In healthy democracies, the military stays out of politics and commerce, sticking to its central role of defending the nation. This has been the case in the United States since its founding. In Tunisia too, the military has focused on its national defense mission. This restraint, unique in the Middle East and North Africa region, has won the Tunisian military popular respect over the years. Of concern though is that a good number of Tunisians, driven by political and economic frustration, are now looking to the military for solutions to non-military problems.
A year after Tunisia’s 1956 independence, officers of the Tunisian Armed Forces were legally prohibited from joining political parties. While the Tunisian military has occasionally strayed into political life, this has been very modest compared to the military coups that so many other regional countries have suffered. And the Tunisian military has stayed out of the economy, not operating major businesses, as is common elsewhere.
We Tunisians are rightly proud of the Tunisian Armed Forces. Tunisia is a major non-NATO ally of the United States, enjoying close relations with the world’s strongest military. Tunisian armed forces are active participants in U.N. peacekeeping operations, often winning accolades for their performance. And most importantly, Tunisian officers have distinguished themselves by honoring civilian rule, a critical component of democratic government. The Tunisian Armed Forces surely enjoy a better reputation than Tunisian politicians.
Since leading the Arab Spring’s rejection of authoritarian rule ten years ago, Tunisia has made too little democratic progress. Politicians bicker and seek short term advantage and selfish gain at the expense of the Tunisian people. A multitude of political parties exist to advance the agendas of individual politicians, not represent the interests of constituencies. This leaves Tunisia today in crisis, with President Kais Saied wanting to either re-appoint a new government of his choice or change the constitution, and parliament opposing, leading to political deadlock.
Tunisia is also in a dire economic state, being heavily indebted, with its young, talented workforce suffering widespread unemployment. A poor government response to Covid-19 has cases surging. Given all these troubles, it is not surprising that many disillusioned Tunisians are looking to the Tunisian military for leadership.
Afrobarometer, the leading survey of public attitudes in Africa, last year released extensive survey results on Tunisia that found considerable support for military rule. When asked how they would feel about the “Army coming to govern the country,” 46 percent of Tunisians approved, while 50 percent disapproved. This survey also found that 72 percent of Tunisians see their country moving in the wrong direction, no doubt fueling support for military rule. Many Tunisians see the nearby Egyptian economy as outperforming theirs, and now view the authoritarian rule of Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sisi, a former general, with relative approval.
Perhaps sensing this public feeling, the Saied government is starting to wrap itself around the Tunisian Armed Forces. The Tunisian president has been making political speeches at military sites across the country, while promoting military leaders in an unstructured, political way, a move that has been interpreted by many inside the military as undermining the integrity of their institution. The Tunisian Armed Forces have also been brought into the construction of public works, including hospitals, and ordered to lead the COVID-19 response. In an unprecedented move, a military court was used to prosecute a civilian Tunisian who criticized the president on Facebook.
Rather than playing on the Tunisian’s people’s well-deserved respect for their military, President Saied should focus on improving the economy. Seventy-three percent of Tunisians view economic conditions as bad, Afrobarometer reported. Government regulation is still on the books from the era of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, designed to protect a crony economic system that only works for the politically connected. It is still far too hard to trade, invest, start a business, and create wealth in Tunisia. Instead of economically engaging and inevitably corrupting the military, the government should be doing all it can to unleash the tremendous entrepreneurial energy of the Tunisian people. Tragically, Tunisians are “mostly unfree,” with their talent shackled, needlessly impoverishing the country. The time for economic freedom is now.
Despite a decade of disappointment, and significant support for military rule, Afrobarometer found that a majority of Tunisians still prefer democracy, including regular, open, and honest elections. Like people throughout the world, Tunisians want their public officials held accountable at the ballot box and the freedom to speak their mind and politically support who they want. Tunisians also want their human rights protected, which democracies do better than military regimes. Tunisians are proud of their military because it has stuck to its mission. However challenging, the only way forward for Tunisia is democratic rule.
It’ll be very hard to continue building Tunisian democracy though unless the economy is improving. That means empowering Tunisians with economic freedom, reforming the country’s economy. A stronger economy is critical to a stronger democracy, and of course, a more modern military in Tunisia that focuses on protecting the republic and our/its democratic system.
Olfa Hamdi is the founder and president of the Center for Strategic Studies on Tunisia, which aims to ensure a strong and lasting alliance between the United States and Tunisia; she also serves as the founder and CEO of Concord Project Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif., and is the former CEO of Tunisair.