Tunisia: Notes on the Army


Saturday, January 15, 2011

On the way downtown our cab had to stop.  The army and police were both outside the town liquor store arresting looters. The army was arguing with the police and eventually made them leave.  Then this happened. . .

I wrote in the last page that, despite what I would have assumed, the army is LOVED by the average Tunisian and the police are generally hated and feared.  Today showed why.

In this video he’s basically saying, “We are not the police, we do not shoot our own people like the police, we are the army, we need your help but we will defend you.”  The people cheered and then the army drove away.

The only police that are still working are the elite, political police.  They shoot people for the most minor infractions.  Today my American friend saw some Tunisians stomping on a picture of the former president and cheering.  All of a sudden police came up and began indiscriminately shooting into the crowd.  He didn’t see anyone die but still.

The army sent young boys around to distribute leaflets today.  They said: If you want to defend your neighborhood, put a white rag around your arm and grab any weapon you can.  The people are clearly for the army at this point.

As I write there are mobs of civilians (including, foolishly and implausibly, myself) wearing white armbands on every corner.  Someone, almost definitely the former special police/secret service, has been driving around shooting at these groups of people and getting in gunfights with the army.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The opposition political parties — communists, social democrats, Islamists (I’m not sure if they’re Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated or what) — have all tried to claim some credit for this, but regular Tunisians don’t really know that much about them or particularly support them.

This was a truly spontaneous, popular revolution and no exile political party can claim to be the impetus for it.  The one institution that everyone loves and credits with helping the revolution is the army.

The army never had a close relationship with the Ben Ali regime, and when he told them to fire on protesters the head general refused.  After Ben Ali left, the army organized and legitimized the popular-defense groups that have been defending the neighborhoods from looters and terrorists and aggressively hunted down rogue police.

The people here love the army so much that if they wanted to start a military dictatorship they would have the blessing of the majority of Tunisia.

However, I have heard completely unsubstantiated rumors that the general who refused to shoot protesters plans to run in the early elections for prime minister.  The people love him and he would be a shoe-in.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Interview with People’s Self Defense Groups, Sousse, Tunisia

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Many of my friends at home have been asking me about the new government and what I think it’s going to look like.

Not surprisingly I had no idea, so tonight I asked some of my friends who they thought would do well in the next elections.  Interestingly, not a single person had any idea, or even any opinions on any of the political parties.

If the Ben Ali regime (and the regime that came before him) was good at anything, it was crushing any form of political opposition.  In the ’70s and ’80s leftist groups challenged him, so if you expressed any sort of views to the left of the status quo you were blacklisted or worse.  In the ’80s and ’90s Islamist groups challenged the regime, so if you grew your beard too long or spent too much time at the mosque you would be persecuted or disappeared.

As a result the opposition developed in exile and has very little base among the Tunisian people.  However, if I had to guess, I would say a moderate Islamist party (a la AKP in Turkey) will probably get a plurality.  Moderate Islamist parties tend to put a big emphasis on social justice/economic redistribution and tend to shy away from doing things like forcing women to wear the hijab and stuff like that.

Tunisians practice a very tolerant, easy form of Islam.  (Most young guys drink openly, it’s cool if you never go to the mosque.)  However, being a devout, practicing Muslim gives you a lot of social capital here, and I think there is a view that a politician who goes to the mosque and prays regularly is less likely to screw you than one who doesn’t.  Also Ben Ali’s regime was so repressively secular that there is bound to be a backlash against that.

There are also many Tunisians I know with very secular values, and they generally tend to hold vaguely center-left views.  There are many political parties competing for this group, and who will win will probably depend on personality and platform rather than ideology.

Methalif is a young American in Tunisia.  The text above is excerpted from his blog Tunisia Scenario (at <methalif.blogspot.com>), edited, and reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  Cf. “The armed forces, which consists in the main of the sons and daughters of the people, are asked to preserve security for the people and for the motherland and to respect the people’s choices and aspirations for freedom, dignity, and social justice, which requires lifting the state of emergency as soon as possible so that it doesn’t become an excuse that prevents the Tunisian people from continuing their struggle and achieving their goals” (Hamma Hammami, “Tunisia: For a Constitutional Assembly to Lay the Foundations of a Democratic Republic,” Tunisian Communist Workers Party, Tunisia, 15 January 2011); “Tunisia’s armed forces are fighting street battles with armed members of Ben Ali’s sinister ‘internal security’ apparatus.  Their decision to turn against the dictator was a decisive final blow forcing his resignation.  Hamma Hammami, the recently freed leader of the Workers Communist Party of Tunisia . . . acknowledges the centrality of the army and calls on them to guarantee the safety of the people. . . .  What the army does is vital, because the bourgeoisie is weak.  I suspect this is why the communists are aiming their propaganda partly at the armed forces — not because of illusions in the military establishment, but because winning over the rank and file will decisively change the balance of forces in the country” (Richard Seymour, “Note on Tunisia’s military,” Lenin’s Tomb, 17 January 2011); “Since then the army presence in the capital has been kept to a minimum.  Many residents say, however, that they much prefer to have the army, which is seen as far more disciplined, keeping order rather than the police.  During the often violent demonstrations it has been the police who have been firing tear gas and using batons while the soldiers watched.  On several occasions the troops were not impressed by what took place.  During the breaking up of a rally on Monday a few tear gas rounds fired by the police fell on army positions.  During one confrontation, as the police launched more gas rounds a young army officer said angrily: ‘They are firing at people singing the national anthem.  That is not right.’  The fact that Gen [Rachid] Ammar [the head of Tunisia’s army] has kept mainly silent during the current crisis has only served to fuel speculation about his motivation.  Walid Chisti, a political analyst, said: ‘He does not have to do anything, just watch and wait.  He is an ambitious man but also sophisticated and he knows the political game.  Ammar is a clever man and he will not miscalculate and make the wrong move'” (Kim Sengupta, “Head of Tunisian Army Restrains His Troops, and Watches and Waits,” Independent, 19 January 2011).


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