Tunis (AFP) Jan 20, 2011
Tunisia's army has emerged from the month of unrest that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with its reputation burnished and the population full of praise after it refused to open fire on protesters.
The army's reported resistance to Ben Ali's orders to fire on the protesters is also credited with prompting his decision to flee on Friday, ending 23 years of authoritarian rule with an escape to Saudi Arabia.
"The national army did not betray the people and the nation," said one of the many with new pride for the military, theatre critic Ahmed El Hadek El Orf.
"And it is the first time that I have used the word 'national' for the army," he said.
"Other than the fact that the army was reluctant to take part in the repression, it showed that it did not want to become mixed up in political games," unionist Chedli Laajimi said.
The transitional government named Monday said 78 people were killed in the weeks of protests that started mid-December, with security forces opening fire on demonstrators angry over unemployment, corruption and food prices.
The United Nations says it has a death toll of about 100.
Much of the killing is blamed on a hard core of security forces loyal to Ben Ali, who favoured the development of the police force, which numbers about 100,000, against the army, at about 35,000 men.
Former French military chief and ex-ambassador to Tunisia, Admiral Jacques Lanxade, goes as far as to say that it was the army's resistance to Ben Ali's orders that prompted him to give up after weeks of holding on.
"It is the army that abandoned Ben Ali when it refused -- unlike the regime's police -- to fire on the crowds," he said in France's Le Parisien daily.
"The head of the army, General Rachid Ammar, was fired for refusing to have the army shoot and it was probably he who advised Ben Ali to go, telling him, 'You are finished'," he said.
Lanxade described Tunisia's army as a "stabilising and moderating element".
"The army, which has always kept away from politics and was not involved in the running of the affairs of the country, is quite a republican army," he said.
Mohammed Lakdhar Allala, leader in the ex-communist Ettajdid party, agrees that the "army, in putting pressure on Ben Ali, played a positive role."
The force does not communicate with the media and could not be contacted to comment.
"If the army had not been there, the country would have plunged into chaos," said independent activist on the left, Salah Toumi.
Others spoke of a warm relationship between the protesters and military during the height of the tensions, when violent street riots erupted with cars and tyres set alight, buildings sacked, police opening fire with tear gas and ammunition.
"I saw fraternisation between the people and the army, which did not fire on them," said Abdel Wahab Maalouch, a lawmaker for the opposition Unionist Democratic Union.
A resident of the Ariana suburb in the north of the capital said: "Women prepared a big couscous for the soldiers who came to our area, and the youngsters offered them beer, but the soldiers said they were not allowed to drink on duty."
Behind his counter in a bar in the city, a barman who gave his name only as Moncef voiced his praise to the nods of customers.
"I did my compulsory service 30 years ago and I did not like it," said Moncef, his opinion not unusual in a country where the one year of compulsory military service is largely unpopular.
"I ate rotten lentils from a mess tin," he said. "But if they asked me to return today, I would not hesitate for one second."
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