Monday, January 17, 2011

Note on Tunisia's military

Tunisia's armed forces are fighting street battles with armed members of Ben Ali's sinister 'internal security' apparatus. Their decision to turn against the dictator was a decisive final blow forcing his resignation. Hamma Hammami, the recently freed leader of the Workers Communist Party of Tunisia (POCT) acknowledges the centrality of the army and calls on them to guarantee the safety of the people. It's not unprecedented for the armed forces in non-imperialist countries to play a progressive role - the Free Officers led the overthrow of British client monarchies Iraq and Egypt, for example. But this has tended to be in the absence of a developed bourgeoisie or working class, which situation gives them a unique degree of autonomy. In the Bourguibist regime, and afterward, it can hardly be said that the army has played a consistently progressive role. It's therefore vital to understand the real social role of the military in Tunisia and its relationship to the contending classes.

First of all, as mentioned yesterday, Bourguiba self-consciously eschewed militarism as a realistic option for Tunisia. This is true of all Maghreb states, in fact. Tunisia spends 1.4% of its GDP on the military, which is lower than Morrocco (3.4%), and Algeria (3.9%), but slightly higher than Libya (1.2%). Compare to Israel (7%) or Saudi Arabia (11%), and you see how minute this is. Such spending has fluctuated depending on the perceived security situation - rising after the Yom Kippur war, falling after the end of the Cold War - but such fluctuations are Lilliputian. In absolute terms, Tunisia spends the least amount of dollars on its military than any other North African state. Military projection is just not a realistic goal of any of North Africa's Arab states. The main role of the military in these states is the long-term security of the regime in power, and thus the maintenance of the class relations that the regime embodies, and which sustain its long-term development agenda.

Tunisia's military has its origins in the French colonial army, in which Tunisian troops fought both in colonial wars in Indo-china and in WWII. In addition, the Beylical guard, which protected the monarchy until its dissolation, was integrated into the national army that was established with independence in 1956. The army's foreign ventures have been limited to UN operations, such as in the Congo, Cambodia and Rwanda. These services to imperialism are slight, but have been highly regarded by those involved. The military under Bourguiba was carefully integrated into his distinctive state-building project, more so than the working class whose left-wing led the rebellions in 1978 and 1984, and more so again than the rural poor and the petite bourgoisie whe rallied behind the Islamists when the Bourguibist state proved incapable of advancing their promised social and economic advancement.

Bourguiba conscientiously set about creating a military establishment supportive of his secular, republican nationalist ideals. The army officers were disenfranchised, enjoyed no freedom of association and played no direct role in decision-making. Their armaments were limited to prevent independent political interventions. And they were not permitted to directly intervene in public conflicts. A separate set of paramilitary organisations was created within the military, and charged with the direct maintenance of public order. Thus, Bourguiba built a gendarme, a Public Order brigade, and a national guard, which today has some 12,000 troops. It is members of the national guard who have been deployed in the streets and killed protesters. The officer corps was thus chiefly a civic institution, a guarantor of Tunisian nationalism, there to act only against direct threats to the Bourguibist state, as such. Its unique social position insulated to some degree from the polarization that resulted from the crisis of the state in the Seventies and Eighties, while its elite pedigree (in terms of social background, the officers tended to come from the same wealthy suburbs in coastal Sahel and Tunis as the bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie) ensured that it did not suffer from economic failure.

So the armed forces were there to guarantee the Bourguibist project, with the military establishment upholding the state in its civic capacity and the paramilitary brigades upholding public order. Just as the state intervened to build and direct the nation's economy when the bourgeoisie was too weak to do it, so the armed forces protected the class structure before the capitalist class became a viable ruling class in its own right. As such, when the public order brigades, national guard and gendarmes failed to cope with rebellions, the military had to assume a direct role in public life. It was the military that was called in to restore public order during the crises of 1978 and 1984, for example, because the state had no other means of resolving the labour rebellions and food shortages. Similarly, the military was a bulwark against the Islamists when they began to challenge not merely the personal rule of Bourguiba but the foundations of his authoritarian, republic. In fact, the military elite strongly resented having to step in and take over public order functions, as this seemed to compromise their outwardly apolitical, nationalist role. The fact that they had to be directly involved in such disputes was part of the crisis of sovereignty that would lead to Bourguiba's overthrow.

The military's role was transformed by the IMF structural adjustment programme and the subsequent Ben Ali coup. Under Bourguiba's corporatist, embedded neoliberalism it upheld a Destourian state based on social pacts for the national good. But under neoliberalism, the state increases its authority in national life while withdrawing from the economy. Indeed, in part the state's authority derives from its apparent separation from that sphere of civil society. Justin Rosenberg points out in Empire of Civil Society that sovereignty is a specifically capitalist political form, setting the state over and against civil society. Thus, state sovereignty is to an extent abridged when it is engaged in the widespread public ownership of industry and interventionism. Then industrial struggles, prices, wages, and the appropriation of surplus become explicitly political issues, and the state is dragged into disputes where it must perforce act explicitly for one class or other. When the state withdraws, it acts as a coercive guarantor of existing class relations and as such its authoritarian (as opposed to potentially democratic) capacity is enhanced. So, when the Tunisian state embarked on neoliberalism, it both privatised industries, relaxing trade and market controls, and bolstered its repressive apparatus - such that under Ben Ali, the scale of repression reached levels hitherto unknown in Tunisia since the defeat of the French.

The military elite was already losing faith in the Kemalist ideals that Bourguiba had promulgated by the time his regime was ailing in the mid-Eighties. Its French-trained officer corps was more technocratically minded, and it was also less inclined to believe that a properly rationalist state could coordinate uninterrupted, unilinear progress. Its wider assessment was that the nationalist project was falling apart, that economic failure would guarantee long-term social dislocation, and that the threats to the state emerging in the form of communism and, more pressingly, Islamism, would not abate. The idea of a compact between the classes was finished. Moreover, there was the beginnings of a worrying development for this elite - Islamists were beginning to penetrate the lower and middle ranks of the army itself.

Under Ben Ali, senior military officials came to have a more important role in policy formation, as they dominated the new, streamlined political bureau created by the dicatorship. Ben Ali was himself a senior officer who had directed the army's response to the 1978 crisis, and had also run internal security arrangements under Bourguiba's instruction when the Islamists started to become a real political force in the 1980s. But his incorporation of the military into policymaking was driven by two needs. The first was to prioritise counterinsurgency, the logic of which unfolded in his dirty wars against the Islamists in the early 1990s. This helped the state suppress demands for democratisation, contain political opposition to its neoliberal reforms and enable a new wave of capital accumulation based on intensified labour productivity and financialisation. The second was to halt the spread of Islamism in the armed forces, by seeming to incorporate the aspirations of those layers. But the overall effect was to make the state a more brutal force, over and against civil society, such that until recently there wasn't much scope for civil society, notably the working class, to organise in opposition. In tandem with this, a new paramilitary force in the form of a bloated internal security guard emerge. Spending on this far outweighed any clear and present danger to the president, but it was a necessary accompaniment to the narrowing of the social base of the regime, and to the new relations of neoliberal class rule and authoritarian government.

The current crisis has thus seen: 1) the paramilitary forces fail to keep public order; 2) the military dispatched to assume police functions as the president went into a flap, and started promising concessions; 3) the defection of the military itself, as it no longer believed that Ben Ali could control the country. The army elite is undoubtedly jockeying for position within a new arrangement, but I suspect that there's also real sympathy with the protests among the footsoldiers, which the officer corps would have been wary of. At the moment, it would seem that the Tunisian military elite is reluctant to get dragged into direct conflict with the mobilised masses. There may be a residue of the old Bourguibism operating here, but more likely is that they just don't know if they could take the rank and file with them. This means that the armed forces cannot be counted on as an ally in the struggles which will ensue. Given the obvious crisis of neoliberal class rule, they may be susceptible to demands for a new social compact, but such demands will perforce come from without.

What the army does is vital, because the bourgoisie is weak. I suspect this is why the communists are aiming their propaganda partly at the armed forces - not because of illusions in the military establishment, but because winning over the rank and file will decisively change the balance of forces in the country. That's my rough and ready assessment of the role of Tunisia's military in this revolution.