Cablegate: Beywatch: Fortunate Sons Dodging the Draft


DE RUEHTU #1450/01 3051413
R 011413Z NOV 07





E.O. 12958: NA
SUBJECT: Beywatch: Fortunate Sons Dodging the Draft


1. (U) This report is one of a series drafted by Post's entry level
officers which have the "Beywatch" title. We believe the
perspectives offered in the following vignette will give the reader
greater insight into Tunisia. It is not a comprehensive overview of
the subject.

2. (SBU) The Government of Tunisia requires mandatory military
service. For a year men over the age of 20 are to exchange their
civilian lives for a chance to serve their country. While the law
is clearly on the books, its enforcement appears to be sporadic and
selective in nature for reasons that encompass class, culture and
politics. Much of the information gathered for this report is based
on anecdotes gathered from acquaintances and colleagues of the


3. (SBU) According to the Tunisian National Service Law, all
Tunisians between the ages of 20 and 35 who are able-bodied, without
children and not the sole providers of their families, are expected
to serve a year in the military. In reality, the enlisted ranks of
the armed forces appear to be disproportionately made up of
lower-educated men from the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic
ladder. Although such disparities may be found in other nations'
militaries, this gap serves to highlight societal divides in
Tunisia. If all 108,000 men who become eligible for conscription in
Tunisia each year were serving, not only would the military be three
times the size it actually is, but it would be a cross-section of
the Tunisian public; an egalitarian entity where the sons of bankers
cleaned rifles beside the sons of farmers. According to anecdotal
evidence this is far from the case. (NOTE: The Ministry of Defense
has stated that it does not require an active military force
anywhere near 100,000. END NOTE)

4. (SBU) While the middle- to upper-middle class younger Tunisian
men who work in Tunis offices or patronize better Tunisian
restaurants and nightspots can tell stories of military roadblocks
set up to catch draft-evaders, or recount stories of someone's
cousin's friend being jailed and then heavily fined for avoiding
service, they have never been stopped at such a roadblock in their
white collar neighborhoods, nor do they seem to fear the same fate.
The risk (which they deem minimal) of being caught avoiding the
military, is apparently worth avoiding twelve months in uniform.

5. (SBU) Tunisian National Service Law (Act no. 89-51 of March 14,
1989) only provides exemption from military service in "medically
confirmed cases of disability." Postponement is available for
active students, family breadwinners, or Tunisians residing abroad.
In addition, two brothers are never required to serve
simultaneously. Tunisian men are supposed to report to the Ministry
of Defense to register their exemption and obtain a card declaring
them excepted, which they can then present to officials if stopped
at roadblocks or border crossings. None of the twelve men polled by
Conoff who are currently eligible for military service bothered to
register for an exemption, even though one could do so based on his
role as sole provider for his sister and mother. The other eleven
are simply waiting until they marry to claim breadwinner status.
Until then they good naturedly shrug off the suggestion that they
face up to two years imprisonment or heavy fines for their shirked
duties. That does not happen to nice, employed young men from
decent families, they claim. And if stopped by military officials
looking to fill conscription quotas, it is apparently common
knowledge that a little cash slipped into the arresting hand is the
simplest solution.


6. (U) There is also a legal route to avoiding service by financial
means. The 1975 National Service Law was written so that those who
wish to retain their civilian employment instead of completing their
military service may do so, as long as they pay the government a
percentage of their salary for the year they would have otherwise
been completing their service. The percentages are based on the
minimum wage in Tunisia: anyone making one or two times the monthly
minimum wage of 225 Tunisian Dinar (about 180 USD) must turn over 30
percent of their salary to the Ministry of Defense. Anyone making
3-4 times the minimum wage must turn over 40 percent of their
salary, and anyone who makes more than 900 Tunisian Dinar a month
(about 720 USD) must give up half their salary to the government.
Most who could afford such payments seem to prefer risking the
penalties of avoiding service rather than giving up a large portion
of their private sector earnings. New college graduates fortunate
enough to find work can usually expect a monthly salary that would
place them in the 40 percent bracket. Those who do decide to
remunerate the government for services never rendered must still
perform 21 days of basic training. They may either do this straight
through or for 21 consecutive Sundays. Should they fail to pay or
fall behind on payments, they may be conscripted immediately.

7. (SBU) Like most conscription-based militaries, the GOT does not
offer much of a financial incentive to obey conscription
regulations. Soldiers performing mandatory military service
receiving three meals a day and housing and are given a monthly
stipend of only 15 Tunisian Dinar (about 12 USD). Many soldiers
just say they are paid "three packs of cigarettes" a month, since
that is about all they can afford. Unless one is truly destitute
and cannot afford to feed oneself, it is difficult to imagine this
would be enough to encourage enlistment.


8. (SBU) The rumor mill in Tunisia is full of tales of police
staging afternoon raids on cafes in blue collar neighborhoods. Such
cafes are often frequented by the young and unemployed; thus
providing plenty of able bodies to put into uniforms. With an
official national unemployment rate of 13.9 percent - and some
estimates placing that percentage at almost 40 percent for those
between the ages of 20 and 24 - one can see the tempting logic
behind providing young Tunisian men with at least a year's worth of
work and focus in the form of the strictures of military life. Not
only does this decrease actual unemployment and, some may argue,
give a sort of structure and chance to learn a skill set to an
otherwise disadvantaged part of the population, but it may also be a
way for the GOT to further ensure their control over a segment of
society of which they are truly wary. As growing numbers of
Tunisians are leaving even top-notch universities without job
offers, the GOT is all too aware of the perils presented by having
an unemployed and discontented youth (septel). They are perhaps
equally discomfited by the notion of these jobless or underemployed
young men and women turning to religious extremism or demanding a
greater political voice. In a country where freedom of assembly is
virtually nonexistent, one way to keep the disenchanted from
gathering to criticize the state of things is to put them to work
for the state.


9. (SBU) While a lack of transparency makes it unclear whether the
GOT is purposefully waging a campaign to target unemployed or poorer
young men in the conscription process, the view of the upper middle
class Tunisian men who discussed this issue with Conoff was that the
result is so, no matter the intention. As part of the research for
this report, a consular LES called a friend who is a high ranking
colonel in the Tunisian military. After the conversation, the
colonel asked worriedly if the LES had a family member who was about
to be conscripted, and offered his help in obtaining an exemption.
Tunisians often joke (ruefully or bitterly, depending on the
context) about the "couscous connection": that elusive yet necessary
network of who knows whom that seems to control so much in the
country. This "connection" influences everything from liquor
licenses distributed to import quotas handed out (or so the rumors
go), and it is certainly not hard to imagine that certain families
or members of certain professions might find their sons effortlessly
evading boots and barracks, while others may have fewer choices in
the matter. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali may have said that
"defense of the homeland is sacred work for every citizen," but it
appears that a great many have chosen less blessed endeavors. END


© Scoop Media

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