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The Military and Politics

Since independence Bourguiba sought to perpetuate a military relationship in Tunisia in which all elements of the armed forces would be a-political in outlook and completely responsive to the needs and commands of the president and civilian authority. By and large, he was successful, and with the exception of an aborted 1962 military coup supported by Algeria, which allegedly involved younger Youssefist officers, former members of the beylical guard, and Islamists, the military has never significantly threatened the civilian leadership. Given the strains in the civilian leadership and the society in the 1980s, however, the possibility of military intervention in Tunisian political affairs could no longer be discounted.

As premier of Tunisia at independence, Bourguiba, the son of a former lieutenant of the beylical guard, assumed personal responsibility for the country's defense policies and posture. Upon becoming president of the republic in 1957, he also took on the role of commander in chief of the armed forces as specified in the Constitution. Through Article 45 of the Constitution, Bourguiba had the authority to make military appointments, a valuable prerogative that permitted close presidential control of the military establishment and its personnel.

Bourguiba's exclusive power to promote military officers was among the strongest components of his control over the armed forces. From independence, high-ranking officers - general staff and senior commanders in particular - were carefully selected for their party loyalty more than for their professional exprience and competence. This began in the late 1950s when the president dismissed those officers who had trained in the Middle East and who might therefore have been expected to sympathize with the militant Pan-Arab policies of Egypt's Nasser. The handpicked senior officers, in turn, carefully screened all officers who were considered for positions of authority in line units to ensure that antiregime elements did not pose potential threats at any level of the military establishment.

As a result of these promotion policies, the Tunisian officer corps took on a very homogeneous character that only began to break down in the 1970s. Senior officers have been generally representative of Tunisia's economically and politically dominant families from the north, the coastal areas, and the major cities. Although military men have been kept from operating major business ventures or holding political office while in uniform, it has been common for family members to be prominent in business or in the Destourian political movement. Generally Western and Francophile in outlook, tied by kinship to the country's upper socioeconomic stratum, and personally familiar with leading figures in the PSD, high-ranking Tunisian officers must be classed as part of the national elite.

In addition to the relatively small group of officers who had been elevated to senior military positions because of their political reliability, the military's expansion brought into the services a growing number of younger officers from the less privileged segments of the society. Many of these young officers, along with enlisted men who have long been characterized as coming from the margins of society, had not been insulated from the political debate and social turmoil that had gripped Tunisian society since the 1970s. It is thought by observers of Tunisian affairs that many of the younger officers and enlisted men are more sympathetic than their leaders to the government's critics, including Islamists, leftists, and those opposed to the concentration of political power in the top echelons of the PSD. This threat was glimpsed in 1983 when 19 air force cadets linked to the Islamic Liberation Party were tried along with 10 other defendants by a military court where they were found guilty of having helped form a political organization.

It has also been noted that many of these junior and mid-level officers-who were generally better educated than their elders and in many cases exposed to Western military training and practice - may have resented the policies that promoted politically "safe" officers of questionable competence and limited their own opportunities for advancement The existence of pockets of dissatisfaction within the military has not of itself posed a threat to the PSD government. In 1985, however, it was clear that unease among mid-level and junior officers, which has been at the root of numerous changes of government in other parts of the Middle East and Africa, could not be ruled out as a potential source of trouble in Tunisia.

Bourguiba also demonstrated his seriousness in limiting the overt participation of military personnel in the nation's political life. Most notably, when members of the ANT were involved in planning and acting as stewards at the 1979 PSD congress, Bourguiba refused to attend and soon dismissed Minister of National Defense Farhat, who had organized the event.

Beyond controlling military involvement in politics, Bourguiba had long sought to keep his troops quiescent by limiting the size of the armed forces, the quantity and quality of their armaments, and their operational responsibilities. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, domestic security concerns and problems with neighboring Libya caused the government to increase the size and capabilities of the military and domestic disorders, especially during the serious civil disturbances of 1978 and 1984.

According to political scientist L.B. Ware, some Tunisians affiliated with the UGTT saw the appointment of a military man to the directorship of national security within the Ministry of Interior immediately after the 1984 disturbances as a step toward greater military influence in the affairs of state. (The officer, Brigadier General Ben Ali, later moved on to become the minister delegate attached to the prime minister for national security, and ultimately became President of the country.)

Although a gradual increase in participation in political affairs seems a possibility, the Tunisian military's long apolitical tradition and widespread respect for Bourguiba militate strongly against the possibility that senior officers would move to overthrow the existing government. The country's political and economic crisis would have to grow considerably worse to warrant the intervention of senior officers, who are very much a part of the national elite. The younger officers are, however, much more of an unknown factor.

Although most observers believed that military intervention in politics was extremely unlikely as long as Bourguiba remained in control, few were as sanguine about military quiescence after Bourguiba passed from the scene. According to Ware, if post-Bourguiba Tunisia was characterized by economic decline and social tumult and if elite political forces long subsumed under the banners of "Bourguibism" and "Destourianism" broke their facade of unity in a divisive struggle for control of the PSD and the country, the possibility of military intervention by senior military personnel was far more likely than was apparent in 1985. It was uncertain, however, whether the younger officers would be willing to support such a venture or whether some of them would seek to take it over to serve their own ends.

Whether the government's increased dependence on the military will lead to officers demanding a greater role in shaping the policies they are being asked to implement remains uncertain.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:14 ZULU