National Journal Talks With IRI’s Scott Mastic About Recent Tunisia Poll

Tunisians Less Confident About Post-Revolution Prospects, Surveys Find
National Journal
By Hana Rouse

The Tunisian public is losing faith in the country’s interim government as the initial enthusiasm following the ouster of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dies down, according to the results of two public opinion surveys conducted by the International Republican Institute.

Forty-six percent of those polled in May said they believed things in Tunisia were headed in the wrong direction – the same as the percentage who believed things were headed in the right direction. That number represents a significant decrease from the 79 percent in March who said they believed the country was headed in the right direction.

Though the shift in numbers may seem extreme, Scott Mastic, the Middle East and North Africa director for the IRI, said the change was to be expected and described it as “positive.”

“The fact that it’s now gone down to around 50 percent is more standard of countries around the world,” Mastic said. “It says that there was an expected euphoria in the immediate aftermath of Ali’s departure and now there’s a little more coming back down to earth and a recognition that there are real challenges that Tunisia has to face.”

The self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor in December of last year sparked a series of riots and demonstrations throughout the country that would later spread to the rest of the Arab world.

Then-President Ben Ali resigned from office and fled the country on January 14, which energized Tunisians with a sense of revolution, but the appointment of a temporary government left the country in political limbo. Upcoming elections scheduled for October will elect the leaders who will draft Tunisia’s new constitution — and with it, its political identity.

A whopping 93 percent of those surveyed said that they intended to vote in the October elections. Mastic said it would be rash to assume that so large a percentage will participate come election time, but that the number surely indicates voter turnout will be very high.

Among the many challenges facing the fledgling democracy is determining the role of religion in the new government. Tunisia is approximately 98 percent Muslim, and although 54 percent of Tunisians indicated that they would prefer a secular government, 51 percent in a separate question said they would like to see “political parties or entities” that are “moderately Islamist.”

Mastic said that the IRI survey’s most troubling results were those that indicated security is the top priority among Tunisian people. Thirty-six percent of respondents called security the top priority for the interim government, and 71 percent listed it among their top three choices.

The IRI conducts similar surveys worldwide and, according to Mastic, other countries generally name job creation, the economy, or standard of living as the top concern.

“I have anecdotally heard of people expressing concern about crime in the country, about rumors of extremists trying to cause unrest or a sense of insecurity in the country,” Mastic said.

“[Security] is clearly front in the minds of Tunisian citizens right now,” he added.

Ben Ali did not permit surveys of public opinion under his rule, and the IRI’s poll is among the first conducted in the country since his ouster.

Mastic cautioned, however, that “we shouldn’t take too much from one particular survey.”

“This is a very historic moment,” he said. “It’s the start of what is going to be long and at times difficult and challenging transition process.”

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