from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

The Last Days of Ben Ali II: Losing His Military Mojo?

January 14, 2011

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Tunisians shout slogans as they demonstrate against Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis; January 14, 2011 (Zoubeir Souissi/Courtesy Reuters)


Over the last few days, I have been glued to my Tunisia-related Twitter feed. Many thanks to all the Twitterati in Tunisia and elsewhere who are keeping those of us on the other side of the earth up-to-date on what’s happening. (Shockingly, the situation has barely rated a mention in the U.S. press over the last month.)

It seems Ben Ali will be gone well before 2014, maybe even within the next week. The Tunisian strongman’s conciliatory (fearful?) speech yesterday declaring that he understands the protesters and now there will be more freedom of the press and more democracy is a tried and true method of Middle Eastern strongmen. Raise your hand if you remember the “March 30 Program,” Sadat’s contrition over the shortcomings of infitah in 1980, and the 1989 Algerian constitution? There are others, of course. It is exhilarating to see that the Tunisian people are not buying Ben Ali’s sudden discovery of personal and political freedoms.

So what it is the difference between Tunisia and let’s say Algeria or Iran? As Shadi Hamid correctly notes, Algeria’s uprising in the late 1980s was supposed to usher in the Arab world’s first democratic revolution. The same can be said for the Green Revolution agitation during the summer of 2009 that was supposed to bring down the Iranian regime. It is hard to tell exactly why Ben Ali is on the verge collapse, but the Algerian and Iranian governments pulled through. Indeed, there are myriad factors that have contributed to this amazing moment and as I noted in my last post on this topic, many of my colleagues considered Ben Ali’s Tunisia as among the most stable of stable political systems.

Preliminarily, it seems that Tunisian military commanders do not want to risk themselves and the coherence of the armed forces to save Ben Ali’s neck. If this is the case, it is because Ben Ali violated the first principle of former military officers who come to power: the care and feeding of their brother officers. According to my friend and former intern, Michael Koplow, who is writing a dissertation on Tunisia, military spending in Tunisia is only something like 1.4 percent of GDP. That’s low compared to the rest of the Arab world. This seems awfully dumb; part of Hosni Mubarak’s “genius” has been his overriding concern to make sure Egypt’s officers get the toys they want. Ben Ali’s military dilemma is the classic problem of balance in civil-military relations. You need officers to protect your regime without them becoming strong enough to be a threat to that regime. Ben Ali has not gotten the balance right. He downgraded the military, and when the time came to support the regime, the officers seem to balking. It’s a win-win situation for the officers to be standing on the sidelines. They won’t be tarred for shooting at protesters and maybe the officers will get more of what they want in the suddenly approaching post-Ben Ali era.