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US-Tunisian military cooperation tested by Saied's actions

The Tunisian president's assertion of executive authority has been met with both opposition and support, and some are questioning US military assistance.
Tunisians chant slogans supporting President Kais Saied during a rally at Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 3, 2021.

The 10-year cooperation deal between the United States and the Tunisian military could be undermined if the president of the Tunisian Republic continues to use the military for political ends and involves them in human rights abuses such as trials of civilians in military courts.

US-Tunisian military cooperation goes back as far as World War II, when Tunisians fought alongside the allied offensive against the Nazis. This strong relationship resulted in Tunisia being designated a major non-NATO ally under the Obama administration.

The cooperation deal was signed when former US Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited Tunisia in October 2020. According to a spokesperson from US Africa Command (AFRICOM), “The U.S.-Tunisia military partnership is based on a strong security cooperation focused on building Tunisia's military capacity to counter threats and supporting Tunisia's efforts to become a regional training hub.”

Tunisia is still rebuilding its army and air force after some 60 years of neglect under Presidents Habib Bouguiba (1957-1987) and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011), who both marginalized the military as they feared the army becoming a power to rival their authority.

The 2011 revolution marked a change in the fortunes of Tunisia’s armed forces when from 2012 onward President Moncef Marzouki created a more decentralized and democratic command structure, eliminating the old elites that had been close to Ben Ali. 

Since 2011, the United States has become the third-biggest donor of foreign assistance to Tunisia, after Germany and the European Union. Investment has risen five-fold since the 2011 revolution, when overall donations rose from $57 billion in 2011 to $154.7 billion in 2012. Initially, just 17% was allotted as military and counterterrorism financing, but by 2018 military donations accounted for 40% of an overall budget of $244.9 billion.

Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, told Al-Monitor, “The budget of the army has tripled since the revolution and about 60% of the budget comes from military assistance from the United States.” 

This has included significant acquisitions such as US-made Black Hawk helicopters and major upgrades in artillery. However, its expertise resides in internal counterterrorism border and maritime border control and not an army capable of fighting wars.

Publicly the US cooperation was a supporting role, though it was reported that the United States had been expanding its fight against terrorism across the Sahel and Maghreb. Military news website Task and Purpose reported that in February 2017 the Tunisian army was assisted by members of the US Marine corps that fought a three-day battle with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on Mount Semmama in western Tunisia, which, despite one marine being injured and two medals awarded, was played down by both governments.

The Biden administration has been highly critical of President Kais Saied’s July 25 power grab and the apparent human rights abuses including recent trials of members of parliament Yassine Ayari and leader of Al-Karama party Seiffedine Maklouf in military courts. 

Masmoudi said, “The Biden administration is not happy with military courts trying civilians, but also not happy with the military tanks that are closing the parliament and prime minister’s office.” 

He added, “The chairmen of the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee issued statements that they are very concerned about the role of the army in the unconstitutional power grab by Saied. The military should never be involved in politics. Whether it is a coup or not, it is a political crisis and should be handled by civilian politicians and not by the army.”

According to former diplomat William Lawrence, professor of political science at the American University in Washington, under Leahy Law criteria, the United States could have grounds to withdraw its military support as trying civilians in military courts is a gross breach of human rights. “AFRICOM tracks politics but stays away from politics as much as possible. But if a political situation becomes bad enough, they red flag it and will go to the Pentagon and government,” he told Al-Monitor.

In September, US Ambassador to Tunisia Donald Blome made efforts to underscore that the US Agency for International Development would continue to support Tunisia on all levels.

Lawrence noted, “Both the Pentagon and Tunisian military are going to push to maintain this [cooperation relationship] despite Saied. However, Congress will call for the reduction in military aid. However, I think the United States should increase aid that does not support Saied, for example vaccine donations; [however] if you cut aid you will strengthen him rather than weaken him."

AFRICOM’s spokesperson said at the time of the interview, “Our military engagements with Tunisia have not changed. The United States is committed to supporting the Tunisian people and Tunisia's democratic and economic development, as well as our military and security cooperation.”

In September, frequent high-level meetings took place involving AFRICOM’s Gen. Stephen Townsend and Tunisian military leaders. Initially, on Sept. 9, he met with Saied and his Defense Minister Ibrahim Batargi. Townsend returned for a two-day North Africa visit to Tunisia and Libya Sept. 27-28, where he met with military chiefs of staff and Blome to discuss upscaling Tunisia’s counterterrorism capabilities. Townsend is believed to have spoken on the phone with Saied just prior to the president’s announcement of his new prime minister.

Where democratic states have criticized Saied’s power grab, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has openly declared his support for Tunisia’s change of political direction and a blow against what he sees as allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, aka Tunisia’s Muslim democratic party Ennahda.

The two countries share a concern over Libya, but it was Egypt that supported Field Marshall Khalifa Hifter’s war on Tripoli in 2019-20. And as Tunisia heads toward autocracy Libya prepares for democratic elections in December.

Tensions between Tunisia and Libya flared when Tunisian authorities alleged that 100 foreign fighters located near the Turkey-controlled Watiya air base, 19 miles from the Tunisian border, were about to enter Tunisia. Matters escalated as an affronted Libya denied accusations of exporting terrorism to Tunisia. Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah was reported as saying, “If Tunisia wants to build genuine and sincere relations with us, it must respect the neighboring countries.”

Jean-Louis Romanet-Perroux, director of the North African Policy Initiative, based in Tunis, told Al-Monitor, “The gratuitous but precise nature of the allegations and the rapid retraction raises questions about their [Tunisian authorities] intentions, especially in light of their negative consequences. They ruined the relationship between the two countries.”

This dispute resulted in delays in the reopening of the Tunisian-Libyan border with protracted dialogues forcing Dbeibah himself to fly to Tunis to talk with Saied to salvage cooperation agreements. But Tunisia has not fully opened its borders to its neighbor.

Romanet-Perroux said, “The apparent dearth of advisers around President Saied, particularly on security and defense, poses a particular challenge. It increases the threat of being manipulated through alarmist reports and disinformation, artfully grounded on half-truths.”

Masmoudi noted, “It is clear that Kais Saied is being influenced by Egyptian military intelligence. Saied signed a military cooperation agreement in Cairo and since then, there has been a huge increase in Egyptian military intelligence presence in Tunisia. Algeria is very concerned about the presence and interference in Libya and Tunisia by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.”

Lawrence warned that Saied’s foreign policy games could further weaken Tunisia’s position and risk the security that the US-Tunisian cooperation has sought to secure. He said, “Algeria plays a big role in Tunisia’s stability. I don’t think that Kais Saied respects this very much and Saied has taken a position with the Egyptians, Emiratis and Saudis in a way that Algerians find alarming.”

Although parliamentarians have called for a return of the parliament, many have voiced their fear of violence. The army’s armored vehicles have mostly been replaced by police, but at least one was repositioned inside the parliament’s perimeter fence. That same day, member of parliament Maher Zid of Al-Karama party was ordered to appear before a military court.

With Saied, who is also the commander in chief of the armed forces, now forming his government to manifest his vision for Tunisia’s future, civil society and Congress will focus on his use of the army and whether he continues to use it to further his political goals.

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