Tunisia’s Military and the Economic Fallout of COVID-19

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A military helicopter soars over the urban landscape, its crew scanning the city below through a cockpit video camera. They’re looking not for the enemy, but rather for their fellow citizens —crowds of them, illegally gathering in contravention of the government’s edicts on social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sometimes they relay the coordinates of violators to ground patrols. And sometimes, as shown in one widely viewed video of a soccer match, they swoop in directly to break up the gaggle.

These flights are part of a broader mobilization of the Tunisian armed forces that, along with a range of other public health measures, have enabled this struggling Arab democracy to ride out the pandemic — so far — with relatively few cases and deaths. By the accounts of foreign observers and Tunisians alike, this military mobilization has mostly been greeted with popular support. There has been no evidence that the Tunisian military is trying to overstep its legal mandate or assert any national security prerogatives, like demanding that its members have priority in receiving protective equipment or other virus-related aid. Unlike militaries in some Arab autocracies, the Tunisian armed forces do not own commercial businesses or industries on any significant scale, for which they might be tempted to request special exemptions from government-directed restrictions.

To be sure, Tunisian activists have concerns about a potential infringement of civil liberties and freedom of expression under the pretext of public health enforcement — though these concerns have been mostly directed at the interior ministry, not the armed forces. But overall, there have been encouraging signs of democratic checks and balances preventing a broader militarization or securitization of the crisis. Moreover, foreign officials report that Tunisian military leaders and personnel genuinely embrace their role in supporting the welfare of citizens during this crisis, protective of the popular trust they still enjoy from their role in supporting the 2011 revolution.



That said, the long-term economic fallout from the pandemic could affect not only the readiness and force development of the Tunisian military, but more importantly, civil-military relations. As the country enters a likely period of prolonged austerity, it will be forced into budgetary trade-offs that could affect the resourcing of the military. This belt-tightening could further strain the already uncomfortable relationship between Tunisia’s military leaders and the parliamentary committees charged with oversight of military affairs.

Making matters worse, the Tunisian armed forces lack a coherent, long-term planning capacity to determine how to rationally and efficiently trim spending on equipment and personnel. And Tunisia’s foreign partners who were assisting its military in developing this institutional planning and budgetary capacity, namely the United States, are themselves facing defense-related fiscal and operational constraints in light of the pandemic.

A Military Mobilization Against the Pandemic

At a meeting with the Tunisian president on March 19, Minister of National Defense Imed Hazgui stressed the “military establishment’s willingness to harness all possible human and material means as required to limit the spread of this virus and to preserve the lives and security of citizens.” In the following weeks, the Tunisian military supported Ministry of Interior forces in towns and cities through joint patrols and checkpoints. Meanwhile, in the country’s sparsely populated “military exclusion zones,” the armed forces, not the police, have served as the primary public health enforcement body. Tunisian military personnel have guarded hotels and school dormitories where coronavirus patients are isolated in quarantine.

Other areas of assistance include the medical and logistics fields, according to a retired Tunisian officer I interviewed by phone earlier this month. The Tunisian armed forces have set up military field hospitals in Tunis and Kébili and mobile testing laboratories in Kébili and Tatouine. Along the eastern border, military medical personnel have screened Tunisian citizens returning from Libya. In remote southern areas, where military health infrastructure has long been the only available option for residents, the armed forces’ medical aid has been especially important: the military has organized what an officer called “health caravans” of doctors, nurses, and food supplies. Tunisia Air Force C-130 aircraft have ferried medical aid and equipment to Tunisia from China and Europe.

So far, these roles have been generally accepted and welcomed by the Tunisian military’s leadership and rank-and-file. By law, a retired Tunisian officer pointed out, disaster relief is one of the armed forces’ missions. Moreover, the public health mobilization so far has not put any undue strain on the armed forces’ capabilities or detracted from its ability to execute other missions, especially ongoing counter-terrorism operations in the country’s western region or control of the border with Libya, an especially critical task given the worsening civil war next door.

“There is enough slack in the system,” a Western defense official in Tunis noted in a phone interview last month. “Those privates in the Humvee at the checkpoint are not their Tier One counter-terrorism guys.” Yet there are limits to how long such a tempo can be sustained, he cautioned. “The longer this goes on, the more they are stretched.”

Impending Challenges to Force Development

In particular, there is likely to be growing nervousness among the Tunisian military’s ranks if renewed public health restrictions related to a second viral wave require the armed forces to continue a sustained law enforcement and crowd-control role. Similarly, the military will be wary if it is called on to deal with possible social unrest related to the pandemic’s economic fallout and coming austerity measures, especially in Tunisia’s hard-hit interior areas. Already, discomfort over these roles has been evident in the military’s growing assumption of border enforcement missions. According to active and retired officers interviewed last year, the military is not ideally suited — in terms of doctrine or training — for missions which bring it into frequent contact with angry citizens along the border.

Aside from concerns about pandemic-related mission creep, the virus’s economic fallout in Tunisia could affect the armed forces in far-reaching ways. As the Tunisian government contends with an economic contraction and a heavy debt burden worsened by its estimated $1 billion virus-related relief effort, it will have to balance the armed forces’ spending on equipment and personnel with other priorities.

On the one hand, such pandemic-induced fiscal discipline could be beneficial. According to a U.S. military advisor in Tunis interviewed last year, in the past the armed forces have engaged in instances of lavish purchases like upgraded Blackhawk helicopters, when a more modestly equipped variant would have sufficed for Tunisia’s needs. But, according to over a dozen interviews with retired Tunisian officers and foreign advisors, the Tunisian military lacks sufficient planning capacity to match its procurement with budgetary constraints or a threat-based assessment of future capability needs.

“They do these studies as if we are [a rich country, like] Switzerland,” one retired Tunisian officer observed about an officially commissioned study on military equipment projections.

Moreover, since a sizeable portion of the military’s budget is devoted to salaries, according to Western defense officials, the Tunisian armed forces may be required to make cuts in personnel. Already, the Tunisian military has suspended all recruitment and promotions because of the pandemic. This comes on top of years of budget-induced cuts in manning and a broken conscription system in which less than ten percent of Tunisians perform their compulsory military service, and those who do are overwhelmingly less-educated and hail from poorer, rural areas.

Though there have been recent discussions on reform to make voluntary military service more attractive as a way for young people across Tunisia’s economic spectrum to acquire marketable skills — and thus become more of a truly national institution — those changes require financial investments that are increasingly unlikely in the post-pandemic era. And as the economic devastation of the pandemic’s aftermath sweeps through Tunisia’s rural interior, there could be an increase in political pressure for the military to absorb unskilled and unemployed youths. Over time, this surge could degrade the operational capability of a military that is trying to move away from garrison-style duties to become a leaner, more agile, and more technically specialized force.

Strained Relations with Elected Authorities Over Fiscal Austerity and Transparency

Complicating Tunisia’s ability to surmount these post-pandemic funding dilemmas is the dysfunctional and fraught relationship between Tunisia’s military leadership and its elected authorities, especially the two parliamentary committees charged with oversight of defense spending and reform. These committees have suffered from their own problems of an unclear mandate, insufficient staffing, politicization, and lack of expertise. But their ability to exert scrutiny over the military’s budget is obstructed by the military’s own lack of transparency and reporting on procurement. For its part, Tunisia’s senior military leadership faces entrenched cultural barriers to interacting with parliamentarians, stemming from the secrecy of the Ben Ali regime. “For the Ministry of Defense, asking for money from parliament is uncomfortable,” noted a Western defense official.

Much of this unease stems from the Tunisian military leadership’s perception that most parliamentarians have not served in the military, do not understand how militaries work, and are therefore ill-equipped to provide guidance and oversight, especially on acquisitions. “They ask us to buy something they think is cheap — like a bunch of armored vehicles — and they have no idea how much it costs,” said one retired Tunisian general interviewed last year.

Tunisia has made a commendable step to address this lack of civilian expertise, socialize parliamentarians with military officers, and break down cultural barriers between the two institutions through its National Defense Institute (NDI). A highly selective, military-run graduate program for mid-career officers, government employees, parliamentarians, and civil society, the course’s curriculum includes an overview of military roles, structure, and equipment for civilian attendees. But at least one Tunisian analyst has questioned whether this short familiarization is enough to impart workable knowledge to parliamentarians. And, moreover, the NDI’s valuable face-to-face interaction between civilian and military attendees, which includes a yearly visit to the United States, has been put on hold because of the coronavirus.

Taken in sum, the pandemic’s aftermath of austerity is likely to force new dilemmas on the Tunisian military’s procurement and personnel choices, with lasting implications for operational capacity and readiness. It could also cast into sharper relief the rocky relationship between Tunisia’s elected officials and the military — especially as budget battles intensify. These tensions won’t be enough to derail democracy by themselves.

Still, the threat of fiscal parsimony could incentivize the military toward greater opacity in its dealings with elected officials, and possibly spur corruption or a push toward greater military involvement in commercial enterprises. Already, the Tunisian armed forces are rated “High Risk” for corruption in procurement and “Moderate Risk” in personnel, according to a Transparency International report in 2020, though a Western defense official interviewed this month pointed to the efficacy of Tunisian military intelligence and inspector general in acting as internal safeguards over such abuses.

The United States Can Help — But Faces Constraints of Its Own

Throughout Tunisia’s modern history, Western and especially American assistance has helped its military adapt to and overcome various shocks: the 1980 Gafsa attack, the 2011 revolution, and a spate of Islamic State and al-Qaeda attacks, including a simmering insurgency in the northwest region. And over the past decade, the Tunisian military has made admirable progress in moving from an outmoded, largely neglected force under Ben Ali into a more professional and combat-tested force that has supported the country’s democratic transition. Yet this new, non-military crisis and its economic repercussions could pose an unprecedented challenge to long-term force development and civil-military relations. It will require that the United States redouble its efforts to help the Tunisian armed forces in institutional areas like strategic planning, budgeting, “jointness” (coordination between service branches), and, especially, greater transparency with elected civilian authorities, all while accounting for new operational and fiscal constraints.

A core American tool in helping the Tunisian military navigate the post-pandemic environment will be the Department of Defense’s Institutional Capacity Building program (formerly known as Defense Institution Building). The program, which Congress requires anytime the U.S. provides security funds to a partner country, has already been underway in Tunisia, focused on areas like coordination between air and ground units and intelligence integration, as well as cost analysis, budgeting, and strategic planning, which will become even more crucial in the aftermath of COVID-19. One of its mandated functions is also reforming military-parliamentary relations. But in the case of Tunisia, this has not happened to the same extent as other areas, because of U.S. priorities in implementing the program in Tunisia, but also the difficulties of Tunisia’s political environment. That needs to change.

Yet the success of this U.S. assistance endeavor ultimately hinges upon the Tunisians’ receptivity and responsiveness — and entrenched bureaucratic and cultural obstacles have stymied some institutional-building activities. For example, a recent Institutional Capacity Building-assisted effort at strategic threat assessment initiated by the Tunisian Ministry of Defense collapsed because of a lack of support and funding, as well as turnover among Ministry of Defense political appointees. In addition, Tunisia’s defense ministry still keeps its much of its internal budgetary processes hidden from even partner countries, according to Western officials, limiting how much outsiders can help.

On top of these obstacles are new restrictions on U.S. security assistance imposed by the pandemic, as well as likely budget cuts.

In particular, U.S. officials involved in institutional support to the Tunisian military emphasize the importance of developing personal trust and demonstrating long-term commitment, with confidence and access built up gradually through visits and meetings with senior leadership. “They have to know you are in it for the long haul,” noted a U.S.-based defense official.

In addition, this official and others have underscored that institutional capacity building is best accomplished not through workshops or seminars but sustained and daily mentoring by advisors embedded in defense ministries and service staffs. To accomplish this, the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia had requested the implementation of a Department of Defense advisory program known as the Ministry of Defense Advisors.

Yet pandemic-related prohibitions on travel and personal interaction imposed by the Department of Defense have ground these plans and other activities to a halt. “Face-to-face security cooperation has been put on pause,” a Tunis-based U.S. defense official said in an interview last week.

Of course, the restrictions on personal contact won’t last forever, and bilateral security ties with the United States will survive the quarantine period—though the extent of defense-related aid by the United States and Tunisia’s other partners could shrink because of the pandemic. It’s unlikely that peer competitors like Russia or China will successfully exploit this disruption to displace the United States as Tunisia’s security provider. Still, there’s a critical window in the coming months and year where more hands-on American assistance to the Tunisian armed forces could be vital, especially in helping it navigate the pandemic’s aftermath, in areas like budget, planning, and civil-military relations. And while technological work-arounds exist, there are limitations.

“Imagine trying to ask senior officers sensitive and tough questions about logistics, infrastructure, and systems over Zoom?” the U.S.-based defense official noted.

Given these impending pandemic-related constraints, the Tunisian military will have to manage its expectations for what its partners can provide. So far, its rapid response to the public health crisis in support of the elected government has been laudable. But there may be darker economic clouds on the horizon affecting the armed forces’ readiness and relations with the government — effects that will demand greater reserves of Tunisian self-sufficiency, resolve, and wise leadership.



Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. Apolonia L. Gaspar)



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