Kim Sengupta: Head of Tunisian army restrains his troops, and watches and waits

Wednesday 19 January 2011 01:00

General Rachid Ammar, the head of Tunisia's army, has made sure that both he and his troops remain in the background during the current strife. But behind the scenes the commander has been a key figure in some of the most crucial recent developments in his country.

Gen Ammar is said to have refused an order from a beleaguered Ben Ali last week to use live rounds on demonstrators. He subsequently advised the President, claim Arab sources, that his safety could not be guaranteed if he attempted to cling on to power.

Gen Ammar subsequently withdrew the vast bulk of his forces from the capital on Thursday, leaving security to the police and the Presidential Guard. It was they who confronted protesters in the violent clashes which followed as Ben Ali and his family fled the country.

Since then the army presence in the capital has been kept to a minimum. Many residents say, however, that they much prefer to have the army, which is seen as far more disciplined, keeping order rather than the police.

During the often violent demonstrations it has been the police who have been firing tear gas and using batons while the soldiers watched.

On several occasions the troops were not impressed by what took place. During the breaking up of a rally on Monday a few tear gas rounds fired by the police fell on army positions. During one confrontation, as the police launched more gas rounds a young army officer said angrily: "They are firing at people singing the national anthem. That is not right."

The fact that Gen Ammar has kept mainly silent during the current crisis has only served to fuel speculation about his motivation.

Walid Chisti, a political analyst, said: "He does not have to do anything, just watch and wait. He is an ambitious man but also sophisticated and he knows the political game. Ammar is a clever man and he will not miscalculate and make the wrong move."

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