Under the control of long-term President Ben Ali the Tunisian military was professional yet small and marginalized. Numbering roughly 45,000 soldiers, the military was tiny in comparison with the security forces directly controlled by the president, who numbered between 120,000 and 180,000 (equaling one security force officer for every 55 Tunisians). Internal funding for the army at the time of the Tunisian Revolution was barely 1.4% of Tunisia’s GDP and was the lowest in the Arab world. The military was also sidelined politically. In a move similar to the one modeled by Napoleon to prevent military coups, Ben Ali specifically kept the military far from politics, mostly deploying them to border regions do undertake public-works and disaster relief. He also took advantage to the United States’ emphasis on training African and Arab militaries, particularly their promotion of professional norms discouraging military encroachment into the political sphere. To this end he sent a high proportion of military officers and technicians (~3,600) to the United States to study. The end result was the gradual transformation of a military that was considered undertrained and under equipped in the 1980s to a military that small but seen as more professional than other militaries in the region, including those of Egypt and Syria. This professionalism was an important part of the success of the Tunisian revolution.
Tunisian protests were marked by a certain level of ‘professionalism’ or restraint. This is not to say that violence did not occur, but rarely did protesters pick up a weapon more threatening then a stone as they faced the police and the presidential security forces. This non-violent stance was probably one of the strategically most important moves the Tunisian protesters made. Even limited violence by protesters would have started to shift the conflict from one of political defiance which kept the power with the protestors, to one of violent oppression, where regimes with their military might would dominate. By adhering to non-violent coercion not only did protesters maintain their power but they earned the sympathy of the population, the police/military, and the international community.
The start of the Tunisian Revolution, and the subsequent ‘Arab Spring’ can be traced back to the desperate act of a fruit seller named Mohamad Bouazizi. On December 17th, 2011 Mohamad Bouazizi’s produce and scale were confiscated, a continuation of regular harassment he had received from police. In protest at his treatment, he doused himself in petrol and lit himself on fire in front of his local government office. His attempted suicide led to several protests in central and south Tunisia where unemployment and underemployment are rife. With Bouazizi’s death on Jan. 4th, protests spread across the country, and to the capital, Tunis.
As the Tunisian protests gained strength protesters cultivated and affirmed their non-violent status by maintaining high standards of behavior, to the point where they would police each other, stopping looters on the streets and creating ‘neighborhood watches’ to guard stores and residential areas at night. This maintenance of social order and discipline reassured the military and police that the protests threatened the regime but not their personal safety, the safety of their families or the security of the society as a whole.
Despite the behavior of the protestors, the Tunisian President Ben Ali continued to ask for increasing levels of violence to quell the opposition. Rather than comply, the police became increasingly alienated from the regime and its goals and began to use more restraint. Their alienation was compounded by the fact that the protesters continued to make their non-violent intentions clear even when met with tear gas and batons.
Realizing that the situation was escalating, President Ben Ali called in the Tunisian military on Wednesday, January 12th to assist in quelling unrest. By Wednesday evening the army was a visible presence in all sectors of the capital, having taken strategic positions at large intersections and open spaces where protesters might gather. A military curfew was instituted. However, when protesters defied the curfew and once again battled the aggressive presidential security forces, the army maintained a purely observatory role, in some cases chastising the police for their brutal methods. The average Tunisian greeted the arrival of the military with relief, believing the security forces to be more aligned with the president while the military more aligned with the people.
On Wednesday night or Thursday morning, it is said that President Ben Ali, alarmed with the unexpected turn events had taken, ordered Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar to deploy in support of the security forces and use live rounds on the protesters. Faced with the prospect of backing the violent presidential security forces against mostly peaceful protesters, General Ammar refused and instead withdrew the bulk of his forces from the capital. Clashes between the protesters and the presidential guard turned violent and General Ammar, say Arab sources, advised President Ben Ali that his safety could not be guaranteed if he continued to stay in power. That night, the president fled the country.
Upon the president’s departure the military stepped in to protect protesters from the presidential guard and uniformed and plainclothes police who deployed to confront the mob, allegedly even deploying helicopters to stop paramilitary snipers who were shooting demonstrators from rooftops. Over the next several days the military upped its presence in the capital and prevented gangs of looters, many of them encouraged by and consisting of now defunct security personnel, from causing major damage. There were guns battles waged between the army and the presidential guard at the president’s palace and the interior ministry but the better trained army was able to overcome the security forces superior equipment and eventually take all of the main actors of loyalist violence into custody.
Local Tunisian news sources touted the military’s role in protecting the protesters and average Tunisians after the fall of Ben Ali’s regime and the military was one of the few pillars of the government that survived the popular uprising mostly intact. Though wildly popular after the revolution, General Ammar stayed in the background, downplayed the role of the military and clearly stated they would stay out of politics instead insisting on supporting the democratic process. To that end, General Ammar encouraged Tunisians to show moderation and allow the interim government to function until new elections could be held. To that end, the military facilitated a peaceful transition process by filling the security vacuum after the collapse of the government and providing space in which civilian parties could form and prepare for elections. With the assistance of 22,000 Tunisian soldiers to provide security at polling places, Tunisia held successful elections just nine months after the fall of the Ben Ali regime.
 For more on political defiance see, Sharp, Gene. “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” Albert Einstein Institution. Fourth Edition, May 2010.
 Sharp, Gene. “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” Albert Einstein Institution. Fourth Edition, May 2010. Pg. 33, 55-57, 62.