Impact of the Libyan Civil War
Threats from Libya have long influenced the threat perception and force development of the Tunisian Armed Forces (TAF). The 1981 “Qafsa Incident,” in which Libya funded and trained an attempted militant takeover of a Tunisian mining town, spurred modernization. A renewed focus on containing the spillover effects of armed conflict, smuggling, and terrorism from Libya since 2011 has resulted in a hardening of the border, drawing the TAF into border policing and law enforcement roles for which it is ill-prepared in terms of doctrine and training.
This intensified border role has also thrust into sharper relief longstanding problems of information sharing and deconfliction between the TAF and Ministry of Interior agencies, in particular the National Guard, the country’s main constabulary force. TAF border operations have convinced many senior Tunisian officers that the military should not be the only, or even the primary, means of addressing cross-border challenges from Libya. Instead, they assert, the country needs a holistic policy of socioeconomic development and political inclusion.
The diverse array of threats from Libya—low-intensity, asymmetric threats like terrorism and smuggling and, after the eruption of the 2019 civil war in the Tripoli region, high-end threats like drones and fixed-wing aircraft—confront the Tunisian military with choices about future procurement. However, the planning and budgetary process, with input and oversight from civilians, remains hobbled by capacity shortfalls, bureaucratic barriers, and distrust between the military and parliamentary oversight committees.
The internationalization of Libya’s war also strains Tunisia’s policy of neutrality and “equidistance” on Libya, and sharpens fault lines among Tunisian elites, including military officers, who back rival sides in the Libyan conflict. The Tunisian military has remained admirably aloof and nonpartisan on these rivalries, though that may come under increasing pressure given the growing involvement of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
The TAF does not engage in politics. Officers present this as a republican tradition that began immediately after Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956. Officers were not required to join the ruling Free Destour Party and were denied the vote, and both founding president Habib Bourguiba and his successor, former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, relied on the Ministry of Interior instead of the TAF against their political rivals. This explains, in large part, why the TAF did not support Ben Ali in the crisis prompted by protests in 2011, and why the TAF has remained neutral in the post-2011 transition toward democracy.
The military is not beholden to a specific party, ideology, or ruling elite. It belongs to the state, and by extension the nation, and executes legally received orders. The military deployed during urban bread riots in late 1983 and early 1984, and in response to an uprising in Gafsa in 2008. The TAF obeyed Ben Ali's orders to deploy during the 2011 uprising, during which the TAF did not fire on civilians, and the TAF has since been ordered to support Ministry of Interior operations against terrorist cells in the western borderlands. Military officers, now as then, do not perceive themselves as partisan actors on such occasions.
A disproportionate number of officers prior to 2011 were from the Sahel, or coast, home to Bourguiba and Ben Ali, but this did not make Tunisian officers integral members of the ruling elite. Military officers from the Sahel did not play a major role in choosing Bourguiba and Ben Ali, who engaged in coup-proofing activities while in office. State agencies did not sponsor militias or other armed forces outside the military chain of command, but Bourguiba relied on the police and his ruling party as the main pillars of his rule, while Ben Ali fostered mistrust between internal security and intelligence agencies and the military to strengthen his hold on power. Relations between the military and the police have gradually improved since 2011, especially in cooperating against Islamist terrorism and insurgency.
Military command appointments are not overly politicized. Senior Tunisian officers are selected on professional criteria and are generally well-trained and competent, and the TAF is not factionalized along ideological or communal lines. The military education system promotes civilian oversight and obedience to legal authority. Many Tunisian officers attend military schools in the United States and France, but foreign governments do not influence officer appointments or other personnel decisions in the TAF. Western governments have, however, sought to influence strategic planning and capabilities development processes.
TAF Social Media Engagement
Retired Tunisian officers are not appointed into plum positions in the bureaucracy or in economic enterprises, and there are no militarized sectors of the bureaucracy or economy. The TAF does not prevent public discussion of military affairs or the defense budget, and Tunisians generally perceive the TAF as politically neutral.
Nation Building and Citizenship
Tunisia has employed conscription since independence as a means of strengthening the bonds of citizenship and national unity among Tunisian youth while providing for national defense. In theory, all able-bodied men are liable for a year of military service at the age of twenty, but in practice thousands avoid conscription. In 2017, a mere 506 of the 31,000 liable to serve were actually conscripted, suggesting that the TAF’s influence on nation building and citizenship through compulsory military service is overdrawn.
Military officers tend to be Francophile and anti-Islamist, and to express a preference for secularism, modernization, women’s emancipation, and liberalization of social practices. Islamists are poorly represented in the military. Likewise, recruits from southern and interior regions of the country, who tend to have more conservative views, make up a majority of enlisted personnel but are under-represented in the officer corps, which favors officers from the Sahel.
This balance has shifted since 2011. Previously, nearly 40 percent of officers appointed to the Supreme Council of the Armies and approximately 70 percent of appointments at the ranks of colonel and above came from the Sahel, which accounts for 24 percent of Tunisia’s population. The TAF command was reshuffled in 2013 to include more officers from the interior, and in 2015 the president pledged to maintain the break from favoring the Sahel.
A career as a military officer is desirable for the social prestige and reliable compensation it offers, and an enlisted career is seen as desirable in economically under-served areas of the interior and south. Senior officers are rarely, if ever, associated with corruption or profiteering from political connections. The TAF is perceived to comply with the law, rather than protect a specific political elite or social class, and to have been amenable to reform and civilian oversight following the 2011 transition.
The TAF is popular even in regions traditionally underrepresented in the officer corps, due in part to the military’s economic development projects, especially in remote parts of the country. The TAF built a network of roads linking several southern cities, and it conducts land reclamation and infrastructure maintenance throughout the country, contributing to its image as the people’s armed forces. TAF performance in counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and disaster response also positively influences public opinion. Discussion of defense affairs among civilians and the media has become more open since 2011, but the lack of civil-military cooperation doctrine or units hinders the TAF’s ability to influence nation building.
The armed forces have made a formal commitment to recruiting and integrating women, but appear to lack an official plan for making this happen, apart from some discussion of extending conscription to include women. Seven percent of TAF personnel are female, and no women have reached general officer rank, nor are they assigned to combat units, but they are found in fields as diverse as communications, engineering, military police, remote sensing, and fixed and rotary wing transport.
Active Military Personnel Versus Labor Force