The 10-year cooperation agreement 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 purposes and involve them in human rights violations, such as trials of civilians in military courts.
US-Tunisia military cooperation dates back to World War II, when Tunisians joined the Allied offensive against the Nazis. This strong relationship led to Tunisia being designated a key non-NATO ally under the Obama administration.
The cooperation agreement was signed when the former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Tunisia in October 2020. According to a spokesperson for the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), “the military partnership between the US and Tunisia is based on a strong cooperation on security focused on building Tunisia’s military capacity to face threats and supporting Tunisia’s efforts to become a regional training center.”
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), both of whom marginalized the army because they feared that the military would become a force to rival their authority.
The 2011 revolution marked a change in the fate of the Tunisian Armed Forces when from 2012 President Moncef Marzouki created a more decentralized and democratic chain of command and eliminated the old elites close to Ben Ali.
As of 2011, the United States has been the third largest donor of foreign aid to Tunisia, after Germany and the European Union. Investments have increased fivefold since the 2011 revolution when total donations increased from $57 billion in 2011 to $154.7 billion in 2012. Initially, only 17% was allocated as military and counter-terrorism funding, but in 2018 military donations were good for 40% of a total budget of $244.9 billion.
Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, told Al-Monitor: “The military’s budget has tripled since the revolution and about 60% of the budget comes from military aid from the United States.”
This included major acquisitions such as US-made Black Hawk helicopters and major upgrades in artillery. However, his expertise lies in controlling internal border and maritime borders for counter-terrorism purposes and not in an army capable of waging wars.
Publicly, US cooperation played a supportive role, although the United States was reported to have expanded its activities fight against terrorism on the Sahel and the Maghreb. Military news website Task and Purpose reported that in February 2017, the Tunisian army was assisted by members of the US Marine Corps who waged a three-day battle with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on Mount Semmama in western Tunisia, who, despite a wounded Marine and two medals, was played out by both governments.
The Biden administration has been highly critical of President Kais Saied’s seizure of power on July 25 and apparent human rights violations, including recent trials of MPs Yassine Ayari and Al-Karama party leader Seiffedine Maklouf in military courts.
Masmoudi said: “The Biden administration is not happy with military courts trying civilians, nor with the military tanks closing parliament and the prime minister’s office.”
He added: “The chairmen of the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee have made statements that they are deeply concerned about the role of the military in Saied’s unconstitutional coup. The military should never meddle in politics. Whether it is a coup or not, it is a political crisis and must be addressed by civilian politicians, not the military.”
According to former diplomat William Lawrence, a political science professor at American University in Washington, the United States could have grounds for withdrawing military support under the Leahy Law criteria, as trying civilians in military courts is a gross violation of the law. human rights. “AFRICOM follows politics but stays away from politics as much as possible. But when a political situation gets bad enough, they raise a red flag and go to the Pentagon and the government,” he told Al-Monitor.
In September, US Ambassador to Tunisia Donald Blome made efforts to underline that the US Agency for International Development would continue to support Tunisia at all levels.
Lawrence noted, “Both the Pentagon and the Tunisian military will push to enforce this” [cooperation relationship] despite Said. However, Congress will call for a reduction in military aid. However, I think the United States should increase aid that Saied does not support, for example vaccine donations; [however] if you stop the aid, you will strengthen it rather than weaken it.”
The AFRICOM spokesperson said at the time of the interview: “Our military arrangements 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.”
Regular high-level meetings were held in September involving General Stephen Townsend of AFRICOM and Tunisian military leaders. Initially, he met on 9 September with Saied and his defense minister Ibrahim Batargi. Townsend returned for a two-day visit to North Africa to Tunisia and Libya from September 27-28, where he met with military chiefs of staff and Blome to discuss scaling up Tunisia’s counter-terrorism capabilities. Townsend is said to have spoken to Saied on the phone just before the president’s announcement of his new prime minister.
Where Democratic States Have Criticized Saied’s Seizure of Power, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has openly supported Tunisia’s change of political direction and a blow against what he sees as allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, also known as Tunisia’s Muslim Democratic Party Ennahda.
The two countries share concerns about Libya, but it was Egypt that backed Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter’s war against Tripoli in 2019-20. And while Tunisia is moving towards an autocracy, Libya is preparing for democratic elections in December.
Tensions between Tunisia and Libya flared when Tunisian authorities claimed 100 foreign fighters located near the Turkish-controlled Watiya Air Force Base, 30 miles from the Tunisian border, were about to enter Tunisia. Things escalated when an offended Libyan denied allegations of terrorism exporting 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 its neighbours.”
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 withdrawal raises questions about their [Tunisian authorities] intentions, especially in light of their negative consequences. They have ruined the relationship between the two countries.”
This dispute led to delays in reopening the Tunisian-Libyan border with lengthy dialogues forcing Dbeibah itself to fly to Tunis to talk to Saied to salvage cooperation agreements. But Tunisia has not fully opened its borders to its neighbour.
Romanet-Perroux said: “The apparent lack of advisers around President Saied, particularly in the areas of security and defense, poses a particular challenge. It increases the threat of being manipulated by alarming reports and misinformation, artfully based on half-truths. ”
Masmoudi noted: “It is clear that Kais Saied is influenced by the Egyptian military intelligence. Saied signed a military cooperation agreement in Cairo and since then the presence of Egyptian military intelligence in Tunisia has increased dramatically. Algeria is deeply 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 jeopardize the security US-Tunisian cooperation has sought to ensure. He said: “Algeria plays a big role in Tunisia’s stability. I don’t think Kais Saied respects this very much and Saied has taken a stance with the Egyptians, Emiratis and Saudis in a way that Algerians find alarming.”
Although parliamentarians have called for a return of parliament, many have expressed fear of violence. The army’s armored vehicles have largely been replaced by the police, but at least one was moved in the enclosure of the parliament. That same day, Al-Karama MP Maher Zid had to appear before a military court.
With Saied, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, now forming his government to express his vision for Tunisia’s future, civil society and Congress will focus on his use of the military and whether he continues to use it for its political goals.