The Middle East Channel

The calculations of Tunisia's military

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."

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The Middle East Channel

Palestinians remove some eggs from the American basket

This year may bring a close to American mediation of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Expectations, usually low, have collapsed in the face of an unwilling, and increasingly self-impeding, U.S. peace broker. Indeed, freezing settlement expansion, as opposed to removing them altogether as mandated by international law, was long regarded as the lowest hanging fruit in peace negotiations. President Obama himself emphasized that the Jewish colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories hindered peace efforts and securing Palestinian statehood. 

Yet, on the heels of a rekindled peace process, the Obama administration failed to successfully push Prime Minister Netanyahu to extend a ten-month partial moratorium on settlement expansion. More tellingly, the U.S.'s failure was marked by Israel's public rebuff of its military aid incentive. Suffering no consequences, Israel chose to continue its expansionist policies and to retain its existing U.S. aid package, thereby demonstrating the hollow nature of American pressure.  

The crumbling negotiations and unwillingness of the United States to exact legally required Israeli obligations has finally compelled Palestinian negotiators to look beyond a U.S.-brokered peace and to a multilateral one overseen by the United Nations.

The Palestinians' loss of faith in the U.S. was inevitable given the superpower's myopic focus on absolute support for Israel at the expense of even the bare-bone statelet desired by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. The American position led to the ludicrous notion of establishing a Palestinian state without sovereignty, territorial contiguity, control over air space, borders, trade, security, democratic governance, fair water allocation, and diplomatic relationships in the region and beyond -- all of which Israel deems national security threats. Arguably willing to compromise on security matters, land swaps, jurisdiction over East Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees, even Abbas could not accept continuing negotiations in the face of a defiant Israel and its supine American benefactor.

As 2010 closed more and more observers of the conflict experienced a long overdue epiphany: the U.S. administration is allowing Prime Minister Netanyahu to strike the final blow against the two-state solution -- casting it, for better or worse, into the mounting bin of missed opportunities.

Simultaneously, Fatah is losing internal support because its long compliance with U.S. prerogatives at the expense of Palestinian national interests has dramatically failed to secure peace and freedom. Instead, the U.S.-favored Palestinian Authority has been marred by its decision to abandon the powerful Goldstone report on Israeli war crimes in Gaza, collusion with Israel and the U.S. in attacking fellow Palestinians in Hamas, and the daunting presence of the Dayton Forces, the Palestinian police forces charged with enhancing Israel's security as opposed to protecting a civilian population from an Israeli military occupation that repeatedly kills and injures nonviolent civilian demonstrators and bystanders.

Where government has failed, Palestinian civil society is increasingly taking a lead role. This intrepid body is the unsung heroine that launched the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign in 2005 and that has demonstrated week after week against the building of a "Separation Barrier" deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. These efforts have come at no small cost as tragically demonstrated by the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah who, on the first day of 2011, died of tear gas asphyxiation incurred the previous day while non-violently protesting against the barrier stealing her village's land. Chillingly, Jawaher is the 36-year-old sister of Bassem Abu Rahmah. Israeli soldiers shot and killed him in April 2009 with a high-velocity tear gas canister as he similarly protested non-violently. Another brother, while detained, was shot and injured at point-blank range on the direct order of a commanding officer.

Left with few options, but indirectly buoyed by a resilient civil society, Abbas declared in November that if negotiations fail, Palestinians will pursue recognition of statehood via the United Nations. The next month Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia recognized Palestinian statehood based on the June 1967 borders. And as of yesterday, Russia added its own name to the chorus of recognition by re-affirming the 1988 Soviet position.

A shift from overdependence on U.S. leadership is underway. Quite frankly, the American embrace of Israeli wrongdoing in the territories is making the U.S. approach irrelevant to world efforts to end the Israeli occupation. 

Acting outside of American-imposed parameters, Palestinian officials and Arab League counterparts have prepared a Security Council resolution condemning settlements. While the resolution may have little bearing absent U.S. support, it demonstrates Fatah's break with the world superpower, with whom it had hitherto placed all its eggs. No longer in lock-step with American prerogatives, the resolution, which Palestinians hope to present for vote in February notes long-held American positions on settlements in order to avoid an American veto. Despite the careful wording, Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley noted on January 13 that "It is our belief that New York is the wrong forum to address these complex issues, that the parties should work to find a way back to direct negotiations as the only way to resolve these difficult issues and the conflict once and for all." An American veto, therefore, may still be forthcoming.

Finally, Palestinian officials may not only be seeking an alternative to American influence, they may also be exploring a different approach to the conflict -- one that includes an emphasis on rights. In a recent commentary in the Guardian, lead negotiator Saeb Erekat emphasized the centrality of Palestinian refugees to a viable peace: "When negotiations resume once again, the world must not abandon the refugees of Palestine, nor attempt to coerce their representatives to do so either."

This is a welcome departure, even if merely rhetorical, from the previous Palestinian negotiating posture, which abandoned UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and sought instead to arrive at a politically acceptable solution to the refugee crisis -- a contravention of the individual right to return held by each Palestinian refugee. Although it is highly unlikely that this article amounts to more than political muscle flexing in light of the Palestinian negotiating team's well-established position on refugees, time will tell whether this new approach is a tactic aimed at countering Israel's own existential arguments -- or a fundamental shift in the Palestinian approach to ensure the rights of Palestinian refugees both inside and outside of the territories. If the new approach is merely a tactic, Palestinian civil society will undoubtedly continue to advocate for full Palestinian rights, emancipation from colonial rule, and an end to Israel's regime of a legalized caste system imposing one set of draconian laws for Palestinians and a different set for Jews. 

Noura Erakat is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and a human rights attorney

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