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Tunisian army backs takeover president – for now

TUNIS: President Kais Saied launched his takeover of Tunisia by relying on the armed forces, an institution normally above politics, but analysts believe that retaining their support will depend on developments. Since he was elected head of state in Oct 2019, Saied had generally shunned being seen with political leaders, instead spending time in public with the military. In doing so, he set himself above the grind of daily party politics, aligning with an institution that embodies the state itself.

The armed forces have featured in many of his key decisions. In December, Saied entrusted the military’s health services with the running of a new Chinese-built hospital in the port city of Sfax. And on July 25, it was in the presence of top officers that Saied declared he had sacked the prime minister and suspended parliament for a month.

Since his announcement, an armored vehicle has prevented access to the parliament building and military units have been deployed at the Kasbah, the seat of government, and at other key institutions. Meanwhile, Saied has named a military officer to head a ministerial taskforce to battle COVID-19 in the North African country, which has recently had one of the world’s worst death tolls in the pandemic.

Among the first members of parliament to be detained was an elected official convicted by a military court in 2018 of criticizing the army. Moves such as these have led some critics to decry Saied’s July 25 takeover as a “military dictatorship”.

But Hatem M’rad, professor of political science and president of the Tunisian Association for Political Studies, told AFP the head of state cannot impose himself “without the support of the army”. “And for the moment”, it “supports the president, who has prepared all this with its help”, M’rad said. He said the military will “follow him within the limits of the objectives set” to get the rule of law back on track.

“Kais Saied has earned the confidence of top officers in the military,” according to political scientist Slaheddine Jourchi. He “succeeded in convincing the army that Tunisia was in imminent danger”, pressing it to act. But Jourchi added that even though the military “may have lost some of its reserve, that does not mean we have been under military rule since July 25”. “The army does not govern, it supervises, it protects the president and supports his decisions without being in power directly,” Jourchi said.

Retired officer Mokhtar Ben Nasr told AFP that in a regime where the head of state is also in command of the armed forces, the military is a “legitimate force in the president’s hands to protect the state and the people from danger”. Tunisia’s case is different from the military in other North African countries, said Agnes Levallois of the Mediterranean Middle East Research Institute (iReMMO).

The Tunisian army “will not play a role like it has in Egypt” or Algeria. “For the moment, it is working in negotiation with the president of the republic”, a democratically elected civilian, she said. In Algeria, the army is accused of behind the scenes manipulation of a discredited regime that has been the target of popular protest for more than two years. Egypt’s Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi led the military until 2014 when he became president, after overthrowing the democratically elected Islamist Mohamed Morsi.

During the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, centered in Egypt on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the army played a key role. But in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began that year, the military held back and refused to intervene against demonstrators calling for the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“Unlike in Algeria or Egypt, where the military has a direct interest in the survival of the regime, the army in Tunisia prefers at times of acute crisis to urge politicians to act and stabilize the institutions” of state, wrote journalist and researcher Thierry Bresillon. He pointed out that at the end of May, retired generals sent an open letter to Saied calling for conciliatory moves when he was mired in a standoff with parties including the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, the largest party in parliament and an adversary. – AFP

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