All eyes are fixed on the Tunisian army, amidst the silence of its leader, General Rashid Ammar. The army, which withdrew from clashes with protesters before Ben Ali fled the country, today is back on the streets to enforce security, and to confront those associated with the ousted president. What exactly is the role of the Tunisian army here? Is it following in the footsteps of the Turkish army during the 1980s?
It is true that Tunisia was governed by a strict internal security apparatus for a long period under Ben Ali, but history tells us that the army also had a hand in keeping security in order. However, the military has not interfered in a political fashion since the era of the late [Habib] Bourguiba, who said that “the army must remain in its barracks”. Since independence, Tunisia has called upon the army to control the masses on two occasions: firstly on January 26th 1978, and secondly on the 3rd of January 1984, in what was known as the bread riots, where the army contributed to the restoration of security. So why did the army distance itself this time, and not confront the masses in January 2011, to protect Ben Ali? Is the Tunisian army now playing the role of its Turkish counterpart, which sought to protect Kemal Ataturk’s governance project in the 1980s?
The Tunisian army today has given its support to [Mohamed] Ghannouchi to form a national unity government. It is also targeting the former president’s men, and has arrested Ben Ali’s Interior Minister. General Rashid Ammar is yet to appear in the media, and the army has not revealed any political ambition as of yet, at a time when the bulk of top political figures in the Tunisian political scene are symbols of the Ben Ali era. Even some opponents of Ben Ali’s regime still talk about the need to maintain the state project established by Habib Bourguiba, which is a secular system. Yet amongst the most important things I have heard, citing one Tunisian official was that during Ben Ali’s announcement last Thursday, in which he said he would not run again for president, if he had used that opportunity to distance himself from the corrupt elements of his family, then the Tunisians would have accepted this.
Therefore, as long as the military does not declare political ambitions, it seems that we are facing a new stage. It appears that the army is following in the footsteps of its Turkish counterpart, in terms of maintaining the existing state system and its principles, especially since the Tunisian army has been expertly groomed for this. Most importantly of all, the army did not stand in line with Ben Ali against the masses, but instead said that he had warranted his exit from the country. It seems that Ben Ali had a choice between leaving the country, or face a different fate altogether, so he fell dramatically. The irony is that the army, which previously refused to face the masses, is today confronting protesters who have come out to demand that the ruling party is disbanded, and banned from participating in the new Tunisian government!
There is no doubt that if we want to know whether the Tunisian army will play the Turkish game, we will have to wait for the days ahead. We must examine the formation of the Tunisian government, which parties are in opposition and which are excluded, in order to know what future awaits Tunisia. Yet early indications suggest that the army was a key factor in the president’s departure, particularly as no political parties orchestrated the mass demonstrations, not even individual leaders.