Egyptian public opinion survey: Step in the right direction, still much to learn

Mary Mourad , Monday 10 Oct 2011

Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies reveals the results of their national survey, with security and economy the top concerns of a populace of whom only 60 per cent can name their prime minister

Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies has released the results of their second public opinion survey covering a representative sample of 2,400 Egyptians. The survey was conducted in cooperation with the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute and is expected to run four times before parliamentary elections in November – the first was in August, the second in September.

The endeavour in conducting what is possibly the largest sample of public opinion in Egypt is quite remarkable, and the results are hugely important for understanding the mood of Egyptians. At such a time of turmoil, surveys are critical to the understanding of reality, but as always, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The survey reveals some important facts and trends in Egyptian public opinion. The most important trends revealed are about the reaction of Egyptians to current conditions: the most important issue to most Egyptians surveyed was the economy, with nearly 50 per cent registering it as the top issue, followed by security, at nearly 40 per cent.*

The actual numbers may not be so important except to indicate the extent to which one factor is relatively more important than others. Democracy, corruption, services and the old regime were all receiving much lower rates, at below 5 per cent. Security has gone up in people's concerns by nearly 10 per cent and economy down by 10 per cent reflecting the increasing importance of security issues.

It is important to note that ‘security’ doesn’t only include ‘personal security’ but also terms such as ‘stability’, as indicated by Gamal Abdel-Gawad, previous head of the Centre. Referring back to August’s results, ‘economic conditions’ were split into ‘prices’ and ‘unemployment,’ however this distinction was not made for September’s results though they are quite interesting to compare: in August security was the top issue, followed by prices and unemployment. By combining unemployment and prices to become ‘economic conditions’ it is no longer clear what the term ‘economic conditions’ means and whether it is just prices and unemployment, or the stock market and investment climate as well.

Evaluation of current conditions has trended downwards; with many more people ‘highly concerned’ (up from 40 per cent to 50 per cent) and much less being ‘secure’ (down from 20 per cent to 10 per cent). There is also an indication of increasing trust in SCAF (from 85 per cent to 90 per cent), however, this is contrasted with falling trust in the judiciary and police.

The questionnaire has obviously changed between the two surveys thus not allowing a comparison regarding the media, NGOs, Revolutionary Youth Coalition, the cabinet of Essam Sharaf or political parties. Looking at the latest results for September, political parties were divided into two groups: Islamist groups and parties, with a significant difference between the two (the first trusted by 40 per cent, the latter by 25 per cent). There was no clarity as to why the questionnaire included such a division as opposed, for example, to ‘old parties verses new parties’.

Unfortunately, the full results were not available at the time of writing, but the presentation shared by the Centre on Saturday 8 October had many more interesting facts. Two remarkable results were: 1) the intention to vote has fallen from 80 per cent to 70 per cent, quite a worrying trend; and 2) 55 per cent of the sample hasn’t yet decided who they will vote for. Since the latter question was not asked in August, it’s not clear whether more or less individuals have made up their mind.

Another remarkable figure is related to those intending to vote for the Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood) Party, which was 18 per cent of the total sample. Recalling that the Muslim Brotherhood had 16 per cent of the 2005 parliamentary seats, it seems a fair figure. However, excluding those who haven’t decided comes up with a very different picture, showing that nearly 40 per cent of those who made up their mind would vote for the Brotherhood – again, a logical result given the extent of knowledge and spread of the Brotherhood compared to other political players. The Wafd came second across all these measures, which is again consistent with common expectations.

Political Parties results not so rosy

The survey results related to political parties and presidential candidates should probably be revisited. For some odd reason, it would seem that individuals were asked their feelings and opinions about political parties and presidential candidates whether they claimed to know the party or not.

The results about parties are incomparable across the two months since the parties list didn’t include the Revolution Youth Coalition in September while they gained 17% of the survey votes in August. Again, no apparent reason was given as to why they were excluded this time – or whether they were included but received an extremely small vote that wasn’t worth mentioning.

Finally, questions such as whether the respondent thinks of a party as more revolutionary or more reformist, more socialist or more liberal, more religious or more secular, and finally about their foreign policies were quite interesting to see.

Given that nearly 40 per cent of the sample was illiterate (representative of illiteracy in society) the results were hugely contradictory – with the most socialist party being the Popular Socialist Alliance, and among the most revolutionary (radical) party being the Salafist Al-Nour Party! Similar questions about reactions to the peace treaty with Israel, the emergency law and election laws raise questions as to what respondents really had in mind when responding.

According to Abdel-Gawad, individuals responded according to their ‘feelings’ and, like most of us, will not read political parties platforms or elections programs. 

One last interesting figure is that only 60 per cent of respondents knew the name of the Egyptian prime minister.

This much-appreciated effort of the Centre to try and shed some light on the conditions of Egyptian public opinion is only a first step towards establishing a full understanding of Egypt. More has to be done in order to calibrate such results with reality. One question hugely missed was whether the respondents voted in the referendum or not – possibly the only way to conduct a calibration with the results of an actual public vote. There will be two further surveys conducted before parliamentary elections begin in November, so it’s not too late, and it’s important to keep running such surveys and learning the opinions of the Egyptian people.

*All numbers approximated to nearest 5 per cent for simplicity of reading and comparison.

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