On September 3rd, Tunisia’s defence ministry announced that one of its teams offered a technical service to a state-owned ship en route to Italy, as the crew had gone on strike demanding better social conditions.
The services of ten military personnel were offered for a routine trip between Tunisia and Genoa in order to replace six employees who were unavailable due to strike action. This move was made following an official request from the transport minister.
According to Tunisian law, military personnel can be deployed to ensure the smooth running of public services and other matters of vital national importance.
The recent maritime contribution revealed how the Tunisian army’s role is growing amid widespread approval, as analysts say military assistance is needed in the country whenever the nation faces a severe crisis.
The role of Tunisia’s army has evidently changed since 2011, when the former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee in the aftermath of popular protests that overwhelmed the country. From that time, the army has gained popular trust given that the military refused to oppress the demonstrators.
Rachid Ammar, the former chief of staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces, became so popular in the transitional period that he remained the effective ruler of the country until the election in October 2011. The New York Times then considered him to be the strongest and most popular man in Tunisia.
Since it was formed in 1956, the Tunisian army has always remained on the margins of power in the country, though things changed in 2011. The former president and founder of the modern state in Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, preferred a civil system to run the country along with the ministry of interior affairs instead of the defence ministry playing the dominant role. Bourguiba would grant the largest budget to the education and health sectors, while the military received peanuts.
Meanwhile, Bourguiba was cautious and aware of a likely military coup given that these attempts became a trend in the fifties and sixties, such as in Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
When Ben Ali took office in 1987, it was thought that military generals could strengthen the army’s share in politics. Nevertheless, the then new president followed the path of Bourguiba, despite the nomination of some old colleagues in political positions, such as Habib Ammar (Minister of Interior Affairs) and Abdul Hamid Asheikh (Minister of Foreign Affairs) and Mustafa Azzouz (Minister of justice). Ben Ali continued to support the security institutions but he was keen to keep the military away from politics.
A Carnegie Middle East Centre survey reveals that the budget of the interior affairs ministry, which was less than the Bourguiba era defence budget most of the time, has changed. This interior affairs’ budget climbed by 165% in comparison with the defence budget in 1992, a trend which continued for the following two decades.
The radical change took place in 2011 when the army became a central power in the country. The Carnegie survey uncovered that the defence budget significantly increased more than that of any other ministry between 2011 and 2016. This rise amounted to nearly 21% on a yearly basis.
As a result, the interior affairs’ budget has dropped again. In 2011, the budget of the defence department was only 56% of the interior affairs ministry’s, but within five years this figure had climbed to 72%.
Following the critical security threats, many army officers have been appointed to civil positions. In 2012, General Mohamed Moaddab was nominated as chief of Tunisia’s Customs.
Likewise, eleven army officers have been appointed as governors in areas throughout the country in a bid to tackle security threats while only one military person was nominated as a governor in the 23-year era of Ben Ali.
Back in July 2017, the Tunisian parliament also allowed the army and security forces to vote in the municipal elections. Some critics expressed their concern and considered the move as a politicisation of the army.
On the other hand, some analysts say the Tunisian army does not aim to play a role in political life as the recent moves fall only within its mission in accordance with the constitution. Things are now changing after the army was marginalised in the Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras due to the lack of resources and equipment.
In the meantime, Tunisia’s army is facing many challenges, such as the terrorist threats in the western area of the country plus the risks around Libya’s borders where chaos and terrorism are jeopardizing the whole region.