Scott Mastic

Scott Mastic

Civil Society, Elections, Featured, Tunisia

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Since the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings, a debate has emerged in Washington concerning the focus on development assistance in response to citizen demands for economic advancement and more accountable governance.  Advocates of economic assistance argue that popular demands for jobs and an improved quality of life is what drove citizens to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond; therefore, U.S. policy should prioritize programs supporting economic stability and growth.

A new poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) shows that Tunisian citizens directly tie perceptions of their economic situation to the political transition’s progress, revealing an important linkage between both factors. This data suggests that progress on the political track is crucial to effectively managing the public’s mood about the state of the economy.

At the start of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, initial public euphoria was high with 79 percent indicating that the country was headed in the right direction. However, by October 2013, with little to show in the way of progress in the country’s political transition, that number flipped to 79 percent saying that Tunisia was moving in the wrong direction. In this most recent poll, IRI’s first since Tunisia’s formation of a caretaker technocratic government and passage of a new constitution, numbers have again shifted toward the positive (right direction up 31 points).

The key indicator that changed between the October 2013 and February 2014 surveys was future economic expectations. In asking people what they expect about their household financial situation in the next year, the February survey revealed a 18 point positive shift in the number of people saying that they expect it to get either somewhat better (37 to 51 percent) or much better (7 to 11 percent).

As the underlying conditions of Tunisia’s economy have not improved significantly between the surveys, what has changed? Analysis suggests that future economic expectations are directly tied to attitudes about progress in Tunisia’s political transition, thus with the formation of a technocratic government, the passage of the constitution, and elections on the horizon, expectations have once again risen.  This presents positive takeaways in supporting Tunisia’s transition as well as new challenges. On the up side, more confidence in the Tunisian economy means more spending, which is necessary to get the economy moving, create new enterprise, and attract more direct foreign investment.  But rising expectations must be managed with the understanding that economic progress alone cannot accomplish the numerous tasks facing Tunisian decision makers.

Trends in IRI polling data in Tunisia and elsewhere suggest that the immediate post-election period will see another positive leap in both public attitudes and expectations.  The trends underscore the importance of a U.S. policy that provides economic assistance, but also one that helps the current government and next government achieve success by effectively managing expectations and delivering on core democratic governance principles.

Without this dual approach, Tunisian patience with decision-makers may wear thin quickly post-elections.

A successful U.S. assistance strategy following elections must recognize this challenge and not neglect the governance imperative by solely pouring resources into economic support.  The next government will be Tunisia’s first elected with a popular mandate to govern, as opposed to simply acting as a transition steward.  It will face considerable pressures in managing public expectations and will need to enact painful reforms. Planning should begin now to ensure a comprehensive U.S. assistance strategy that helps newly elected decision-makers identify priorities, engage the public, and deliver on both good governance and expectations management.


Scott Mastic is the director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute.