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Abandoned at the Palace: Why


the Tunisian Military Defected
from the Ben Ali Regime in
January 2011
a
Risa Brooks
a
Marquette University
Published online: 27 Feb 2013.

To cite this article: Risa Brooks (2013) Abandoned at the Palace: Why the Tunisian
Military Defected from the Ben Ali Regime in January 2011, Journal of Strategic Studies,
36:2, 205-220, DOI: 10.1080/01402390.2012.742011

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01402390.2012.742011

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The Journal of Strategic Studies, 2013
Vol. 36, No. 2, 205–220, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01402390.2012.742011

Abandoned at the Palace: Why the


Tunisian Military Defected from
the Ben Ali Regime in January
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2011

RISA BROOKS

Marquette University

ABSTRACT Many analysts have focused on the Tunisian protests and the economic
and political grievances that fueled them. Equally central, however, was the role
played by the military leadership and the decision to forgo using force to actively
suppress the protesters. Contrary to arguments that stress the reflexively apolitical
or professional nature of the military, or its leaders’ normative commitment to
supporting the protesters, this article explains how the decisions made reflected
political calculations and served the military’s organizational interests. Although
heralded as the savior of the revolution, the Tunisian military acted out of its own
organizational self-interest in defecting from the Ben Ali regime.

KEY WORDS: Arab Spring, Arab Uprisings, Civil-Military Relations, Middle


East, Military Defection

Few could have predicted in December 2010 that events in a small town
in Tunisia’s interior would trigger a cascade of uprisings across the
Arab world. The catalyst was the self-immolation of a university
graduate turned street vendor protesting his lack of economic
opportunities. Simmering grievances, stemming from a lack of jobs in
the country’s less developed south and west sparked riots and protests
in several interior towns, which elicited a violent response from police
and security forces. Lawyers, other professionals and union leaders
joined the protest movement and the uprising spread to major towns,
increasingly reflecting calls not only for economic justice, but also for
political change. Beginning on 12 January 2011, large protests
involving tens of thousands of Tunisians occurred in the capital, filling
the streets of Habib Bourguiba Avenue and massing in front of key
government institutions. Largely uncommunicative throughout the
crisis (President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali appeared in just three televised
speeches during the month long protests), the regime seemed to be

© 2013 Taylor & Francis


206 Risa Brooks

biding time, perhaps foreseeing a violent end to the uprising, similar to


that which occurred in 2008 when labor protests in the country’s
interior ended with the deployment of the army to the streets and
violent repression by the police.1
Only in mid-January did the seriousness of the situation seem to
become apparent to President Ben Ali.2 In the early hours of 12
January, just two days before Ben Ali would depart the country, he
deployed his army to the streets of capital – a significant development
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because the military normally played no role in policing the capital and
safeguarding domestic security. Protests in other parts of the country
had overwhelmed the police and the regime increasingly faced the
prospect of a growing uprising in the country’s urban centers.3 In
addition to sending it into the streets, Ben Ali also reportedly called
upon the Army to use force against the protesters (the police and
security forces had already been using live ammunition as well as non-
lethal methods, such as rubber bullets, tear gas and beatings to disperse
protesters).4 When the Army Chief of Staff, General Rachid Ammar,
refused to comply, Ben Ali tried to place him under house arrest. In a
potential sign of divisions in the regime, on 13 January the army
withdrew its forces from Tunis, only returning them to the streets of the
capital on the 14th with Ben Ali’s departure from the country.5 Had the
1
‘Tunisia in Revolt: State Violence During Anti-government Protests’, Amnesty
International, Feb. 2011; Laryssa Chomiak and John P. Entellis, ‘The Making of
North Africa’s Intifadas’, Middle East Report 259 (Summer 2011), 13–15.
2
Ben Ali’s strategy was to contain protests to the interior, which had a history of being
restive. The spread to the cosmopolitan areas of the capital and the coastline was an
important signal that the situation was worsening, ‘Has Ben Ali played his last cards’,
Maghreb Confidential, 6 Jan. 2011.
3
David Kirkpatrick, ‘Behind Tunisia uprising, rage at wealth of ruling family’, New
York Times, 13 Jan. 2011.
4
According to Amnesty International the first killing with live ammunition occurred on
24 Dec. ‘Tunisia in Revolt: State Violence During Anti-government Protests’, Amnesty
International, Feb. 2011, 2.
5
Although widely reported, the precise details of Ben Ali’s orders and subsequent effort
to arrest or detain Gen. Ammar remain murky. There is indirect evidence that supports
the conclusion that the Army refused to fire. First, unlike the police and the security
forces, the Army had not used live ammunition in other cities where it had already been
deployed; to the contrary there were reports that soldiers were interposing themselves
between police and protesters to try to protect that latter and calm the situation. Forces
first appeared in the capital (the Army never operated in Tunis and security was
provided by police and other forces controlled by the Interior Ministry) in major
intersections and in front of government buildings on the 12th. However, those forces
were observed withdrawing on Thursday the 13th, which was interpreted as a sign of
the military’s refusal to repress the protest, only to return to the streets after Ben Ali fled
the country on 14 January. See David D. Kirkpatrick, ‘Military backs new leaders in
Why the Tunisian Military Defected 207

military complied with Ben Ali’s demands to suppress forcefully the


uprising, events in Tunisia would have taken a different – potentially
much bloodier – course. As it was, the refusal of the Tunisian military
to participate in repressing the protests initiated the end of the regime
and ushered in a period of change that amounts to the most far-
reaching of the Arab ‘revolutions’ of 2011 to date.6
In short, critical to understanding the course of events in January
2011 were the actions of the Tunisian military and the decision to
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refrain from violently repressing the protests. Explaining why the


military refused to fire on the protesters and instead defected from the
Ben Ali regime is the central task of this article.
I argue that the actions of military leaders in January 2011 must be
understood in light of the country’s civil-military relations and their
implications for what the Tunisian military and its senior leaders had to
gain or lose, organizationally and individually, in acting to support Ben
Ali. There were few benefits to sustaining Ben Ali in power, or
ultimately in retaining the broader regime of which he was the leader,
especially given the costs the military would have incurred in violently
suppressing the uprising in defense of the regime. In fact, Ben Ali and
his increasingly personalist and corrupt regime may have been a
growing liability for the military, subverting its core organizational
interests. The decision to refrain from using force against the Tunisian
protesters therefore occurred in a context in which the military had
little to lose (and potentially some to gain) from abandoning Ben Ali,
while protecting him would have introduced significant costs to the
military. In short, while the Army is commonly portrayed as acting to
protect the revolution, less appreciated is how the actions it took in
January 2011 also were consistent with its organizational interests.
The reasons for its lack of incentives to defend the regime originate in
the nature of civil-military relations and the mechanisms through which
Ben Ali maintained political control of his military, in combination
with features of the uprising itself. Building on the model of civil-
military relations developed under his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba,
Ben Ali sought to keep the military at a distance from the regime,
limiting its influence and investing in police and security services to act

Tunisia’, New York Times, 16 Jan. 2011; David D. Kirkpatrick, ‘In Tunisia, clashes
continue as power shifts a second time’, New York Times, 15 Jan. 2011; ‘Popular
Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (IV): Tunisia’s Way’, International Crisis
Group Middle East/North Africa Report No. 106, 28 April 2011, 11; ‘Unrest spreads
as protests hit capital’, Africa News, 12 Jan. 2001; David D. Kirkpatrick, ‘Protests
spread to Tunisia’s capital and a curfew is decreed’, New York Times, 13 Jan. 2011.
6
Clement M. Henry and Robert Springborg, ‘A Tunisian Solution for Egypt’s Military’,
Foreign Affairs, 21 Feb. 2011.
208 Risa Brooks

as the mainstay coercive forces of the regime. The military therefore


effectively operated at the periphery of politics in the regime, where it
continued a long-standing historical role of acting as an apparatus of
the state with limited responsibilities and without a daily role in the
regular management of the regime.
Specifically, Ben Ali’s approach to managing the military involved
two complementary tactics. First, it involved marginalizing his military
leaders’ roles in state institutions and limiting the organization’s and its
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officers’ access to resources. Ben Ali kept the military small and poorly
funded, limiting its leaders’ opportunities for personal enrichment or
influence in political networks and regime institutions. This, in turn,
paradoxically limited the stake the military and its leaders had in
sustaining Ben Ali in power in January 2011. Second, and related, Ben
Ali’s approach involved maintaining a division of labor in which the
task of regime security would fall to forces under control of the interior
ministry and its constituent components, while the military would be
largely excluded from daily security roles. This meant that the military
was not readily associated with the oppressive security apparatus
scorned and feared by ordinary Tunisians, creating an important
opening for the military leadership ‘to seize the high ground’ and
abstain from assisting the police during the events in 2011.
Combined, these features of civil-military relations contributed to a
third distinctive characteristic of the Tunisian military. The absence of
a daily role in securing the leadership and de facto relegation to the
periphery of the regime helped sustain a corporate ethos in which
officers appeared to identify with the institution itself, such that they
placed value on maintaining its organizational integrity, freedom from
civilian interference and social prestige. This corporate ethos –
sustained by a particular configuration of civil-military relations – is
important to understanding the costs, in terms of what it implied for
the Army’s organizational integrity and social esteem, that firing on
protesters represented in January 2011 would have entailed.
Together these three features of civil-military relations had important
implications for the incentives of the military leadership to support or
defect from Ben Ali in January 2011. The Army lacked incentive to
protect the regime, while facing the prospect of bearing significant costs
were it to engage in the mass repression necessary to defending it.
Below I discuss these key dimensions of civil-military relations in
Tunisia, beginning with some historical background.

The Bourguiba Legacy


Understanding the structure of civil-military relations under the Ben Ali
regime requires first assessing the historical role of the military and the
Why the Tunisian Military Defected 209

methods employed by the country’s first post-independence leader,


Habib Bourguiba, in managing relations with his armed forces. The
character of civil-military relations in Tunisia exhibit some degree of
path dependence, with Ben Ali inheriting a particular set of informal
norms and institutions and then elaborating on that structure.
Unlike its counterparts in other Arab republics, when Bourguiba
assumed power in 1956 as head of what would be the country’s
dominant political party, the Socialist Destourian Party (renamed the
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Neo Destourian party), the military did not play an important role. In
contrast to cases like Egypt and Syria, the Tunisian military did not
bring the Bourguiba regime to power; nor did it play a vanguard role as
a symbol of revolutionary change in a newly established republic.
Indeed, when Bourguiba became the country’s first president, he did so
with a very particular conception of the military’s role in the state in
which it would play little role in politics. He organized civil-military
relations in ways to sustain that role, establishing routines and
institutional roles accordingly.
Bourguiba, for example, prohibited the officer corps the right of
political association, preventing them from playing a role in the
regime’s dominant political party, thereby denying them access to an
important institution of elite politics in Tunisia. The military was
run by a civilian, and today is overseen by a civilian Minister of
National Defense. The military was deliberately kept small, both
in size and in resources. Bourguiba also sought deliberately to
distance the military from daily policing and coercive functions,
investing that role with the Interior Ministry, and the conglomerate
of police, security and paramilitary forces under its control (see
below).7
So notable was the marginalization of military from regime politics
that when Ben Ali became minister of the interior in 1986 under
Bourguiba, for example, he was the first career military officer to be
appointed a cabinet level post.8 Ben Ali had attended the St Cyr
military academy in France and also received intelligence and security
training as a young officer in the United States. Early in his career he
served in military intelligence. Later, within the interior ministry, he
helped coordinate security in the aftermath of the bread riots that
occurred in January 1978. After a stint as Tunisia’s ambassador to
Poland, he returned to the Interior Ministry moving up through its
leadership ranks and finally in April 1986 being appointed Interior

7
L.B. Ware, ‘The Role of the Tunisian Military in the Post-Bourguiba Era’, The Middle
East Journal 39/1 (Winter 1985).
8
Robert J. Gassner, ‘Transition in Tunisia’, International Review, May/June 1987.
210 Risa Brooks

Minister.9 He retained that portfolio when in October 1987 he became


prime minister. One month later he would maneuver Bourguiba, whose
health and erratic behavior had become increasingly serious, out of
office through a bloodless coup.10

Civil-Military Relations under Ben Ali


When Ben Ali assumed power in 1987 he built upon the civil-military
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formula established by Bourguiba, keeping the military small and


marginalized, while sponsoring a dramatic growth of the security
forces. Despite a short honeymoon in which Ben Ali flirted with
political liberalization, following elections in 1989, he began to build
what would emerge in the following two decades as a substantial
security state.
In 2011 the regular armed forces included a 27,000 strong Army, of
which approximately 20,000 were conscripts; a Navy with 4,800
personnel and an Air Force of 4,000.11 A 12,000 strong paramilitary
force, the National Guard, fell under the control of the Interior
Ministry. The budget was approximately 1.4 per cent of GDP, such
that in 2010 Tunisia ranked 109th in the world in terms of per cent of
GDP devoted to defense expenditure – figures that contrasted sharply
with other states in the Arab world. Much of the Tunisian military’s
French and American equipment was outdated, if not obsolete. The
military, unlike its Egyptian counterparts, did not maintain sizable
commercial economic enterprises; nor did its officers enjoy the same
perquisites or ready access to key positions in state institutions or the
private sector upon retirement. The operational responsibilities of the
military were also limited; the military played a role in infrastructure
development, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance and the Army
operated alongside the National Guard (a paramilitary force under
control of the Ministry of Interior) in border control, and alone in
southern parts of the country.12
9
Ware, ‘The Role of The Tunisian Military’, 41; Emma Murphy, Economic and
Political Change in Tunisia: from Bourguiba to Ben Ali (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan 1999), 164–5. Gassner, ‘Transition in Tunisia’.
10
Andrew Borowiec, Modern Tunisia: A Democratic Apprenticeship (Westport, CT:
Praeger 1998). According to Borowiec, Ben Ali relied on forces from the National
Guard and not the regular army to deploy to key sites in the capital setting the stage for
the bloodless coup that ensued. Edward Cody, ‘Tunisian President ‘‘Senile’’ is removed
by his deputy; Habib Bourguiba’s 30 year rule ends’, Washington Post, 8 Nov. 1987.
11
International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2012 (London:
Routledge for IISS March 2012), 351–2.
12
See the description, for example, offered by the minister of defense to American
embassy officials and leaked by wikileaks (Wikileaks cable/09TUNIS506).
Why the Tunisian Military Defected 211

Notably, the military did not operate in Tunis; security was provided
by police and other forces controlled by the Interior Ministry. Outside
Tunis, the National Guard played a primary policing role in the
countryside and smaller cities. When, for example Ben Ali deployed the
army to the capital on 12 January 2011, it indicated the severity of
the situation facing the regime.13 Like its counterpart in Egypt, the
Tunisian military had only rarely been called upon to participate
actively in repressing political activity.14
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In short, Ben Ali’s formula had been largely one of control through
exclusion, keeping the military distant from the regime, both literally
and figuratively, while, as I explain below, balancing it with a large
police and security apparatus. Intriguingly, Ben Ali relied on this
approach despite the very different patterns of elite control and regime
management that he employed more broadly. Ben Ali ruled through
direct control and management of a small cohort of elites, who rotated
in and out of government institutions and a clique of presidential
advisors operating out of the palace. Unlike Bourguiba who managed
elite politics through an agile game of divide and rule, as Ben Ali’s
personalistic system of rule evolved, few elites were able to develop
independent power bases and power was increasingly concentrated in a
narrow cohort with Ben Ali at the center.15 Indeed, in recent years the
regime was largely mobilized to facilitate the personal enrichment of
Ben Ali’s family.

13
‘Has Ben Ali played his last cards’, Maghreb Confidential, 6 Jan. 2011; ‘Army serves
as Ben Ali’s last rampart; Defense Ministry, Tunis’, Maghreb Confidential, 13 Jan.
2011.
14
Exceptions include the 1978 and 1984 bread riots. Henry Kamm, ‘Tunisia appears to
halt wave of rioting with show of troops and armor’, New York Times, 5 Jan. 1984. In
2008 the military had been called in to provide reinforcements during riots in the Gafsa
region. ‘Al Jazeera TV Maghreb Harvest programme 2130 gmt 6 June 2008’, BBC
Monitoring Middle East, BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 7 June 2008. Also see ‘Tunisia:
Behind Tunisia’s Economic Miracle: Inequality and Criminalization of protest’,
Amnesty International, 18 June 2009.
15
Steffen Erdle, ‘Tunisia: Economic Transformation and Political Restoration’, in
Volker Perthes (ed.), Arab Elites, Negotiating the Politics of Change (Boulder, CO:
Lynne Rienner 2004); Emma Murphy, ‘The Foreign Policy of Tunisia’, in Raymond
Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami, The Foreign Policies of Middle East States
(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Press 2002), 246–7; Michele Penner Angrist, ‘Whither
the ben Ali regime in Tunisia?’ in Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Daniel Zisenwine (eds),
The Maghrib in the New Century: Identity, Religion and Politics (Gainesville: UP of
Florida 2007), 188–9.
212 Risa Brooks

Division of Labor
Ben Ali has sought to build a substantial counterbalance to the military
with security forces housed in the Ministry of Interior.16 Beginning in
the 1990s, the size of the police and security forces grew substantially,
by some accounts quadrupling, and included forces within the formal
control of the Interior Ministry, as well as militias accountable directly
to the palace.17 The number of police and security services employed
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was estimated to be between 120,000 and 200,000, a substantial


number in a country of ten and a half million.18 As Christopher
Alexander captures it, ‘The police force, uniformed and plainclothes,
became the regime’s praetorian guard.’19
The Interior Ministry’s forces include the Public Order Brigade
(Brigade de l’Ordre Publique, BOP) or riot police, which played an
important role in the regime’s efforts to repress the 2010/2011
uprising.20 Especially dreaded by the population was the State Security
Department, which was abolished in March 2011. Also housed within
the Interior Ministry were several elite units. These include the Rapid
Intervention Response Brigade (BNIR); the Anti-Terrorism Brigade
(BAT) which is a specialized unit drawn from the national police (it is
similar in function to SWAT teams in the United States); and an elite
16
James Quinlivin, ‘Coup-proofing: Its Practice and Consequence in the Middle East’,
International Security 24/2 (Fall 1999), 131–265; Norvell De Atkine, ‘Why Arabs Lose
Wars’, Middle East Quarterly 6/4 (Dec. 1999); Elizabeth Picard, ‘Arab Military in
Politics: From Revolutionary Plot to Authoritarian State’ in Giacomo Luciano, The
Arab State (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press 1999); Stephen Biddle and Robert
Zirkle, ‘Technology, Civil-Military Relations, and Warfare in the Developing World’,
Journal of Strategic Studies 19/2 (1996), 171–212; Risa Brooks, Political-Military
Relations and the Stability of Arab Regimes. Adelphi Paper 324 (New York: OUP for
IISS 1998); Aaron Belkin, United We Stand: Divide and Conquer Politics and the Logic
of International Hostility (New York: SUNY Press 2005).
17
The police numbered 40,000 under Bourguiba according to Amy Aisen Kallander,
‘Tunisia’s Post ben Ali Challenge: A Primer,’ Middle East Research and Information
Project, 26 Jan. 2011; also see Christopher Alexander, ‘Authoritarianism and Civil
Society in Tunisia: Back from the Democratic Brink’, Middle East Research and
Information Project 27 (Winter 1997), 36–7.
18
Erdle, ‘Tunisia: Economic Transformation and Political Restoration’, 214. Eric
Goldstein, ‘Dismantling the Machinery of Oppression’, Wall Street Journal, 16 Feb.
2011. Clement M. Henry and Robert Springborg, ‘The Tunisian army: defending the
beachhead of democracy in the Arab world’, Huffington Post, 26 Jan. 2011, 5http://
www.huffingtonpost.com/clement-m-henry/the-tunisian-army-defendi_b_814254.html4.
19
Christopher Alexander, ‘Anatomy of an Autocracy’, www.ForeignPolicy.com, 14 Jan.
2011, 5www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/14/anatomy_of_an_autocracy4.
20
‘Tunisia in Revolt: State Violence During Anti-government Protests’, Amnesty
International, Feb. 2011, 2.
Why the Tunisian Military Defected 213

tactical unit of the National Guard, the National Guard Special Unit
(USGN). Within the army, there exists a Special Forces brigade (GFS)
based at Bizerta.
Central to Ben Ali’s security forces was his 5,000–6,000 strong
presidential guard, which played an important role as protector of the
regime and whose chief, Ali Seriati, was arrested soon after Ben Ali’s
departure from the country.21 The Presidential Guard was notable both
for how well equipped and well treated were its members under Ben
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Ali.22 Indeed, privileging of the Presidential Guard was rumored to


have generated substantial hostility and resentment from other security
forces.23
Within the final days of the regime, the presidential guard would stay
loyal to the regime, although it ultimately would prove incapable of
protecting it. Immediately following Ben Ali’s departure on 14 January,
the army in combination with some segments of the police fought fierce
gun battles around the capital, including at the presidential palace in
Carthage and interior ministry, with members of the presidential guard
and private militia recruited and directed by Ben Ali who remained
loyal to the leader.24 Members of those forces engaged in looting and
violence, which appeared to have been part of a strategy to sow chaos
and lay the groundwork for Ben Ali’s return to the country, forcing
citizen patrols to mobilize to protect their neighborhoods.25

Corporateness
One important byproduct of the marginalization of the military and its
relegation to the periphery of the regime is that it effectively granted the
military some degree of organizational autonomy. In part as a result,
the military was able to sustain a corporate ethos that prioritized
mission and duty and regard for the military as an institution. That is,
21
Borowiec, Modern Tunisia, 79.
22
Many rank and file in the national police by contrast were poorly paid and equipped
as employment in the police apparently doubled as kind of jobs program under the
regime. Kallander, ‘Tunisia’s Post ben Ali Challenge’. Tarek Amara, ‘Tunisian Police
protest ban on joining unions’, Reuters, 6 Sept. 2011. Borzou Daragahi, ‘A Tunisian
state police officer shares harrowing inside view’, Los Angeles Times, 3 Feb. 2011.
23
Steffen Erdle, Ben Ali’s ‘New Tunisia’ (1987–2009): A Case Study of Authoritarian
Modernization in the Arab World (Berlin: Klaus Schwartz 2010). ‘Popular Protest in
North Africa and the Middle East (IV)’, 11.
24
Vivienne Walt, ‘Chaos threatens Tunisia’s revolution’, Time, 16 Jan. 2011.
25
Tunisia gripped by uncertainty’, Al Jazeera, 16 Jan. 2011, 5www.aljazeera.com/
news/africa/2011/01/20111167140864373.html4. Ben Ali did not leave Tunisia on
the 14th expecting to be gone permanently. ‘Tunisian interim president asks Al-Jazeera
to ‘‘contribute to encouraging calm’’’, BBC Monitoring Middle East, 16 Jan. 2011.
214 Risa Brooks

the exclusion from daily regime maintenance limited the vulnerability


of the military to the distortions and mixed incentives that can come
from participation in elite politics and patronage networks within the
state. The division of labor also may have had an important implication
in January 2011: when the regime crisis occurred, the military was not
identified by Tunisians as being part of the coercive apparatus in the
same way as were police and other security forces. This created an
opening for the military to capitalize on these sentiments and to
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enhance its social position and prestige by not using armed force,
thereby avoiding the disdain Tunisians heaped on the police and
security forces.
Also significant in this context is the interaction of the Tunisian
military with foreign military forces and relations with its military
counterparts in the United States.26 Although limited, the United States
has a long established tradition of military-military relations with
Tunisia. The forces participate in annual meetings of a Joint Military
Commission, are involved in regular training exercises and the Tunisian
military benefits from both Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and
International Military Education and Training (IMET), which in 2011
amounted to approximately $17 million and $1.7 million, respectively;
although this military assistance is nominally small, it is provided in
context of a military deprived of resources and reliant on limited funds
to maintain its aging equipment.27
The significance of these relationships must be seen, moreover, in
context of Tunisian civil-military relations which in effect, if not
necessarily by design, afford the armed services some degree of internal
autonomy and insulation from regime institutions. In other civil-
military contexts, such military-military relationships might lack
traction or resonance (as for example in cases where military leaders
are more centrally engaged in daily regime maintenance). Although
difficult to evaluate, they may be significant in the Tunisian case, for
their socialization effects: they facilitate interaction with US military

26
Alexis Arieff, ‘Political Transition in Tunisia’, Congressional Research Service, 16
Dec. 2011, 21; ‘Africom visit strong US Tunisian relations’, 30 May 2008, 5http://
tunisia.usembassy.gov/en-053010.html4.
27
In 2009 total FMF was 12 million dollars; 17 million in 2011. Tunisia relied on FMF
to maintain its 1980s and 1990s era US origin military equipment, which accounts for
70 per cent of its total inventory. Since 1994 Tunisian has been one of the top 20
recipients of IMET, which was close to two million in 2011. In addition, Tunisia in
2011 received 20 million in Section 1206 funding which provided DoD funds for use in
training and equipping the military’s maritime security capability to aid counter-
terrorism. A US-Tunisian Joint Military Commission meets annually and joint exercises
are held regularly. Arieff, ‘Political Transition in Tunisia’, 24–5.
Why the Tunisian Military Defected 215

officers who see themselves as professional experts and whose


organizational norms mean they place high value on cultivating
expertise and protecting the integrity of their military institutions.
This corporate ethos, however, does not mean that the military is
reflexively ‘apolitical’ and incapable of engaging in political
interventions. Discussions of the Tunisian revolution are replete
with references to the apolitical nature of the Tunisian military and
many scholars have used that terminology as shorthand in explaining
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its actions in 2011.28 On the one hand, however, one must situate
the commonly noted ‘apolitical’ character of the Tunisian military
within a context in which Bourguiba and then Ben Ali maintained a
clear division of labor in domestic security and sought to control
the military by marginalizing it. On the other, the positive
normative connotations of events in Tunisia – the military acted to
protect the people and safeguard the revolution – should not obscure
what in effect was an ineluctably political, if not especially overt,
role played by the military in the regime, both before and during the
uprising.29
In fact, the military’s actions in December and January 2011 were
deeply ‘political’: it deployed to cities in the south and west and stood
by while security forces used extreme tactics, including live ammunition
at times, to suppress the demonstrations.30 Although some units and
soldiers reportedly tried to calm the volatile situation on the ground by
interposing themselves between protesters and the police, as a whole
the military was sitting on the fence and watching the regime try and
suppress the protest, only drawing a line at using force itself in the final
days of the uprising. Moreover, this was not the only time the military
had behaved in such a passive way toward the regime’s efforts to
repress protesters. It had similarly been deployed and stood by while

28
References to the apolitical nature of the Tunisian military are often used as a
shorthand explanation for why the military acted as it did in Jan. 2011. What precisely
is captured by that concept, however, is rarely explored. For a discussion of events that
underscores the military’s role as power broker see Issandr el Amrani, ‘Tunisia’s Diary:
Ammar’s Move? (2)’, www.arabist.net, 24 Jan. 2011, 5www.arabist.net/blog/2011/1/
24/tunisia-diary-ammars-move-2.html4; Emma Murphy, ‘Exit Ben Ali-But can
Tunisia change’, BBC News Africa, 15 Jan. 2011, 5www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-
africa-412197343?print¼true4; Patrick Cockburn, ‘Troubles like these are brewing
all over the Middle East’, The Independent (London), 15 Jan. 2011.
29
Angrist, ‘Whither the ben Ali regime in Tunisia?’.
30
‘Tunisia gripped by uncertainty’, Al Jazeera, 16 Jan. 2011; David D. Kirkpatrick,
‘Military backs new leaders in Tunisia’, New York Times, 16 Jan. 2011. David D.
Kirkpatrick, ‘In Tunisia, new leaders win support of military’, New York Times, 17
Jan. 2011.
216 Risa Brooks

forces under control of the interior ministry violently suppressed labor


protests in the interior region of Gafsa in 2008.31
Moreover, the decisions made during the final days of the uprising
were also political in the sense that they meant the Army and its leader,
General Ammar was de facto the key power broker in the country – a
role which in the weeks following the protests became manifestly clear.
Not only had the military defected from Ben Ali, precipitating his
departure from the country, it subsequently played a vital role in
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reestablishing control under a new government in the days that


followed. Military personnel participated in the arrest of key officials
and provided essential backing to the interim government led by Ben
Ali’s long time prime minister, Mohammed Ghounoucchi. In turn, it
defended the government from threats posed by Ben Ali loyalists by
engaging in a series of street battles with members of security forces
allied to the leader.32 In short, when General Ammar, famously stated
that ‘the army will protect the revolution’, he was essentially admitting
to the military’s fundamental role as power broker.33
What remains to be explained, therefore, is why the military decided
to defect from the regime in mid-January 2011. Key is the nature of
civil-military relations in Tunisia. The structure of these relations
meant that organizationally and individually, the Army and its senior
leaders did not depend on Ben Ali for resources or access to power,
which lessened their investment in sustaining him in office. In fact, not
only did the military lack a substantial vested interest in keeping Ben
Ali in power, there may have been benefits in sidelining him. Ben Ali
may have played a role in the downing of a helicopter in 2002, which
killed General Ammar’s predecessor and 12 other senior officers and
personnel – if these suspicions are accurate, there would be no love lost
between the army and Ben Ali.34 The regime’s policies, including its
rampant corruption, which had accelerated in recent years and been
placed on public display with the exposure by Wikileaks of US embassy
cables, not only potentially provoked the personal ire of Tunisia’s

31
‘Al Jazeera TV Maghreb Harvest programme 2130 gmt 6 June 2008’, BBC
Monitoring Middle East, BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 7 June 2008; ‘Tunisia: Behind
Tunisia’s Economic Miracle: Inequality and Criminalization of Protest’, Amnesty
International, 18 June 2009.
32
‘Tunisian interim president asks Al-Jazeera to ‘‘contribute to encouraging calm’’’,
BBC Monitoring Middle East, 16 Jan. 2011. According to the prime minister, the army
was acting in accordance with the constitutional state of emergency declared on 14 Jan.
33
David D. Kirkpatrick, ‘Chief of Tunisian army pledges his support for the
revolution’, New York Times, 25 Jan. 2011.
34
‘Tunisian army chief dies in air crash’, BBC News, 1 May 2002; Kallander, ‘Tunisia’s
Post ben Ali Challenge’.
Why the Tunisian Military Defected 217

military officers, but also may have raised the specter of the military
being called upon to repress future protests and restore civil order – a
role it was known to disdain.35 Add to that the shadow of succession
hanging over the regime, which might have allowed a regime insider
like Ben Ali’s corrupt son-in-law Sakher El-Materi to take over, and/or
catalyzed instability and a breakdown in the civil order, forcing the
military to maintain in power a potentially illegitimately chosen and
despised political leader. In short, the reasons to stay in the relationship
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were small and may have been diminishing.


Finally, mass repression of the kind required in mid-January to quash
the protests was likely to be viewed as a threat to the integrity of the
organization and engender a loss of prestige and social esteem; in this
regard the corporate interests of the military were best realized by
rejecting the order to fire, thereby resulting in the military effectively
siding with the protesters. The magnitude of the uprising and the
organizational costs involved in repressing the protests are critical in
this regard. Not only had the uprising grown from localized protests in
the restive interior to a mass movement encompassing the cosmopolitan
capital and wealthy coastal regions,36 by the time the army was
deployed to the capital, the uprising had taken on an expansive cross-
class character: this was no longer a protest by unemployed Tunisians
in the country’s hinterland, but included calls for political change and
encompassed professionals and middle class elements from major cities.
The magnitude of the protest grew while the police had proven
increasingly incapable of suppressing it; in fact, the security force’s
inefficacy and tactics served to increase societal mobilization in the
uprising’s early phases as reports of the police brutality spread across
Tunisia.37
When the military finally shifted from neutrality or passivity to a
position that effectively supported the protests (that is, refusing to fire
to defuse them) it occurred in a context in which the balance of power
between the protesters and the police had shifted. Had the protests been
contained to cities in the marginalized interior of the country, the
situation might have ended differently, especially given the successful,

35
Gassner, ‘Transition in Tunisia’.
36
Laryssa Chomiak and John P. Entellis, ‘The Making of North Africa’s Intifadas’,
Middle East Report 259 (Summer 2011), 13–15.
37
Apparently, protesters used social media to track the roles that different security
forces were playing in the conflict. Nadia Marzouki, ‘Tunisia’s Wall has fallen’,
MERIP, 19 Jan. 2011. Also see, ‘Capturing Tunisia protests on video’, Al-Jazeera, 5
Jan. 2011; ‘Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (IV): Tunisia’s War’,
International Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Report No. 106, 28 April 2011,
4.
218 Risa Brooks

if brutal, repression that occurred during labor protests in Gafsa in


2008.38 However, by 12 January it was clear momentum had shifted
with the rapidly escalating protests in Tunis and in the country’s second
largest city, Sfax. The situation was also getting increasingly out of the
regime’s control as illustrated on the 13th when police fled in the face of
demonstrations in the coastal city of Hammamet, allowing protesters to
ransack the mansion of one of Ben Ali’s relatives.39
This raises the intriguing question of why the police and security
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forces were so ineffective in containing the protests. While the eventual


size and magnitude of the uprising were factors, early on the protests
were small and discrete events and it is conceivable they could have been
contained. One issue is the national police force’s lack of skill and
preparation for the task at hand. Recruitment to the police in Tunisia
operated effectively as a jobs program and rank and file recruits were
generally poorly paid, trained and managed.40 They were ill-equipped to
handle the protests from the start. Provocations of the police by youths
in the initial riots in mid-December only added to the explosiveness of a
situation in which the security forces resorted to increasingly brutal
tactics and indiscriminate uses of force.41 These tactics inflamed the
situation, helping fuel social mobilization and ultimately proved
self-defeating to the regime’s capacity to contain the protests.42
A second issue relates to how the regime’s effort to organize its
security institutions to safeguard against internal threats may indirectly
serve to undermine the capabilities and effectiveness of those
institutions in other tasks. One set of problems relates to the challenges
in ensuring accountability and effective leadership in these institutions.
Put simply, it is difficult, if not risky, to discipline forces on whose
political loyalty a leader depends, and on whose chiefs a leader relies to
monitor security forces and society for opposition and therefore
prevent coordinated action against the regime.43 These organizations
38
Amnesty International, ‘Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (IV):
Tunisia’s War’, 11.
39
David Kirkpatrick, ‘Behind Tunisia uprising, rage at wealth of ruling family’, New
York Times, 13 Jan. 2011.
40
Eilleen Byrne, ‘Tunisian police clash with demonstrators’, Financial Times, 18 July
2011; Eman Ragab, ‘Reform the police but keep it professional’, Al Ahram weekly,
5http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1088/op6.htm4. ‘Police protest low wages, cor-
ruption in Gafsa’, Tunisialive, 14 Nov. 2011, 5www.tunisia-live.net/2011/11/14/
police-protest-low-wages-corruption-in-gafsa/4;
41
‘Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (IV)’, 3.
42
‘Tunisia in Revolt: State Violence During Anti-government Protests’, Amnesty
International, Feb. 2011; ‘Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (IV)’.
43
Difficulties in reforming the ministry of interior are illustrative. ‘Tunisia: General
Director of Security Units Moncef Laajmi is dismissed’, Africa News, 10 Jan. 2012;
Why the Tunisian Military Defected 219

and their leaders may be less oriented toward, or simply ineffectual at,
training and preparing their security forces for purposes like managing
societal protest in order to defuse or contain it, instead of just resorting
to indiscriminately applied, blunt force, attrition style tactics. In some
respects, the ineffectiveness induced by organizational pathologies
sometimes observed in autocratic militaries on the battlefield may
mirror the ineffectiveness of domestic security institutions in managing
domestic uprisings.
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Lessons from the Tunisian Case


What lessons can be drawn from the Tunisian case for understanding
the role of security forces in other uprisings? The case suggests that the
nature of civil-military relations in an autocratic regime facing mass
protests are crucial to understanding whether the armed forces will
defect from a leader, or act to maintain him in office: key is how
relations directly and indirectly shape military leaders’ investment in
sustaining the leader. In addition, the nature of the popular uprising
also may be crucial, and specifically whether it represents a mass
revolt, or is geographically isolated and only represents a subsection
of the population (a class or a sect). Both of these factors can affect
the costs and benefits facing senior military leaders and their orga-
nizations in choosing to pay the costs of repressing protesters in
support of a leader and/or his regime, versus defecting and unleashing
his potential downfall from power. Fortunately, for Tunisians in
December 2010/January 2011, Ben Ali’s military benefited marginally
from its position in the regime, and would have had to pay significant
costs organizationally to defend it. Because it had little to gain by
safeguarding Ben Ali, and much potentially to lose, it acted in a way
that allowed the popular uprising to prevail and the country’s
‘revolution’ to proceed.

Note on Contributor
Risa Brooks is associate professor of political science at Marquette
University. She researches issues related to civil-military relations,
terrorist/militant groups, and Middle East politics. She is the author of
Shaping Strategy: the civil-military politics of strategic assessment as
well as numerous articles in the field of international security.

‘Tunisia; journalists still being assaulted’, Africa News, 15 Jan. 2012; ‘Tunis: Police
officers demand fair trials’, Associated Press, 28 Nov. 2011.
220 Risa Brooks

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