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Civil-Military Relations and the Dynamics of the Revolution: Tunisia’s Security Sector from a Historical Perspective


After 23 years of repressive rule it took just four weeks of protests and popular uprisings in January 2011 to topple Tunisia’s dictator, Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali. Subsequent research on the “Arab Spring” has privileged the analysis of the sources and dynamics of popular social mobilization. By contrast, this three-year project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, provided a comprehensive historical analysis of the revolution by focusing on the country’s security sector.

Specifically, the project suggested that the puzzle lies in the incapacity of the security apparatus to anticipate and quell popular uprising. Its premise was that the same conditions that made possible the sudden demise of such a deep-seated authoritarian ruler also enable us to:

  • understand the dynamics of rising insecurity in Tunisia since the beginning of the uprising and in light of armed violence in Libya; and
  • identify the main factors that have affected Tunisia’s political transition.

Existing research on Tunisia and other countries in the region has tended to privilege the question of liberalization and the robustness of authoritarian regimes by focusing on elections, political parties, civil society, and/or the private sector. The impact of the security and armed forces on the formation and transformation of the postcolonial state in the Arab world, however, has largely been neglected.

To address this gap, the conceptual framework of this project postulated that the unfolding of the uprisings (i.e. popular mobilization and the success or failure of regime overthrow) and the dynamics of the ensuing revolutionary transition are shaped by a highly complex relationship between the security sector and state institutions, the political process, and society.


Project Outcomes

Building on Keith Krause’s previous work on military/security development in the context of security and state (trans-)formation in the Middle East and North Africa, and expanding on earlier conceptual models on the robustness of authoritarian regimes, the project saught to employ a historical, inductive approach based on extensive fieldwork in Tunisia. The aim was to develop a grounded explanation of the structures and processes underlying the revolution.

Outputs of the project included an oral history conference in Tunis, a series of peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as a monograph. In October 2014, the first result of the research project was published as:

Kartas, M. (2014). Foreign Aid and Security Sector Reform in Tunisia: Resistance and Autonomy of the Security Forces. Mediterranean Politics, 19(3), 373-391.

The paper addressed two key questions: What have been the main dynamics dragging out the reform of the security sector, and what role has foreign aid and assistance played in this process? The project is expected to further advance existing knowledge of military/security development and thus influence current and future research on uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world. It will also refine our understanding of the role of the security sector in the transformations of the postcolonial state, its politics and society.

Throughout 2015, the preliminary findings of the project received considerable traction, both in Tunisia and internationally. The concept of autonomy of the security forces, as propagated by the project, has been picked up by policy-oriented publications of the International Crisis Group and the Carnegie Middle East Centre, for instance, and Moncef Kartas was cited repeatedly in the news media following the series of terrorist attacks in Tunisia. See also his latest op-ed on Tunisia Live and a contribution article to the publication of the Foundation Res Publica


Principal collaborator

Moncef Karta