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.
Yet there is a more profound difference between the Tunisian military than its counterparts in Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey to name a few. Unlike Mustafa Kemal and his comrades, the Free Officers, and Armee Liberation National, Tunisia's military did not found a new Tunisian regime after the country's independence in 1956. This was largely a civilian affair under the leadership of Habib Bourgiba -- a lawyer. As a result, there is no organic link between the military and the political system. In Algeria, for example, the officers are prepared to plunge the country into a decade of bloody civil war in order to defend a political order that their predecessor founded and from which the military benefits above all. This is clearly not the case in Tunisia, which, if they did play the role that everyone suspects, made it easier for General Ammar and his colleagues to dump Ben Ali when protests and violence threatened to consume the country.
As Tunisia gropes toward some semblance of stability and organizes elections anticipated within six months, the burning question for the Tunisian armed forces is: What next? What's the strategy? It seems that after ousting and restoring order, which means above all getting in between demonstrators and the police, the commanders are hoping the civilians will be able to lead the country out of its current crisis, allowing the officers to return to where they like to be most -- the barracks. Still, having intervened on the side of Tunisian society against Ben Ali, the military may have, in an entirely unintended way, mid-wifed a more democratic and open political system. Given that General Ammar or whoever is calling the shots is an unknown figure, his political views are a mystery. He may be a democrat; he may not be -- but it does not really matter. The military intervened to stem the tide of demonstrations and violence. The officers thus have an implicit expectation that new civilian leaders will respond to demands from society for reform lest Tunisia experience another wave of popular upheaval. These expectations would be vastly different if the military had intervened on behalf of Ben Ali. In that case, there would likely be a fair amount of institutional re-engineering to make sure that popular discontent could never again morph into a massive uprising, ushering in a nastier, narrower dictatorship.
There is a real risk for the military here, however. What if the civilians cannot manage Tunisia's new political reality? Indeed, Tunisia's interim leaders are being hammered, caught between continuing demands for thoroughgoing political change that uproots the remnant of Ben Ali's rein, including the formerly ruling RCD, and their own inclinations and allegiances to the former dictator. If the interim government botches this very sensitive phase in Tunisia's transition, the military may have to stay on. This does not mean that Tunisia's officers would become directly involved in governing, but they may be forced into a tutelary role during the search for a workable political formula that will guide Tunisia going forward. Any long stay outside the barracks could have serious repercussions for the coherence and professionalism of the armed forces as the officers are exposed to the vicissitudes of politics.
Thus far, the Tunisian military seems to be well aware of the pitfalls associated with their intervention. By their actions, they are signaling that they have no intention of ruling. Yet, funny things happen on the way to reform. Few remember, but the Free Officers -- despite not having well-developed plan after their 1952 coup -- did intend to establish what they called a "clean" parliamentary system. The hard realities of Egyptian politics, however, led them in an entirely different direction than their initial rhetoric indicated. Admittedly, this is a tough analogy -- 1952 is not 2011 -- and General Rashid Ammar is not Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. The overall point is, however, a sound one. For all the exhilaration and joy resulting from Ben Ali's departure, politics in Tunisia are about to get very tough. Having acted so forcefully to oust Ben Ali a week ago, Tunisia's officers may very well get sucked into the political arena despite themselves.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at "From the Potomac to the Euphrates."