Aren't Middle Eastern militaries supposed to crack down and kick butt? Aren't they supposed to be the "backbone" of regimes? The guarantors of last resort? The ultimate instrument of political control? Read any account of civil-military relations and the Middle East -- including my own -- and the answers to these questions are a resounding yes. So when the Tunisian armed forces, allegedly at the command of General Rashid Ammar, told Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali that the military would not shoot protestors demanding the strongman's ouster and then pushed him from power, the commanders were clearly not playing to type. The role that the military has played in the Tunisian uprising thus far is intriguing and as Tunisia grapples with phase two of the post-Ben Ali era, what the military does (and doesn't do) will be critical in the country's political trajectory.
Although the armed forces intervention defied expectations of Middle Eastern militaries, the fact that officers sided with the Tunisian people actually makes perfect sense. The Tunisian military -- made up of about 36,000 officers and conscripts across the army, navy, and air force -- is not the oversized military common throughout the Middle East that is short on war fighting capabilities but long on prestige and maintaining domestic stability. Defense spending in Tunisia under Ben Ali was a relatively low 1.4 percent of GDP, which reflects not only the fact that the country has no external threats, but also part of a Ben Ali strategy to ensure that the armed forces could not threaten his rule. This was clearly a mistake. Had Ben Ali followed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has always taken great care to make sure that the Egyptian armed forces were well-resourced, General Ammar and his fellow officers may have thought twice about tossing their sugar daddy overboard.