A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Gen Rachid Ammar

By most accounts, a key figure in the transitional government in Tunis has not appeared in public, made any statements, or held any press conferences. This would be General Rachid Ammar, head of the Tunisian Army. It is hard to find a picture of the man: the ones at left are the best I could find. He's about 63 or 64, born at Sayada in the Tunisian Sahel, the central coastal plain which was the origin of both Habib Bourguiba (Monastir) and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (Hammam Sousse). Since his predecessor and much of the General Staff died in a helicopter accident in 2002, he has been Chief of Staff of the Tunisian Army.

The Army is traditionally apolitical, The land forces number only about 27,000, and though Ben Ali himself came originally from the Army, it has long been marginalized in favor of the security services, which may have numbered as many as 120,000, or even far more.

The exact sequence of events late last week remains obscure, but various media have reported that when General Ammar refused to fire on the demonstrators, he was sacked by Ben Ali. A day or so after that, Ben Ali was himself out of a job, and the role of the Army remains obscure but widely speculated upon. Almost certainly the Army issued some sort of ultimatum. There have been allegations elsewhere in the Arab world that the United States urged Ammar to move against Ben Ali, but there is no particular reason to credit that over any of the other rumors that have circulated. In any event, by most accounts, General Ammar is back in control of the Army, and the Army is said to have stepped in to separate the police from demonstrators, and to arrest some police chiefs. Reports of fraternization between troops and demonstrators have appeared, and some pictures and videos.

General Ammar, like most Tunisian military men, has remained unheralded and obscure. His French Wikipedia entry is fuller than his English one, and this article, also in French, also offers some information.

Is he the power behind the interim government, or simply its protector? Nobody knows; he remains the man behind the curtain.

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