U.S. fares poorly in first modern polling of Egyptian views

CAIRO — Egyptians largely reject U.S. involvement in Egypt and appear split on whether to extend the longstanding peace treaty with neighboring Israel. They overwhelmingly support the revolution and are eager to vote without delay, but haven't yet identified a trusted party or politician to steer the nation toward their vision of an Islam-compatible democracy.

That's the portrait emerging of Egypt's millions-strong electorate as the country prepares for the first vote since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, according to survey results released in recent weeks by U.S. polling firms. With no single group garnering more than 15 percent of public support and the majority of voters still undecided, the poll results augur a closely contested parliamentary election this fall.

Until this year, such detailed polling was unheard of here — the government strictly controlled what questions outside pollsters could ask. Anything that might have exposed Mubarak's deep unpopularity and Egyptians' pent-up rage over rampant corruption, police brutality and poverty was strictly off limits.

Now, however, polling firms have a mostly free hand to ask what they will — though they apparently still aren't allowed to probe whether the Egyptian military, which runs the country, should continue receiving billions of dollars in aid from the United States. Surveyors have rushed in to take advantage, some even setting up permanent offices in Cairo. Poll workers are crisscrossing the country, popping up in urban slums and rural villages with questions on once-taboo topics.

The result is an unprecedented look at voter attitudes in the Arab world's most populous country.

"Confidence in the military, confidence in the judicial system, corruption in government — all of that used to be out," said Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and a member of U.S. President Barack Obama's faith-based partnerships advisory council. "We really have seen an opening and a dramatic improvement that allows us to ask, basically, whatever we want."

Results already are out from three major scientific surveys — the Pew Research Center, Gallup and International Republican Institute — as well as from a rash of informal polls conducted by nonprofit groups, local newspaper websites and blogs.

Even Egypt's interim military rulers have jumped on the poll bandwagon, posting a survey last week on their official Facebook page that asked Egyptians to choose their favorite presidential candidate from a list of leading contenders. Professional pollsters dismissed the military's survey as unscientific and limited only to the estimated one-fifth of Egyptians with Internet access; activists complained that the generals were trying to influence elections.

Egyptian web users, however, appeared eager to participate. As of Saturday, more than 185,000 had "voted," with Nobel laureate and former U.N. atomic energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei in the lead. (None of the scientific polls showed ElBaradei with comparable popular support.)

"We have more than 40 million eligible voters and such polls could never reflect the opinions of people living in the countryside who are sometimes illiterate or have no access to the Internet," complained a skeptical Amr Darrag, a senior officer in the Muslim Brotherhood's new Freedom and Justice Party.

Across the board, the more scientific polls' findings reveal a cautiously hopeful Egypt where citizens are happy Mubarak is gone and half as likely now to seek opportunities in another country. Residents express high support for democracy and civil liberties, but are more concerned with the immediate struggles of finding jobs, improving security and feeding their families.

The results also challenge some widely held notions about Egyptian participation and awareness of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Contrary to the narrative of a "Facebook revolution," for example, the vast majority of Egyptians followed the rebellion through television or word of mouth. Twitter, one poll found, "barely registered."

In a result that startled some secular politicians, Egyptians said they were in favor of religious figures playing an advisory role in a democratic government that's "informed by religious values," according to survey results. But for all the fears over Islamists filling the political void, poll findings showed that the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious groups face stiff competition from moderates and liberals.

"This shows us that the coming government most probably will be a coalition government and not controlled by one trend," said Wael Nawara, a senior member of the liberal Democratic Front Party, who's studied the results to better understand constituents. "But it also tells us we need a presidential government, not a parliamentary one, or we might suffer coalition-government problems and start facing the challenges of instability."

Mogahed said Gallup has polled in Egypt for the past decade, albeit with severe restrictions on questioning. Egypt's poll-monitoring body, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, used to strike 30 or more questions from Gallup surveys, she said, and that was even after the firm self-censored to avoid broaching presidential succession, government corruption and other red lines.

For the latest Gallup poll, "Egypt from Tahrir to Transition," the government agency banned only a couple of questions, including one about whether Egyptians support U.S. military aid, Mogahed said. The matter is an especially prickly one for the typically reclusive generals who, as the interim rulers of Egypt, are forced to respond to the revolutionaries' demand to wean the nation from a longtime reliance on foreign aid. Egypt receives an annual U.S. aid package of up to $2 billion, the second highest after Israel.

The Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Egyptians oppose U.S. aid to political groups, and 68 percent think the United States will try to exert direct influence over Egypt's political future. Two-thirds of Egyptians disagreed that the United States is serious about encouraging democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Gallup, perhaps an indication of public frustration over the U.S. government's perceived muted or belated support for Arab Spring uprisings.

"Our scorecard wasn't too good on the polling. It certainly gives us something to work on," said a diplomat based in the region, referring to the suspicion Egyptian respondents expressed toward the United States.

Some of the savviest Egyptian politicians — including presidential contender and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and advisers to his rival, ElBaradei — have received private briefings on the poll results, presumably to ensure their platforms are in line with voter priorities.

Less seasoned politicians, however, are still unfamiliar with scientific polls and can't grasp how the methodology works in surveying a country as big and diverse as Egypt. Mogahed reassured them that the same approach is used in elections in the United States for more than 300 million people.

Getting politicians to understand and buy into the process is "the hardest thing," she said, adding, "To explain how 1,000 people represent 87 million would require, literally, a class in statistics."

(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed.)


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