October 8, 2013
New Poll Findings
Paul Salem– Middle East Institute
Dr.James Zogby– Arab American Institute, Zogby Research Services
Radwan Masmoudi– Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy
Professor William Lawrence- George Washington University
Tunisia has long been a symbol of progress in the Middle East. Home to one of the strongest economies in the region, Tunisia gained new notoriety in 2011 when it became the first Middle Eastern country to throw out its dictator and demand political reform. It was from Tunisia that the “Arab Spring” was born. This August, Dr. Zogby conducted a poll in Tunisia, shortly before the Ennahda lead government stepped down from power (the full results of which can be found here). The Ennahda government was the first democratically elected government in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution and the poll—comprised of 3,031 Tunisian adults—was meant to be a means of gauging the public’s approval, and generally reaction, to the effectiveness of this first elected government. The results of his survey showed a deeply divided Tunisian public. While over 90% of the public agreed that the country’s greatest concerns lay in providing security from extremism and terrorism, promoting job creation, and providing affordable housing, only a third of those surveyed believed the Ennahda lead government was addressing these problems properly. The people who thought the government was addressing the country’s problems adequately also tended to view the Ennahda party favorably and didn’t think it was over represented in parliament. Conversely, the majority that was dissatisfied with the government’s progress thought that the Ennahda party was overly represented in the parliament, that the government lacked plurality, and disapproved the current constitution being assembled.
Dr. Zogby saw this recent poll as signifying a divide amongst Tunisia’s public, between supporters of the Ennahda party and those wanting more inclusive representation. However, unlike in Egypt, disapproval for the Ennahda party was not linked to its Islamic values but rather the lack of economic stimulus and social change it had managed to instigate. The divisions in Tunisia were not about competing ideologies but rather differing views of satisfaction in how the country has progressed thus far. The fact that the Ennahda party recently stepped down in accord with popular demand demonstrated that they and the rest of Tunisia were still committed to the democratic values that had defined the 2011 revolution. The democratic transition is still working itself out in the country; as Dr.Zogby said, “the Arab Spring is alive and well in Tunisia.”
Commenting on the survey results Mr. Masmoudi, did not see reason to fear a divide in Tunisia like that which is currently seen in Egypt. He argued that the 2011 revolution was bent on bringing about a new political system; the process of identifying and creating the proper political and societal institutions was bound to bring about some divisions and disagreements. Mr.Masmoudi argued that the Ennahda party was, when freshly elected, committed to a unity government, incorporating all political parties into the new government. However, the lack of organization and vision by the majority of parties made having a unified government difficult. Mr.Masmoudi argued that there is just not enough experience amongst Tunisia’s political groups in forming coalitions and jointly operating sectors of the country. The drafting of a constitution will be helpful in establishing a framework in which the political parties can work and interact. As politicians gain more experience working across party lines Mr.Masmoudi was confident that progress can be made in enacting the type of economic and social change that the people desire.
Prof. Lawrence agreed with Mr.Masmoudi’s remarks that the people lacked experience in forming political parties. Prof. Lawerence argued that the people’s inexperience in democracy lead to too many anti-establishment groups being endorsed during elections; groups who did not have the necessary experience to run the government or draft a constitution. He argued that preexisting civil societies, such as labor unions and women’s rights groups, should provide the foundation on which popular parties could be built, and provide goals for the government to strive for. However, because some of these preexisting groups, such as those tied to women’s rights, were seen as accessories to the old regime they had been widely rejected after the 2011 revolution and are only now resurfacing in society. As these groups become reestablished amongst the people Prof.Lawerence believed that more experienced and better defined political groups will be able to form and represent the needs of the people.
The three panelists were all in agreement that Tunisia still has divisions and challenges to overcome. However, they all saw Tunisia as being committed to the democratic process. The lack of military involvement in both the 2011 and recent 2013 change of governments is a sign that the fate of the country is in the hands of the people. The divides that currently exist are not about ideology, the people are in strong agreement about what issues they want the government to address. Tunisians though need more time to form popular political parties, to learn democratic values, and develop grassroots organizations that interact with the people. The desire for democracy is there and the people are committed to it, they just need more time to develop their desires and turn them into a reality.