'Foggy, with increasing uncertainty'
Opinion polls show that Egyptians are worried by worsening economic conditions and are in favour of a civil government, writes Gihan Shahine
The countdown to the upcoming parliamentary elections has started amid a mood of public uncertainty and a lowering sense of optimism: such are the results of many recent polls testing the public mood before the parliamentary elections scheduled for later this month. The polls have also come up with contradictory and sometimes surprising results, though these may just be a reflection of the uncertainty that is gripping Egypt's political scene.
The latest poll, conducted by TNS, one of the world's largest research companies, involved over 1,000 people living in urban and rural areas and attempted to find an answer to one of the questions that has been driving a wedge between the country's Islamist and secular political forces: is Egypt heading towards Islamic rule or a civil government?
Although the poll showed that an overwhelming 75 per cent of the Egyptian public are in favour of a civil government, with less than a quarter of respondents favouring Islamic rule and only one per cent approving of military rule, the result may not provide a fully accurate answer.
Ambiguity shrouds almost everything in Egypt at present, including politics, the economy and the security services, and the poll was no exception since it did not provide a clear definition of either a civil or religious state.
Political and human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan speculates that those who opposed a religious state probably did not want a theocracy with religious leaders at its helm. "But many within that category would probably still want Islamic jurisprudence to be the main source of legislation, as is the case in Saudi Arabia," Hassan said.
"It remains questionable how many would stick to the purely secular meaning of a civil state, one which seeks a total separation between politics and religion."
It was clear from at least one other recent poll, that conducted by the Gallup Abu Dhabi Research Centre between late March and early April, that the majority of Egyptians "desire a democracy informed by religious values, not a theocracy."
Yet, the two surveys agreed that fears that the Islamists will dominate the next government may prove unfounded if the opinion polls are anything to go by. According to the TNS survey, those who wanted a civil government based their choice on the fact that it would lead to greater justice in all sections of society and would not allow religion to be used as a tool in the political game.
Some 44 per cent of respondents disapproved of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood dominating the upcoming government, while 55 per cent thought that it would have negative repercussions on the country if Salafis won a majority in the next parliament.
The 25 per cent of respondents who supported the Brotherhood said that the group was the most able to fight corruption in Egypt and to achieve social justice based on Islamic Sharia Law. Only one per cent of respondents said they wanted continuing military rule.
Yet, Hassan argues that these findings may not be translated into fact at the next elections. There may be lower participation in the electoral process now that it is bogged down in controversy and uncertainty, and this low participation "may very well give the Islamists, who remain the most organised political force, a better chance," he said.
Many people also know little about the programmes of the various parties standing in the elections, with the TNS poll revealing that only three parties have a genuine following: the secular Wafd Party, the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, which had the greatest popularity, and the liberal Ghad Party. The Nasserist and leftist Tagammu parties remained largely unknown.
Most Egyptians seem more concerned about worsening economic conditions than they do about politics, with the TNS survey revealing that people were primarily concerned about five issues, including skyrocketing prices (56 per cent), unemployment (46 per cent), the lack of security (33 per cent), wages (27 per cent) and poverty (24 per cent).
Many respondents were worried about how they would survive under the double onslaught of the constant rise in prices and unemployment. Many were also bewildered about the future and did not know whether Egypt was on the right track.
The TNS poll revealed that the percentage of those who thought that Egypt was moving in the right direction had slumped from 73 per cent three months after the 25 January Revolution to only 31 per cent eight months later.
More than half the population (62 per cent) now believes that economic conditions are worse than they were before the revolution, as opposed to only 41 per cent giving the same answer three months after it.
The percentage who believe they enjoy more democracy and freedom after the revolution than before it has slightly decreased from 84 per cent three months after the revolution to 66 per cent today.
Yet, the survey found that despite the uncertainty, more than half the population (66 per cent) still thought positively of the revolution and 74 per cent of that category remained largely enthusiastic about it, as opposed to 90 per cent following the revolution.
Those who were enthusiastic about the revolution said that it had been about fighting corruption, increasing freedoms and putting corrupt officials on trial. The lack of security, inflation and instability were the main reasons 20 per cent of respondents opposed the revolution.
Nevertheless, the poll revealed a mood of disappointment that the revolution had not achieved its goals of fighting corruption and poverty and that it had not improved the quality of life or attained social justice.
Hassan blames the state media for making links between the poor economic situation and the post- revolutionary instability, demonstrations and strikes. "This makes people blame the revolution for the worsening conditions, when according to many experts, including businessmen themselves, the lack of security and the uncertainty shrouding the transitional period are the main reasons behind the sluggish economy."
Hassan similarly explains many people's choice of former foreign minister Amr Moussa as the next president by reference to state media discourse. Moussa has ranked highly in all recent polls, scoring the highest favourability rating of 38 per cent of respondents in the latest TNS survey.
"The more people are frustrated at the worsening conditions in the post- revolutionary period, the more they will be inclined to choose a conventional candidate like Moussa, or a candidate with a military background like [former minister of civil aviation] Ahmed Shafik, rather than a revolutionary presidential candidate like Mohamed El-Baradei [former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency]," he said.
According to the TNS survey, Shafik ranked second after Moussa, scoring a favourability rating of seven per cent, followed by current Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (five per cent). El-Baradei scored lowest at four per cent.
Hassan insists that with the exception of Moussa, the result casts a shadow over the credibility of the poll, disbelieving that Sharaf, whose popularity is now almost zero, could rank third among presidential candidates in terms of favourability.
The survey did not mention any of the other Islamist candidates, like former Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who scored high favourability ratings in other polls, and prominent lawyer and thinker Mohamed Selim El-Awwa.
However, the survey made it clear that only one per cent of the population favours military rule, despite the fact that 61 per cent of the respondents were satisfied with the military's management of the country, as opposed to 86 per cent following the revolution.
This slump in public satisfaction could be due to the slow pace of decision-making and the little progress in putting figures associated with the former regime on trial. Many respondents said that they had not felt sufficient change and that the military had been cooperating with members of the former regime.
People were generally satisfied that the military was playing a role in protecting Egypt's borders, but said that it should exert more efforts in fighting internal insecurity, maintaining stability, achieving public demands and trying corrupt figures.
When asked what advice they would give to the country's ruling military council, the majority of respondents said that maintaining justice and protecting the country were the most important considerations.
For the time being, Hassan commented, the future course of the country remains "foggy, with an increasing sense of uncertainty gripping the political and economic scene in Egypt and leaving almost everybody, including those engaged in politics, in a state of bewilderment."
This state of uncertainty was casting doubts over the accuracy of the opinion polls, explaining why many of them came up with "conflicting and sometimes even unrealistic" results.