Insight Image

Tunisia: The shadow of the army

02 Sep 2022

Tunisia: The shadow of the army

02 Sep 2022

Following the constitutional referendum of July 25, Tunisia is moving toward the proclamation of a new republic. As expected, President Saied has pulled off a tour de force. The new Constitution gives him full powers and allows him to neutralize the political influence of the parliamentary chamber[1] He is now in a strong position to “save Tunisia,”[2] allegedly threatened internally. After three years of a presidency dominated by political rivalries and parliamentary deadlock, the President sought a way out. However, the mobilization of the Tunisian opposition was insufficient to stop the referendum process.[3] Despite rejections by intellectuals,[4] former senior government officials[5] and an opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front,[6] the presidency succeeded in imposing an election without holding campaigns, meetings or debates.

The referendum vote ends a period of uncertainty. Until the last moment, the constitutional text was subject to change. The President revised the first version drafted by the National Consultative Committee for the New Republic,[7] led by former Brigadier General Sadiq Belaid, to the point where Belaid regretted that the new draft contained “significant risks and shortcomings.”[8] Corrections were made until July.[9]

The President had the support of a circle of close friends, including the Minister of Defense, Imed Memmich. The two men knew each other well as they were colleagues at the University of Sousse. The Minister was entrusted with securing the vote, with soldiers protecting voting booths and ensuring the strict neutrality of the general staff during the referendum period.[10]

This is not the first time that Saied has sought the discreet support of the army to pursue a political project. Since taking office, President Saied has established a close relationship with the armed forces. Unlike his political predecessors, he has regularly visited military bases[11] reviewed troops,[12] and awarded decorations on symbolic dates, such as the 66th anniversary of the creation of the Internal Security Forces.[13] As a former professor of constitutional law at the University of Sousse, these visits were not just protocol for the President. They carried an implicit meaning in the weeks leading up to the referendum: military values must corroborate his political project – a project based on principles such as strength, righteousness, and unity in the service of its leader.

Kais Saied, nicknamed KS by his relatives, has never been an apparatchik. He is an ideologue, who has frequented the radical left (Watad) and read the Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati. His movement, Mouassissoun (‘The Founders’), advocates for an inversion of polarity based on the idea that “the people are the source of authority”. The secular arm of this strategy being the “people’s army”, it is consistent that the President tries to take control of it.

Saied was the auto-proclaimed head of the civilian government and the armed forces in April 2021, in front of an audience of stunned military personnel to whom he handed out copies of the 1959 Constitution. The text stipulated that the President is the supreme head of the armed forces. While this is correct, it is outdated as the last Constitution of 2014 did not include this point.[14] Consequently, Saied considered it necessary to establish a new Constitution to erase imperfections and reflect his ambitions. He granted himself the right to appoint the Independent High Electoral Authority and refused the presence of foreign observers during the vote on July 25, 2022.[15]

The military option

President Saied’s conduct can be explained by examining the nature of the Tunisian army. Apart from participation in a coup attempt in 1962, and some strong interventions during the 1984 bread revolts, the institution has never been involved in politics. During decades of neglect under former presidents Bourguiba and, in particular, Ben Ali, competent officers were sent into ‘early’ retirement and promotions were delayed. A political argument was created on this understanding, a parable on the people and the army; both have been dishonored in the past and both must have their honor and prerogatives restored.

The budget of the army has tripled since the revolution.[16] Tunis is upgrading its forces primarily to defend its territories;[17] the Tunisian military establishment has never encouraged an arms race. The late President Ben Ali did not have a regional expansion strategy, and focused on police and national intelligence. Tunisia’s annual military budget of $1.1 billion remains much lower than that of its Maghreb neighbors.[18] As is common with President Saied, the policy of strengthening the armed forces has a symbolic dimension. It expresses confidence in the soldiers who refused to open fire on demonstrators during the Jasmine Revolution. Although the thesis of the refusal to shoot demonstrators is controversial, it is accurate that the army remained confined to its bases.[19] President Saied is trying to capitalize on the historical legitimacy of the military as the Tunisian army becomes an essential cog in the operational functioning of the executive.

Day by day

In the Tunisia of Kais Saied, the army’s first mission is to fight the “enemy within”. This term refers to anything impeding the presidential vision; including actions as diverse as firing the former Minister of Defense for lack of political agreement[20] or sending troops to block the entrance of the Parliament to deputies. During the pandemic, the recourse to the military was a message of rejection of the Tunisian government and the political class, who were accused of being overwhelmed by the health crisis. President Saied mobilized high-ranking officers and declared war on the coronavirus.[21] The Military Health Department organized vaccination drives[22] and raised awareness of the epidemiological threat. The state media relayed the regime’s political message of order and discipline. The aim was to create a contrast between Kais Saied’s personal action and the scenes of disorganization and chaos in vaccination centers run by civil society. Judging by the outcome of the referendum vote, this tactic paid off.

Military trials follow the same logic. The population has a longstanding distrust of civilian justice. Military justice is now required to intervene with rigor.[23] Amnesty International notes that trials have targeted mostly civilians (bloggers, lawyers, journalists).[24] Political opponents are not spared; for example, an international warrant has been issued against former President Moncef Marzouki accused of “harming Tunisia’s interests abroad.”[25] There is also concern about arbitrary detention. According to Salsabil Chellali, Director of the Tunis office of Human Rights Watch, “not revealing where a person is being held is an alarming step regarding the rule of law. The state of emergency has been repeatedly extended since 2015 and is not justified in any sense.”[26]

The mute begin to speak

President Saied’s involvement is so strong that the General Staff and the commanders of the military regions have no choice but to obey. The army is a tool of execution, not a counterpart. The few officers who dare to criticize the government are retired. A group of six elders, including General Mokhtar Bennacer, urged restraint and a “national dialogue,”[27] but no one responded. Only Admiral Kamel Akrout, who has also reached retirement age, took the risk to intervene in the political debate. Despite the cautious language in his public interventions,[28] he was criticized by his former colleagues.[29]

The Tunisian opposition is less monolithic than it first appears. Western chancelleries witnessed the announcement of the state of exception and the freezing of parliamentary activities in July 2021, noting the support of the middle classes for the President. Many former revolutionaries have been discouraged by the inability of the Tunisian political class to meet the challenges of daily life (employment, health). For them, the return to the ‘strong method’ is a guarantee of stability.

The Zero Hour

President Saied has always insisted that he speaks the language of truth. Therefore, we should believe him when he says the “zero hour has been set”.[30] This notion has often been employed in history. The expression “zero hour” expresses the desire to embody the matrix power of time: to control a policy agenda, to set the pace of decisions, to accelerate or delay collective action. In the Arab world, Abu Musab Zarqawi once stated: “We have to decide on the zero hour at which we will start to take control of the land at night, and then during the day.”[31] The British army uses the term “zero hour” to indicate the start of a battle sequence. During the French Revolution, the sans-culottes created a calendar to absolve themselves from the Gregorian metric and return to zero. The will to create a new Tunisian republic was part of this desire for a new temporality.

The choice of relying on the army is a strategy of opportunity, a way to obtain an ethical validation of the new Tunisian Constitution. The question now is what the future holds. Three predictive scenarios can be established.

Scenario 1: Success

The concentration of power allows the President to renew his political effectiveness. Parliament no longer holds back reforms. The opposition, long symbolized by the Ennahda party, gradually loses its influence. Tunisia once again becomes a magnet for FDI (foreign direct investment) and implements the structural reforms required by the IMF. Economic growth keeps inflation in check. The Tunisian people rise to three of their main challenges: the energy transition, the upgrading of their health care system and the fight against corruption.  The next electoral event is a legislative election in December 2022. Kais Saied’s supporters win an absolute majority. Tunisia is proud of having succeeded in its revolution, which began in 2011.

Scenario 2: Lone power

Kais Saied faces two challenges: (1) he is unable to contain the political opposition and to anticipate calls for strikes by the UGTT union; and (2) the use of military justice freezes the presidency in a repressive logic that evokes the Ben Ali era. Tunisia is once again the pariah state for human rights organizations. The President isolates himself in his palace in Carthage. He only listens to his close advisors. Inflating food prices cause scattered demonstrations, as a result of the “day of rage” organized in Sfax on June 16, when public and private sector employees went on strike.[32] The gap between the executive and the people widens. The electorate, which until now has supported the President, understands that the former law professor has no political program, only a moral brief, to lead the country, which is insufficient. Tunisia’s international partners are divided. Some suggest isolating the regime to force the President to see reason. Others believe the risk of total collapse would be too high. Tunis uses the migrant issue to lobby the European Union for financial aid. The United States, which has invested heavily in the country since 2011,[33] takes a wait-and-see approach, hoping that Saied’s security glacis eventually collapses on its own.

Scenario 3: The hardening

Kais Saied establishes an authoritarian government in Tunis. Despite the low turnout in the July 25 referendum, his conservative and populist plan retains the support of the middle class. The appointment of military personnel to government positions, previously rare, is now commonplace. The palace of Carthage fears isolation. It is strengthening its relations with Algeria, opening up to Russia and confirming its willingness to deal with Iran. Two possible hypotheses are:

  • Russia takes advantage of the situation to accelerate its presence in the Maghreb. After Algeria and Libya, it weaves privileged relations with Tunis by dangling the economic favors of the triumvirate: Russia, Iran and China. As a result, relations with the West are adrift.
  • The muzzling of the opposition, the tight control of the unions, and the new dominance of the army as a guarantor of Kais Saied’s security awakens personal ambitions in the Ministry of Defense. An institutional coup d’état quietly overthrows the President. The armed forces restore freedom of expression and open prisons. They promise free elections after a six-month transition period. The promise is not kept. The army retains

Today, the only certainty is that Tunisia is entering a transition phase. After the victory of July 25, Kais Saied is compelled not to disappoint his voters. Voting “yes” to the new Constitution meant turning one’s back on the 2011 revolution and re-establishing a strong regime supposed to ensure political stability and, one hopes, economic growth. If the president does not quickly improve the living conditions of the population, he risks cutting himself off from his electoral base. Many of Tunisia’s allies and partners are now doubtful. They are concerned about this new hyper-centralized political map, without credible opposition forces to fuel the national debate, and doubt the ability of the President to take on his economic challenges. The program of the head of state is an ideological corpus. He is quicker to lecture his fellow citizens than to solve the problems of everyday life: employment, health, education.

Saied’s best ally is still the army, which has sworn loyalty to the institutions and is, for the moment, maintaining silent neutrality. As long as the presidential authority is sustained and the personal credibility of the President is intact with his electorate, the equation can be sustained. But the Achilles’ heel of this pattern is that it relies on strength. As in the Ben Ali era, issues related to security and the armed forces are becoming increasingly sensitive in Tunis. Military justice no longer hesitates to intervene to prevent the dissemination of information describing the relationship between the President and the army. [34] The message is clear, moreover, and the president has never hidden it: There is no turning back.[35] The new Constitution has passed and the zero hour can now begin.


[1] Tunisian voters approved a new constitution by 94.6% of the ballots. The turnout was 30.5%.

[2] “Tunisia: Saied Dissolves Parliament after a Vote against ‘Exceptional Measures’,” DW [Arabic], March 3, 2022,

[3] See video of the rare demonstrations of hostility to the Constitutional referendum:

[4]  “Tunisia: Law Professors Refuse to Appoint Jurists to the Advisory Committee,” Anadolu Agency [Arabic], May 23, 2022,

[5] The former minister of the interior, Ali Larayed, denounced the Constitutional project on the grounds that it “aims to normalize and legitimize the coup.” See “Tunisia- Larayedh: Saied’s Constitution Is an Attempt to End the Revolution,” Tunisie Numerique, July 10, 2022,

[6] The National Salvation Front, a coalition of five opposition parties including the Islamist movement Ennahda, accused the Independent High Electoral Body (ISIE) of falsifying the referendum results. See “Tunisia: The National Salvation Front Renews Its Call to Boycott the Referendum on the Draft Constitution,” Al Wasat [Arabic], July 11, 2022,

[7] This text was officially delivered to President Kais Saied on June 22, 2022.

[8] “The Head of the Tunisian Constitution Preparation Committee Distances Himself from the Published Draft: It Portends a ‘Bad Future’,”Al Wasat [Arabic], July 3, 2022,

[9] Presidential Decree No. 607, published in the Official Journal on July 8, 2022, made corrections to the draft Constitutional reform. See “Tunisie: Parution d’un Décret Présidentiel Rectifiant les Erreurs de la Première Mouture du Projet de Constitution,” Gnet News [French], July 11, 2022, https ://

[10]  « On the 66th Anniversary of the Resurrection of the National Army : The Minister of Defense Recommends that the Military Be Completely Neutral during the Referendum Period,” Shems FM [Arabic], June 25, 2022, https ://

[11] “Saied Loue le Dévouement des Forces Sécuritaires,” Marsad 1 [French], April 21, 2022,

[12] “An Inspection Visit to the Special Forces Corps and the Headquarters of the 61st Engineering Corps of the National Army in the Ramadi Barracks,” Presidence TN [Arabic], December 20, 2019, YouTube video ,

[13] Some visits were less formal, such as an evening in July 2020, at the headquarters of the Special Forces Corps. “The military forces are ready against all those who think they are encroaching on the state or legitimacy. Are you ready?” asked Saied, to which a corps brigadier general replied, “Yes, Mr. President.” See

Najla Ben Salah, “The Battle of the Belts, or How President Qais Saeed Won the Military Belt,” Nawaat [Arabic], August 18, 2021,

[14] “Al-Mashishi Responds to Saeed’s Statement Regarding the Armed Forces: ‘Out of context’,”Al Araby [Arabic], April 18, 2021,

[15] “Tunisian President Rejects Foreign Election Observers,” Arab News, May 12, 2022,

[16] Elizia Volkmann, “US-Tunisian Military Cooperation Tested by Saied’s Actions,” Al Monitor, October 5, 2021,

[17] FMES, Atlas Stratégique de la Méditerranée et du Proche-Orient [French], 2022,

[18] Algeria, $9.7 billion. Morocco, $5.5 billion.

[19] During the revolution, the Minister of Defense had a former presidential security chief, Ali Seriati, arrested for attempting a coup. See Samir Dridi, “Justice Transitionnelle : Témoignage Accablant du Général Rachid Ammar,” La Presse [French], January 4, 2022,

[20] “Tunisian President Dismisses Minister of Defense and Minister of Justice,” Al Hurra [Arabic], July 26, 2022,

[21] Tunisian Ministry of National Defense, “Calling on Medical and Paramedical Staff to Support the National Effort to Confront the Corona Virus” [Arabic], July 13, 2021,

[22] “Tataouine: L’armée Administre la 2ème Dose du Vaccin aux Habitants?” Marsad 1 [French], July 27, 2021,

[23] Republique Tunisienne, Code de la Justice Militaire et Textes Annexés 2017 [French],

[24] The charges were more related to freedom of opinion than to “imminent danger”. The defendants include blogger Slim Jebali, the television host Amer Ayad, the lawyer Mehdi Zagrouba and MPs such as Abdellatif Aloui and Yassine Ayari. Ultimately, prison sentences and fines for “content of the President” were provided by Article 91 of the Code of Military Justice, Articles 67, 72, and 128 of the Tunisian Penal Code. See “Tunisia: An Alarming Rise in the Number of Civilians Brought Before Military Courts,” Amnesty International [Arabic], November 10, 2021,

[25] “Ex-Tunisian President Convicted of Undermining Security,” ABC News, December 23, 2021, https ://

[26] “Tunisia: Secret Arrests under the Pretext of a State of Emergency,” HRW [Arabic], February 9, 2022, https ://

[27] Hamza Marzouk, “Tunisie, des Militaires Retraités Proposés une Initiative à Kais Saied,” L’Économiste [French], May 28, 2021, https ://

[28] “Admiral Akrout: It Is Time to Rescue…,” Mosaique FM [Arabic], May 25, 2021, https ://

[29]  “Une Lettre d’Abdellatif Mekki à L’amiral Akrout,” Tuniscope [French], May 28, 2021,

[30] “Zero Hour Has Been Set… Qais Saeed is Waging a War against the Monopolists” Tunigate [Arabic], March 23, 2022,

[31] Alain Rodier, Al-Qaida: Les Connexions Mondiales du Terrorisme (Ellipses, 2006).

[32] “Sfax Wakes Up to a Dual General Strike, Regional and National, in the Public and Private Sectors,” Shems FM [Arabic], June 16, 2022,

[33] Washington has invested more than $1 billion in Tunisia’s armed forces as part of a $1.4 billion aid package since 2011. 50% of its arms imports come from the United States. See “US Signs 10-Year Military Cooperation Deal with Tunisia During Esper’s North Africa Tour,” Statecraft, October 2, 2022,

[34] Tunisian journalist Saleh Attia was arrested in June for revealing that President Kais Saied had ordered the army to surround the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and that the army refused to comply. See Khaled Al-Saadi, “Tunisian Journalist Reveals the Army’s Disobedience against the Orders of Qais Said: The Authorities Arrested Him and the People Are Rising Up,” Al Watan [Arabic], June 12, 2022,

[35] “Tunisian President: There Is No Turning Back, No Dialogue with ‘Cancer Cells’,” Asharq al-Awsat [Arabic], August 5, 2021,

Related Topics