Retired Officers' Initiative and the Political Crisis in Tunisia

EPC | 14 Jun 2021

A lot of controversy has been raised about a letter that was sent by some retired Tunisian officers to Tunisian President Kais Saied on 28 May 2021, between those who considered it a manifestation of the military establishment’s desire to intervene in the stifling political crisis in the country, and those who considered it one of the tactics of the Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement in the context of managing the crisis of its relationship with the President of the Republic and its break with the active political and civil actors.

This paper analyses the background of this letter, its implications, and its impact for the nature of the current Tunisian political crisis.

The context of the retired officers' letter

The letter addressed to the President of the Republic was signed by six prominent former military commanders of the Tunisian army, most notably: Retired Major General Mohamed el-Modeeb, Vice President of the Association of Military Veterans, Retired Brigadier General Mokhtar Ben Nasr, former head of the National Committee for Combating Terrorism, Retired Brigadier General Suhail al-Shamanqi, formerly responsible for Operations in the Land Army, and Retired Colonel Ali al-Salami, former assistant chief of staff of the Land Army.

The letter focused on the political situation in the country, and presented proposals that it considered to be the "last hope" to overcome the internal impasse, including:

  • Calling for dialogue and consensus between the various political forces without exclusion or isolation.
  • Consensus between the three presidents in order to get the country out of its internal political crisis.
  • Refraining from engaging in contentious political issues until the current health crisis is overcome and the existing economic difficulties are under control.
  • Calling for the convening of the National Security Council in the presence of the three presidents and officials of national organisations in order to save the country from the dangers of the epidemic and economic bankruptcy.

While the letter was devoid of an explicit threat of intervention by the military establishment in the current political conflict, and given that the signatories are retired officers who no longer have an active connection with the army bases, there is evidence that the initiative reflects some indications of a pattern of summoning military commanders into the heated political tension in Tunisia. Among those indicators are:

  •  Repeated statements by President Kais Saied during his visits to barracks and military centres about the army's role in protecting legitimacy and confronting those who violate or transgress it. A sharp constitutional debate erupted between the President of the Republic and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi about the interpretation of the constitutional articles. President Kais Saied considered that those articles give him the supreme command of the military and civilian forces, while the Prime Minister considered himself responsible for the security units. In the absence of the Constitutional Court that is empowered to interpret constitutional texts, the issue of control over the military and security agencies has turned into an item of the current political conflict, and it has become clear that President Kais Saied is utilising his position in the army command to control political balances.
  • The emergence of political ambitions among some retired military commanders, including Rear Admiral Kamal Akrout, the former commander of the Tunisian navy and the first national security adviser during the era of the late President Beji Caid Essebsi, who sent a message to Tunisian public opinion in which he sharply criticised the political situation and the state of the democratic system, and directed a veiled criticism to the Ennahda Movement, which he accused of taking over the political life and decision-making centres, which requires urgent intervention for reform “before it is too late”.
  • There has been a lot of talk in recent years about Ennahda’s increasing penetration into the army. Some circles considered that the recent letter of the retired officers falls within this context, given the closeness of the signing officers to the Ennahda Movement, including those who benefited from the Movement’s support after their retirement. It is clear from the letter's content that it holds the President of the Republic responsible for the political congestion, and calls on him, in threatening language, to take quick initiatives to reach an understanding with his political opponents.

The military coup plan: truth and realisation

The website Middle East Eye published a secret document allegedly leaked from the office of the Director of the Presidential Office Nadia Okasha, dated 13 May 2021. According to the document, President Kais Saied will coordinate with the army in imposing a kind of "constitutional dictatorship" that would grant him all the executive powers within the framework of procedures for declaring a state of emergency, even as the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament would be placed under house arrest inside the Presidential Palace in complete isolation from the outside, in addition to the arrest of the leaders of the Ennahda Movement and its political supporters in Parliament and the government. According to the document, the army would also be entrusted with deployment in the streets and taking control of the country’s affairs. Popular decisions would be taken to pass the coup, such as reducing the prices of basic commodities, and temporarily suspending the payment of electricity, water and telephone bills, taxes and bank loans. The President would also carry out a comprehensive cabinet reshuffle while retaining Prime Minister Mechichi and tempting him to side with the constitutional coup.

It was reported that the plan was drawn up by personalities close to President Kais Saied, most notably Khaled al-Yahyawi, director of presidential security, although the President did not receive it directly. President Kais Saied has called on the Public Prosecution to immediately investigate the alleged plan for a military coup in Tunisia, and appointed the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Appeal in Tunisia as a judge for this purpose, based on Article 31 of the Code of Criminal Procedures.

While the issue continues to be under investigation, all signs indicate that the document does not reach the level of a military coup plan, but rather reflects some ideas and demands put forward by some political actors based on the constitutional provisions, including some leaders of the leftist Popular Front and the opposition Democratic Movement.

An official denial was issued by the office of the President of the Republic and the Presidency Staff Syndicate of this document, which was described by the parties opposed to President Kais Saied as interference in the logic of the sharp political quarrels known by Tunisia, in an implicit reference to the relationship of the Ennahda Movement with it.

Hence, it could be concluded that the leaked plan is not a serious coup project, but strongly poses, in addition to the letter of the retired officers, the question of the military card in the current political struggle in Tunisia.

The future role of the Tunisian military establishment in the political struggle

Tunisia is almost the only exception in the Arab republics in terms of the marginal role of the military in the political arena. After the coup attempt that was organised by opponents of former President Habib Bourguiba from the Yusufian Movement and the National Movement in 1962, no serious attempt emerged for an army intervention in the political arena. On 4 January 1984, President Bourguiba assigned the army to intervene to control the collapsed security situation following the protest events known as the Bread Revolution, but this incident has not subsequently been repeated in the Tunisian arena.

While the removal of President Bourguiba on 7 November 1987 was led by an officer, namely former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it was carried out in accordance with the balance of constitutional legitimacy. The role of the security establishment, and not the military leadership, was decisive therein. The army did not have any active involvement in the January 2011 events that led to the fall of former President Ben Ali, although the leadership of the Presidential Guards helped facilitate the political transition process.

Article 18 of the 2014 Constitution stipulates the republican character of the army and its complete impartiality in the political struggle, by saying: “The national army is a republican army. It is an armed military force based on discipline that is composed and structurally organized in accordance with the law and charged with responsibility to defend the nation, its independence and its territorial integrity. It is required to remain completely impartial. The national army supports the civil authorities in accordance with the provisions set out in law”. Article 77 of the Constitution states that the President of the Republic assumes the role of “Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces”. Article 78 states his right to appoint and dismiss individuals in senior military positions. Hence, the military field is one of the few specialties of the President of the Republic in the Tunisian Constitution, which explains the tendency of the current President to be keen on investing the military card in the influence struggle for control of the decision-making circles.

It is clear that the political forces are unanimous in rejecting any political role for the military establishment, similar to the other Arab experiences. Thus, the protesting reactions to the letter of the six officers are understandable. However, the nature of the escalating political crisis may lead to a dispute over the use of the military card in the political struggle in two distinct directions:

1. The President's use of this card within the framework of the powers granted to him to maintain security and protect the homeland’s borders and its stability, even if the situation requires declaring a state of emergency. President Kais Saied has threatened several times to resort to Article 80 of the Constitution, which stipulates the following measures: “In the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state, the President of the Republic may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances, after consultation with the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and informing the President of the Constitutional Court. The President shall announce the measures in a statement to the people”. While the conditions for taking those measures are difficult to achieve and require referral (even in an advisory capacity) to the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament, they remain a decisive and influential card in the nature of the political conflict and may be used by the President of the Republic when necessary.

2. Ennahda’s use of the military card, as part of its policies to build a parallel armed security apparatus, whose leaders would include retired officers who still have influence and presence in the highest command positions in the army. It was leaked from some sources that the leadership of the Ennahda Movement considered, in light of the Egyptian experience, that it was necessary to build a strong military wing from within the army to protect the Movement’s position in the political arena and preserve its gains in the elections and executive governance.

Conclusions

In light of the current data and facts, the chances that the Tunisian army would interfere in the political struggle (to overthrow the regime, or impose a restructuring of the political equation in favour of the President of the Republic or the Ennahda Movement) remain weak. Hence, it can be concluded that the escalating initiatives of the military commanders reflect the severity and aggravation of the political conflict, rather than a qualitative shift in the role and influence of the Tunisian military establishment on the political balance.

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