parliamentary or presidential ones. The majority of Tunisians and their representatives felt it was safer to continue to keep the military away from politics, especially in this transitional period after the Arab Spring, when the institutions of democracy are not yet fully established.

The Tunisian people are proud of their apolitical military.

The Tunisian people are proud of their apolitical military and its sacrifices, and they owe the armed forces a great debt of gratitude. The military has earned this respect precisely because it has defended the country and refused to take sides in political disputes or take part in economic ventures. This role is outlined clearly in Article 18 of the new constitution of 2014, which states that the army is “required to remain completely impartial” and to support “the civil authorities in accordance with the provisions set out in law.”

But this article was violated on July 25, when soldiers accompanied by military tanks implemented Saied’s order to close Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi’s office and all of parliament, preventing its elected members from entering and conducting the people’s business. It was the first time in Tunisia’s modern history that the military became involved in political matters, and it was clearly unconstitutional.

That was far from Saied’s only offense. Article 80 of the constitution states that the president does not have the authority nor the right to close the parliament in the first place. Also unconstitutional under Article 110 is Saied’s increasing use of military courts to try civilian cases against politicians and bloggers accused of criticizing him under the pretext that he is the commander in chief of the armed forces.

Right after Saied announced the closing of the parliament in a speech, the Army put two tanks at both entrances of the building, preventing all of its elected members from entering. The following day, they did the same in front of the prime minister’s office and most ministries. Tanks also appeared at major intersections in Tunis.

High-ranking officers have appeared in many meetings with Saied over the past three to four months—even before he suspended parliament—after or during which he has made public statements about politics and political matters. By having these officers literally at his side, Saied gives the impression that they are supporting his statements, positions, and decisions—including to shut down government. It is unclear what may have changed in the military leadership over the past few years that caused them to take such a stand, aside from sheer desperation linked to Tunisia’s dire economic situation and the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is some public support for Saied’s actions, because democracy has failed to deliver better social and economic results for many Tunisians, especially unemployed youth. Yet it is hard to measure how much of the support is real, because, as is always the case following a coup, people are genuinely afraid to express their opinions and feelings. Economic frustration does not immediately mean supporting a return to dictatorship.

The protests on July 25 in support of Saied were relatively small. Demonstrations are currently banned, so people are not going to protest the coup for fear that it might result in violent clashes with the army—and possibly large-scale arrests and violence. More Tunisian politicians, parties, and organizations are starting to speak up against the coup, but many are also afraid.

On Aug. 23, Saied announced an “indefinite extension” of the “exceptional period” on Facebook. This gives Saied all legislative, judicial, and executive powers, meaning he can now rule by decree. This is in clear violation of the laws and the constitution of Tunisia.

But he may not be done yet. Rumors suggest that Saied will soon announce a road map that includes the complete dissolution of the elected parliament; a suspension of the constitution; the appointment of a new committee of supposed experts to write a new constitution, to be approved by referendum; and the appointment of a government that works under his direction, but without parliamentary approval, until after new elections take place within six to nine months—which would follow the adoption of a new constitution and operate under changed electoral laws. If Saied makes these announcements, it will be the end of the democratic process and transition in Tunisia.

Involving the military in Tunisia’s political crisis not only complicates the situation but also sets a very dangerous precedent for a young democracy.

However, the current crisis in Tunisia can be resolved by political institutions and civil society actors, through dialogue and negotiations. In 2013, two years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia faced a similarly precarious constitutional moment. But the country was able to overcome the odds through the work of the National Dialogue Quartet, a group of four major Tunisian nongovernmental organizations that ultimately won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. Involving the military in this crisis not only complicates the situation but also sets a very dangerous precedent for a young democracy.

Fellow democracies, such as the United States, must underscore to the Tunisian military the importance of staying out of politics—especially in what looks to be an unconstitutional power grab. If necessary, this includes conditioning further economic and military assistance on the military’s noncooperation with Saied’s power grab.

If Saied does indeed announce further measures, the Biden administration should not recognize the new government as legitimate unless and until it is approved by parliament. The United States must also urge the three Arab countries that have provided Saied with support—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates—to stop interfering in Tunisia’s domestic affairs. Finally, Washington should support a new national dialogue to revamp and modernize Tunisia’s economic and political system, with the agreement of all major political parties and civil society organizations in Tunisia.

Tunisia’s democracy is in grave danger. But by retracing its steps and rediscovering its prized role as an apolitical actor, the Tunisian military can continue to serve as an example of peace in its region and, indeed, in the world at large.

Radwan A. Masmoudi is president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy. Twitter: @radwan_masmoudi

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