Tunisia has been fortunate to escape the post-revolutionary political and societal mayhem of other Arab countries in which uprisings have taken place, such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. However, insecurity in neighboring countries, above all Libya, has generated new security challenges that have exposed weaknesses in the armed forces’ ability to counter threats. This has highlighted the need for a conscription regime that allows for an adequate number of trained personnel who can secure Tunisia’s borders.
Yet the reality is that the Tunisian military has consistently been unable to enforce conscription among young Tunisians. This has led to a dwindling number of recruits, low morale among those enrolled, and a general lack of preparedness in the junior ranks. To make matters worse, funding from the cash-strapped government has become even harder to come by, depriving the military of necessary funds for recruitment and training missions. These problems have prompted Defense Minister Abdel Karim al-Zubaidy to prepare a new bill on conscription. It is important that the military and parliament get it right this time.
While compulsory military service has long been on the books in Tunisia, actual enforcement has been patchy and inconsistent. Since independence in 1956, successive laws and constitutional provisions have mandated that all able-bodied 20-year-old males, whose immediate family members do not rely solely on them for sustenance, serve in the armed forces. They are expected to submit their documents to local offices when they are eighteen, and then follow up with service two years later. In practice, only a few hundred Tunisian youths bother to show up for service per year, a troubling fact that was quantified by the defense minister recently when he revealed that only 506 young men out of more than 31,000 turned up in 2017. The low turnout has forced the army to resort to hiring contract soldiers, imposing a further burden on its already meager budget.
There are several reasons why enforcement has been historically inconsistent. Tunisia has traditionally adopted a neutral foreign policy, seeking to insulate itself from the rivalries of the country’s larger western neighbors, Algeria and Morocco, as well as the turbulence of its eastern neighbor, Libya. This neutrality has awarded the relatively small country a sense of security and stability and diminished the need for an expensive and large standing army. In addition, the regime of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali deliberately expanded the security forces tied to the Interior Ministry for the purpose of regime security, reducing the role and number of the armed forces.
At the same time, under Ben Ali military service had also become a tool of social stratification and political punishment. While Tunisians from relatively more prosperous coastal areas were disproportionately represented in the higher echelons of the officer corps, poorer and less-educated Tunisians from the heartland and southern and mountainous regions served as conscripts, and were sometimes rounded up in enforcement raids. Furthermore, dissident youths were selectively chosen to serve as conscripts as a milder form of punishment.
The current laws contain a number of loopholes, including the substitution of “civilian” or “national” service for military service, whereby youths can serve in projects that promote rural development or aim to reduce unemployment. The vague definition of national service allows citizens to perform “individual assignments” if they practice a liberal profession, have industrial projects, or work as civil servants in the government, local collectives, or public institutions. They often attend a 21-day basic training period in a military camp, and offer a financial contribution to the national service fund equivalent to a percentage of the guaranteed Tunisian minimum wage. Because of the absence of rigorous and consistent enforcement, draft evasion occurs nonetheless, even though punishment can range from between three months and two years in prison.
The fall of Ben Ali regime unleashed a deluge of new responsibilities for the Tunisian military. This included maintaining internal order, securing the borders, battling emboldened militants, and even stemming the flow of illegal migration to Europe. The 2014 Tunisian constitution reaffirmed the requirement to serve. Yet, despite the soaring popularity of the military at the time, young Tunisians continued to refrain from turning up for military service. Since the uprising, successive governments have failed to offer a lasting solution to the problem, even as the military has stretched itself thin in performing its burgeoning duties.
This predicament requires immediate and radical action to transform the notion of military service in the country. Yet what is the solution? While an all-volunteer force has numerous advantages, such as ensuring professionalism and higher morale and preparedness, there is little chance that the military could persuade the fiscally challenged government to allocate the necessary salaries and benefits to maintain such a force. However, the government and military can enact some measures to alleviate the worst shortcomings of the recruitment regime.
Among the steps they can adopt is to require that all able-bodied 20-year-old Tunisians turn up for conscription. The inclusion of women in the pool of recruits would not only introduce gender equality, but immediately double the number of eligible soldiers. At the same time, exemptions from military service should only be granted in special or extreme cases. A third measure that can be implemented would take into consideration that the military’s capacity to accept, train, and integrate all eligible recruits is arduous and expensive. Consequently, a randomized draw system that positively controls for education level, regional representation, and employment opportunities should be introduced.
These measures will be difficult to establish for several reasons. First, rigorous enforcement of conscription laws are bound to generate political opposition and social resentment in a country with a historically lax system of conscription. The military will need to build up as much political support among political parties as possible prior to the implementation of any law.
Second, gender equality in recruitment may generate a pushback from more conservative towns and villages. In this case, cultural sensitivity to different regions may be a factor to consider when performing the randomized draw.
Finally, establishing a rigorous system of tracking conscription-age youths, ensuring they turn up for evaluation, and enforcing punishment against draft evaders and deserters can be expensive and time-consuming. It would require building up an extensive logistical network that involves coordination with local municipalities, governorates, and police stations. To minimize the burden for the armed forces, the costs should be shared with the Interior Ministry.
Such a system could make up for many of the existing shortcomings by providing consistently adequate numbers of recruits and enforcing military service in a manner that is not discriminatory and does not rely on punishment. It would also lessen the financial burden of hiring professional soldiers on annual contracts.
It will take courageous initiatives from both civilians and officers to make such a system a success. However, what is at stake if it fails is a better prepared and more respected Tunisian military. Hopefully, the new conscription law being formulated will not represent more of the same.