On 30 June 2017 the Tunisian army celebrated its 61st anniversary. On that occasion the Armed Forces presented their new military uniform. According to the spokesperson for the Tunisian Ministry of Defence, Belhassen Oueslati, the renewed attire is part of new equipment received from international partners, remarking the efforts to modernise the military and adapt it to the new challenges the country faces.
The changing skin of the Tunisian army perfectly symbolises the mutation going on in the military. A key actor during the transition period, the Tunisian army is currently subject to a complex review that mirrors the deteriorating security context, as well as the pressing needs of the new political establishment. Marginalised and imprisoned into barracks under the rule of Habib Bourgiba and Ben ‘Ali, the Tunisian military has re-discovered its centrality during the revolution, when it sided with protestors, acting as an agent of change. Even though it was deployed into the streets to contain popular discontent, it allegedly refused to crack down on protesters, gaining the confidence of the population.
By supporting the revolution, the Tunisian army also promoted its corporate interests, rising in prominence among the different institutions of the State and recalibrating its relation with the Internal Security Forces (ISFs). Considerably larger than the Tunisian armed forces , the ISFs were the main instrument of repression and surveillance of the country, symbol of Ben ‘Ali’s police state. Moreover, the Ministry of Interior had authority over the National Guard, an elite police force deployed in rural areas and along the borders, whose relationship with the military has always been considered problematic.
Transitional authorities made significant efforts to fine-tune Tunisia’s security policy, having a special consideration for the military, whose budget was increased and its weapons system modernised . Role and responsibilities were redefined, transforming the management of the military from the autocratic, personal rule of Ben ‘Ali into an institutional governance, with shared responsibilities between the President and the Prime Minister. The National Security Council was revived, increasing the number of officers taking part in it, while an office for military adviser to the President was created for the first time. Moreover, measures of positive discrimination were adopted, in order to ensure a fair representation of all the governorates in the high military ranks.
Despite all these changes, comprehensive security sector reforms (SSRs) did not specifically target the Tunisian armed force, whose self-restraint in politics has often been remarked; but focused, albeit unsuccessfully, on ISFs. However, such disinterest in promoting change together with the resistance of the Ministry of Interior to SSRs produced dire consequences, as the string of attacks in 2015 showed the inability of the Tunisian security forces to mitigate the jihadist threat. Terrorism still represents the main risk in the country, as an elevated number of foreign fighters are expected to come back home in the short term.
In this context, security cooperation with partner countries is crucial. Alongside traditional support from the US and France, the partnership with Algeria is also producing relevant results. After a deal signed in 2014 to secure the common border and increase the exchange of information, in March 2017 the two countries signed a security cooperation agreement. The enhanced collaboration has significantly weakened the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, a terrorist group affiliated to al-Qaeda, active in Mount Chaambi and responsible for several attacks against Tunisian security forces.
Nevertheless, as calls increase for transforming the Tunisian military from a conventional army to a professional force able to fight against asymmetrical threats, the problematic relationship with ISFs remains. The National Guard is still viewed as the most important bulwark against the jihadists, in particular along Tunisia’s borders. In this context, the fact that last March the former Minister of Interior Hédi Madjoub signed the security cooperation agreement with his Algerian counterpart Noureddine Bedoui is indicative of the ISFs’ privileged position on this matter.
The controversial relation with ISFs is not the only problem the Tunisian army has to face. Recent political developments and increasing social tensions shed lights on how the military has resumed past practices, as the new authorities have increasingly relied upon the army to quell dissent and ensure order in restive governorates. Following intense protests in Kef and Tataouine, in May 2017 President Beji Caid Essebsi ordered the Tunisian military to protect critical infrastructures. Even though the resort to the army has not diminished the trust of the population in the military for the time being, it calls to mind previous military interventions to protect the regimes of Bourgiba and Ben ‘Ali.
The episode could mark not only a gradual resumption of the army’s law enforcement activities already carried out in the past; but also a return to repressive policies after a hiatus of six years. The controversial use of the military to protect strategic interests highlights the army’s marginalisation in other most pressing issues, such as the fight against terrorism; as well as its gradual metamorphosis from agent of change to agent of coercion. If confirmed, this trend could cast shadows on the democratisation in the country, raising further doubts about the Tunisian exception as the sole success story of the Arab Spring.
Umberto Profazio, ACD Analyst-International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation.
In 2011 the Ministry of Interior had 200,000 security forces, while the army had 37,000 soldiers, the smallest military in North Africa. Moreover, the annual budget for military procurement was US$70 million, the lowest in the Arab world. William C. Taylor, Military responses to the Arab Uprising and the Future of the Civil-Military relations in the Middle East,analysis from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, p. 75 and ff., Palgrave MacMillan, 2014, New York.
 The defence budget doubled from €400 million in 2011 to €800 million in 2017, while the defence expenditures increased by 50% of the Gross Domestic Product between 2011 and 2015. Frida Dahmani, Tunisie: comment l’armée est en train the changer, Jeune Afrique, 01/07/2017.
 According to the 2014 constitution the President is the commander in chief of the armed forces, while the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence manage more routine military and defence affairs. Sharan Grewal, A Quiet Revolution: the Tunisian Military After Ben Ali, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 24/02/2016.  Florence Gaub, Guardians of the Arab State, When Military Intervenes in Politics, From Iraq to Mauritania, Hurst & Company, 2017, London.
 Moncef Kartas, Foreign Aid and Security Sector Reform in Tunisia: Resistance and Autonomy of the Security Forces, Mediterranean Politics, 19:3, 2014, p. 378.
 With a lower estimate of 2,926 Tunisian nationals who went fighting abroad. Richard Barret, Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the threat of returnees, October 2017, The Soufan Center.
 As an example, the former leader of the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, the Algerian national Mourad Chaieb, was killed alongside another militant during operation carried out by the National Guard in the Kasserine governorate in August 2017. Tunisian security forces kill senior militant in ambush – sources, Reuters, 09/08/2017.