“Our revolution is your revolution,” the military leader, Gen. Rachid Ammar, yelled through a megaphone to more than 1,000 demonstrators in a square near his office, according to several witnesses. “The army will protect the revolution.”
“Chief of Tunisian Army Pledges His Support for ‘the Revolution’” New York Times.
Issandr el-Amrani of the Arabist writes, from Tunisia:
This sends the message that a) no one in the interim government has the credibility to take charge of this kind of communication and b) that Ammar is the current strongman, the only person with credibility to address and calm angry crowds. It’s a short hop from that to the idea that he should be the head of the transitional government, although at least for appearances’ sake it might be better to remain in the background. But it remains a real possibility, considering that today he appears as the only person with the credibility to block criticism — there simply is no other politician that would have the same instant authority, since he is seen as the man who deposed Ben Ali.
[. . .]
One possibility is that Ammar is going ahead of UGTT / popular expectations by taking up the role of defender of the revolution — thus responding to one of the main fears of the opposition and at least part of the UGTT, which is that the RCD will crawl back in place. I’m not sure what the link is right now, but I am putting today’s speech and the revolutionary rhetoric alongside last night’s arrest of Hannibal TV director Larbi Nasra (who has apparently now been released) and the bizarre charges against him — that he was conspiring against the revolution and committed “high treason.” Remember that no one, not even Ben Ali or his relatives currently under house arrests, have been charged with treason or anything else. Of course that could simply be a big gaffe by Najib Chebbi, the minister who mentioned the high treason charges. The current government, again, really seems to have a PR problem — the wisest one so far, indeed, appears to be Slim Amamou whose Twitter feed satisfies a natural curiosity but has been gaffe-free (most probably he’s not in the loop.)
This is a point of risk that deserves serious attention. The public perception of the army as a mediating force and one with both moral credibility and revolutionary legitimacy is potentially destabilizing. As Issandr writes (and this blog has written previously) the current government’s lack of legitimacy and charisma create an opportunity (or temptation) for the armed forces to enter politics in a way that could lead to continued authoritarianism (as it has in virtually every other Arab polity where the military is politicized). In times of crisis people often rally around what are seen as defensive and stabilizing forces such as military and religious figures. Because Gen. Ammar played such a key role in managing the fallout of the uprising it is understandable that some Tunisians would look to him as a solution to the current political crisis, an outsider that could help clean out regime rot.
Whatever Ammar’s ambitions are politically the claim that the army will “protect the revolution” is significant: it could be an attempt to reassure a public afraid that conservative forces will co-opt their movement by reiterating the army’s role and it could be an active attempt to feed on Ammar’s newfound popularity with an eye toward a more (or increasingly) active political role. In the process, Ammar is linking the army and himself to a political current, staking out a role for the army that did not exist before. Once the military begins to participate in politics it will difficult to stop; the Algerians, Libyans, Egyptians and Syrians have all learned this with some regret. If Tunisia’s experiment proves durable it may be due to the “protection” of an army that was able to leverage popular demand with its own power to intimidate members of the old regime into accepting political outcomes in this interim period. At the same time Gen. Ammar’s statement might foreshadow a less fortunate path for Tunisia’s transition into the unknown. The general remains relatively obscure figure (outside of Tunisia) and more research will perhaps shed some light on his overall disposition. Issandr’s future dispatches will help fill the gaps. More thoughts on this to come.