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Military History

The Tunisian National Army (Arme Nationale Tunisienne - ANT), which was divided into army, air force, and naval components, had a threefold mission: to defend the country's territorial integrity against hostile foreign powers, to assist the police as necessary in maintaining internal security, and to participate actively in government-sponsored civic action programs. The government has also sought to ensure, largely with success, that the ANT had little influence in the political sphere.

Since the late 1970s, all of the armed services have undergone expansion and modernization designed to improve their defenses against attack from potentially hostile states. Although the improvements were extremely costly, the worsened relationship with Libya and the vulnerability demonstrated by the Israeli raid have heightened concern about Tunisia's military weaknesses. The president in 1985 therefore directed his government to explore with its friends and allies in the Arab world and the West the possibility of assistance in making new large-scale purchases of aircraft, armor, and naval vessels.

Contemporary Tunisian society reflects little of the military tradition that permeates the national life of the other Maghribi countries. Many scholarly observers have attributed this anomaly partly to legacies of the era before Tunisia's protectorate period and to experiences encountered during the 75 years of French domination. Political scientist Jacob C. Hurewitz has also pointed to changes that have occurred within the society, including the virtual disappearance of traditional Berber culture. Thus Bourguiba and the PSD have not had to depend on the leverage of a preeminent military establishment to settle internal disputes between contending ethnic or regional groups as have leaders in other developing countries. Neither has it required military help in unifying the large homogeneous population behind the goals and aspiration that Bourguiba and his political elite have upheld as national objectives. Even so, the national life of the country has not been entirely devoid of military experience.

While under French control, Tunisia served France as an important source of manpower. After establishing the protectorate, the French, under a beylical decree in 1883, were granted the authority to recruit local Muslims for the purpose of forming mixed French-Muslim military units. By 1893 all Muslim males in Tunisia became subject to military duty, although it was possible for those chosen for service to provide substitutes as long as induction quotas were fulfilled. As a result, most of the recruits came from the poorer classes of Tunisian society, and illiteracy was the norm among them. Conscripted Muslim Tunisians were required to serve for three years, as were French settlers, who were subject to the conscription laws of metropolitan France.

To assist in the pacification effort throughout the Maghrib, the French - as they had done in Algeria - formed Muslim infantry regiments of tirailleurs (riflemen) and spahis (cavalry) in Tunisia. In the late nineteenth century some of these units joined with their Algerian counterparts in aiding the French in military conquests south of the Sahara. Muslim Tunisian soldiers also formed regiments in the Foreign Legion and served in southern Tunisia as haristes (camel corpsmen). Although Muslims served in all branches of the French army, strict segregation was normal. Few Tunisian soldiers - unless they were naturalized French citizens - were able to become officers, and of those only a small number rose beyond the rank of captain. In mixed units Muslim officers were not permitted command authority, and none were given high-level staff positions anywhere in the French military organization. The infantry and cavalry units were strictly divided on ethno-religious grounds; Muslim soldiers served under the command of French officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). More equality existed in artillery units, where Muslim soldiers were assigned as drivers as the French served as gunners. Most of the transportation corps consisted of Muslims under French command.

Although recruited chiefly for military service in Africa, Tunisian members of the French army were liable for service abroad and served with courage and distinction in such divergent spots as France and Indochina. It has been estimated that of the approximately 75,000 Tunisians who served France during World War I, some 50,000 experienced combat in the trenches on the western front, where they suffered a high casualty rate. Before France collapsed under the onslaught of Hitler's troops in World War II, many Tunisian soldiers and their counterparts from Algeria and Morocco were sent to Europe to aid the French in their fight against the Germans. As part of Hitler's June 1940 armistice agreement that accompanied German occupation, France was permitted to retain 15,000 troops in Tunisia, of which roughly 10,500 were Muslims. After Allied successes in the fight to liberate North Africa in 1943, Tunisian and other North African soldiers saw action in the Italian campaign and the eventual liberation of France.

After World War II the rise of Tunisian nationalism and the emergence of sporadic guerrilla warfare directed against French interests heralded the quest for independence. From early 1952 Tunisian guerrilla bands enjoyed considerable popular support and conducted operations primarily in the south. Their activities consisted mainly of acts of sabotage and coercion against the French community as well as against Tunisians who sympathized with the French authorities. The Tunisians involved in these demonstrations of militancy were labeled fellaghas (rebels) by the French press. As a result of an intense counterinsurgency campaign waged against them by the Foreign Legion, the fellaghas sought refuge in the central and southern mountains, buying time and increasing their strength and support from muslims who resented French administrative policies and practices. Although the fellaghas were able to strike occasionally against French authority, they were never able to muster a unified and cohesive force. It has been estimated that their strength never exceeded 3,000 men. By early 1956 most of their bands were deactivated as an act of cooperation aimed at enhancing the prospects of independence.

In April 1956 the French transferred responsibility for Tunisia's internal security to the new Tunisian government, including indigenous elements of the police services that had operated under French control during the protectorate era. The new Tunisian government used them to track down militants connected with nationalist leader Ben Youssef, who challenged Bourguiba's leadership of the Neo-Destour Party and the country. Some of the agitators of this group were arrested, tried, and sentenced as an example of the government's intention to ensure a climate of acceptable public order for its development goals. Despite these efforts, however, the Youssefist threat was controlled only with the force of large-scale operations by the French army three months after Tunisian independence. In the matter of responsibility for defense - and the building of a national military establishment - the transfer of authority was more difficult. To support its activities in suppressing the revolution in neighboring Algeria, the French government sought to maintain its military presence in independent Tunisia, espousing the notion that both countries would share in the new state's external defense needs. This form of interdependence, however, drew a less than sympathetic response from Bourguiba and his Neo-Destour Party hierarchy. It was only after long months of negotiations that in June 1956 the French government, beset with greater concerns for the Algerian conflict, agreed to assist Tunisia in the formation of its own military arm.

The nucleus of the new military force - the ANT - consisted of roughly 1,300 Muslim Tunisian soldiers, who were released from the French army, and some 600 ceremonial troops of the beylical guard, which the French had permitted the Tunisian bey to retain as a personal bodyguard throughout the protectorate era. These sources of military personnel were supplemented by volunteers - loyal party youth and politically reliable fellaghas of the earlier resistance movement. Key officer and NCO positions were filled by personnel carefully selected by the leadership of the Neo-Destour Party. Many of those selected had received training at Saint Cyr, the French military academy, or had served as NCOs in French Military units. All were loyal Neo-Destourians.

By the end of 1956 the force consisted of roughly 3,000 officers and men organized in a single regiment, but its effectiveness was limited by a shortage of qualified officers. Resolution of this problem was aided through a negotiated agreement with the French, who provided spaces for 110 Tunisian officer candidates to train at Saint Cyr. Meanwhile, a school for NCOs was established at Tunis with French help, and 2,000 enlisted men were enrolled to build up the needed cadre for the NCO corps. In addition to training Tunisian personnel, France provided a modest amount of military equipment and established a small liaison unit of French army officers, who were to advise and assist in matters of command and staff procedures.

Despite the assistance provided the new republic, independence did not remove frictions with the French. The war in neighboring Algeria and the continued occupation of bases in Tunisia by French forces-a concession of the independence agreement - served as unsettling factors for Tunisians. When the Bourguiba government pressed for the removal of its toops in mid-1957, France reacted with threats to terminate military assistance to the ANT. French intransigence led Bourguiba to turn to the United States, which had earlier concluded a bilateral agreement to supply the young republic with economic and technical assistance, and to Britain. Although they were allied with France in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Britain and the United States were willing to supply Tunisia with arms out of concern that Bourguiba might turn to Egypt for assistance.

After settlement of the issue over arms aid, Bourguiba asked the French to evacuate their bases earlier than had been agreed in the pre-independence protocol. Tunisian public support was generated for what Bourguiba termed the "battle for evacuation," and military skirmishes between French and Tunisian forces occurred sporadically. The most serious of these encounters came in 1961 after the French had consolidated their forces at the major military installation in Bizerte. Refusal to evacuate from Bizerte led to an attack on the French base by Neo-Destourian militants, students, and volunteers from the trade unions, youth organizations and women's unions. Organized and directed by the Garde Nationale, the Bizerte confrontation was an ill-conceived and militarily inappropriate venture against professional French troops that resulted in the loss of about 1,000 Tunisian lives, most of them civilians.

Although few ANT regulars were involved - four battalions of 3,200 men had responded earlier to the UN appeal for a peacekeeping force in the Congo crisis of 1960 - the defeat at the hands of the French was regarded by the Tunisian military establishment as a painful humiliation. Nonetheless, the so-called Battle of Bizerte sped the final withdrawal of French troops and ushered in a new era of strategic independence.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:09 ZULU