Tunisia: What role is the army playing in the country’s political crisis?

By Camille Lafrance
Posted on Monday, 6 September 2021 18:07

Military personnel deployed on Habib-Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis, shortly after the president's declaration on 25 July 2021. Nicolas Fauqué

After Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed led an institutional coup de force on 25 July, the military rapidly mobilised itself, notably to prevent members of parliament from entering the Assembly. As a result, questions have been asked about the military’s involvement in the head of state’s surprising manoeuvre.

Kaïs Saïed, who is new to politics and heads a shaky regime, has taken a while to get used to his position as Tunisia’s president despite serving in the role since October 2019. So much so that his detractors have pointed out that the shoes he filled are too big for him.

On 25 July, the former university assistant in constitutional law surprised everyone by mobilising the army and implementing his coup de force. The army, which historically does not meddle in politics, was stationed in front of the Assembly to prevent members of parliament from entering. Furthermore, a great number of officers appeared alongside the head of state in the video that he made his shocking announcements. This certainly set the tone.

Can we refer to this as a ‘coup d’état’ at this stage, just like the Islamic party Ennahdha and its ally, the Al Karama coalition, have? Maybe. For the moment, Saïed seems to be more concerned with establishing his own authority than that of the military, all the while benefiting from the goodwill that the large army has garnered since the revolution.

To the point that ever since the president granted himself full powers, prime minister Hichem Mechichi’s dismissal and the Assemblée des Représentants du Peuple (ARP) was frozen; and commentators from all sides have adopted the ambiguous and inflammatory phrase of ‘constitutional coup’. ‘Unfinished’ and ‘undermined’ are just some of the adjectives being used to underline the Constitution’s inconsistencies, including Article 80, which Saïed relied on.

In the second line

Although the military was deployed to strategic axes and in front of sensitive institutions, they mostly intervened in the second line – in a preventive manner and behind security forces – without encroaching on the latter’s prerogatives, which include making arrests. They did not speak out or demonstrate any show of force, but the fact remains that the atmosphere remains tense, as evidenced by some people’s reluctance to talk openly about the army’s role.

The ongoing stalemate between the country’s three branches of government, coupled with an acute economic and health crisis, has fuelled the general sense of frustration. As such, the country needed to act quickly to prevent popular discontent from spilling over and the situation from becoming worse.

Since independence, the political power has mainly relied on the police and has rarely called on the army to maintain itself; but Saïed involved the military in his coup, a choice whose consequences he may be able to avoid.

As far as Carthage was concerned, these disciplined soldiers were simply carrying out the orders from their supreme commander, Said. “We had become a failed state that was no longer fulfilling its functions. Was there any other way to act besides resorting to bargaining or political mercantilism? I don’t think so,” says a retired colonel major.

“The army should not have gone so far as to prevent the elected representatives from entering the Bardo,” says a deputy member of the ARP’s Commission de l’Organisation de l’Administration et des Affaires des Forces Armées. Add to that the security forces’ intervention on Al Jazeera’s premises as well as Saïed’s warning that he would use force if state security were threatened, and that cocktail was enough to fuel human rights organisations’ fears.

“These elements are reminiscent of a military coup, but a soft one. Ben Ali led a medical coup and we saw where that led us,” says the elected representative. “Kaïs Saïed bears a large part of the responsibility, because he let it happen by refusing dialogue and brandishing the threat of chaos,” says one of his former supporters.

Were these events premeditated? Re-examining a number of clues after the fact could lead one to think so. Starting with the Middle East Eye’s revelations last May. This website reported on an unsigned document, which appeared to anticipate the scenario, that the presidency had leaked. It urged the president to take control of the country by centralising powers, referencing Article 80 of the Constitution and a number of measures that have been implemented since 25 July.

Saïed has not been content with simply strengthening the presidential guard (attached to the interior ministry but under Carthage’s control) since 2011. Last April, he surprised everyone by declaring that he wanted to place the security forces, which were supposed to depend on the interior ministry and therefore on the head of government, under his authority. He then claimed to be the commander of all forces “carrying arms”, as per another interpretation of the fundamental law.

Dismissals and promotions

Is the dismissal of Lazhar Loungou, director-general of special services, and the appointment of Ridha Gharsallaoui (his former advisor on national security) as head of interior on 29 July – after having briefly given the reins to Khaled Yahyaoui, director-general of the presidential guard – proof that he wants to take control of all the security forces? Saïed had already criticised Mechichi for dismissing former interior minister Taoufik Charfeddine, his campaign coordinator in Sousse, which would have allowed him to have a contact within a ministry that is sometimes presented as a state within a state.

The president must have convinced the senior military officers beforehand…

In any case, the security officials in the 25 July video heard his announcement at the same time as Tunisians. Does this version of events suggest that the plan could have gone wrong if the interior ministry, then in Mechichi’s hands, had been informed? What about the army staff? Was it presented as a fait accompli or did it influence the president’s decisions? “Saïed has been bouncing from one barracks to another for months,” says a former colonel major of the National Guard (under the interior ministry). “He was always trying to get closer to the officers.”

On 26 July, Brahim Bartagi, the defence minister and a jurist reportedly close to the president, was sacked, which may have taken the wind out of the sails of internal criticism. The minister is said to have paid for his attempts to mediate with Mechichi and even his opposition to the army’s intervention.

Neither the president nor the army deviated from protocol

“After the first rumours of a coup d’état last May, he told our committee that he was attached to the civilian regime,” says our source at the ARP. “The president must have convinced the senior military officers beforehand,” she says. Whether this is the case or not, the chains of command follow a protocol and there is nothing to suggest that Saïed deviated from it, except by having senior officers at his side.

In any case, he has been able to get closer to some of them ever since he took office. Starting with Habib Dhif, director of the Agence Nationale de Renseignement, de Sécurité et de Défense, whom he had summoned last January to officially discuss issues related to the “armed forces’ promptness in defending the country’s territorial integrity and protecting the state and its institutions”, a subject that is particularly relevant to the events of 25 July.

In the video, Dhif appears to be standing to the president’s left. The four other officers present appear in order of rank and seniority. First is Abdelmoneim Belati, inspector-general of the armed forces (since 2017), who the head of state recently promoted to the rank of major general during the army’s 65th anniversary. Next is Mohamed Hajjem, the air force’s chief of staff (2017); Mohamed el-Ghoul, the army’s chief of staff (2018); and Rear Admiral Adel Jhen, who Said appointed the navy’s chief of staff in May 2020. All of these men received the same promotion. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are advisors or the president’s affiliates.

By necessity, fighting against the pandemic has strengthened the army executives’ permanent contacts. Mustapha Ferjani – director-general of military health, who has also been promoted to the rank of major general – works in close collaboration with the president. Once military hospitals were deployed, the army began to coordinate a health crisis cell.

Another influential military officer is Admiral Abderraouf Atallah, who became the president’s senior security adviser in April 2020 and has taken over the permanent secretariat of the Conseil de Sécurité Nationale (CSN). His predecessor (appointed when Said arrived), Mohamed Salah Hamdi, had left his post, explaining on his Facebook account that he had been excluded from ministerial hearings and preparatory work ahead of military councils, and described his role as that of ‘an extra’.

Rather than place ‘his’ men, did Saïed decide to clean up his act by appointing those who did not follow him to the letter? On 24 June, the army’s anniversary, Hamdi remained critical and warned against the “politicisation” of the latter and its “instrumentalisation for political ends.” He even went so far as to declare on 20 July that “an operational pause is necessary”, urging “the command to take a step back so that it could reassess the situation.”

He is not the only senior officer who has interfered in public affairs in recent months. Six retired senior officials sent a letter to the president at the end of May, calling on him to urgently convene the CSN in the presence of the head of government and the president of the ARP to define the terms of a national dialogue.

At the head is the former colonel-major Mokhtar Ben Nasr. This is unusual in a country where the army is supposed to keep its distance from politics. “It is surprising when former soldiers return to civilian life and start lobbying, because the country has just recently become democratic but this is a part of its construction process,” says the former colonel-major.

What about the entry on the scene of Admiral Kamel Akrout, Béji Caïd Essebsi’s former security advisor, who resigned two days after the new president took office? He turned his Facebook profile into a platform and called for the current regime to end at the start of June. On 12 July, he invoked Article 80 to break the deadlock and “allow the president to make supra-constitutional decisions such as initiating a referendum.”

Since 25 July, he has been acknowledging the hope raised but says the situation cannot continue without a roadmap. “Others had invoked this article before him, Akrout got people’s attention, because he went through Carthage, but he is just one of many voices,” says the former officer.

Aqmi, IS, Libyan militias…

Whether it was that of a driving or an auxiliary force, it remains unclear what kind of role the army played in the presidential coup de force as well as the one that it may play in the future. Although professional and organised, it is often said that the army has been out of breath since the revolution.

He has a tendency to be authoritarian. However, it is not certain whether Kaïs Saïed has the necessary networks to go it alone and consolidate his power in the long term.

On the east, the Libyan side, it faces militias and terrorist groups, while on the west, near Kasserine, it is up against terrorist groups that are affiliated with Aqmi and IS, which continue to exhaust the morale of its units, who are victims of their improvised explosive devices.

It is also possible that attempts to give the military a greater role have been tempered by the interior forces, which are equally problematic because of their record under Ali. Especially since their ministry has been subject to a clan struggle since 2011 and is said to have been infiltrated by different groups.

The October 2020 draft law, which would have provided them with more protection and increased police unions’ power, also raised fears about a possible return to a police state. However, the common trajectory of these two corps’ officers could have contributed to their respective neutralisation; the leaders of the National Guard, customs and police all receive their training in the same academies as the military. “They are roommates, which creates strong and lasting links,” says one of the school’s staff members.

Nevertheless, the president’s unclear strategy has raised doubts. Some even fear a Sissi-like scenario; except that in Tunisia, the army has remained solidly republican in nature and Saïed, a civilian, is already president.

“He has a tendency to be authoritarian. However, it is not certain whether Kaïs Saïed has the necessary networks to go it alone and consolidate his power in the long term. If he wants to keep it, he will have to negotiate. The outcome depends on the allies that he chooses,” says security researcher Khansa Ben Tarjem. “Since independence, the political power has mainly relied on the police and has rarely called on the army to maintain itself; but Saïed involved the military in his coup, a choice whose consequences he may be able to avoid.”

It is possible that the army is inasmuch of a state of uncertainty as its citizens. Civil society and major national organisations could play an important role by calling for a limit to the duration of the emergency measures. The balance of power will also depend on the amount of popular support – which for the moment is high – that is enjoyed by the head of state, who seems to be playing it by ear.

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