Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In The New Egypt, Public Opinion Actually Matters

By H. A. Hellyer
There’s a new Egypt now – an Egypt where public opinion actually matters. The country has gone through a tumultuous seven months and Ramadan provides something of a break from politics as Muslim communities engage in a month of fasting and spiritual contemplation.
But parliamentary elections are drawing closer – probably within the next few months – and political actors need to consider their strategies. It is clear that divisions already exist within the revolutionary ranks, between those focused on being agitators and those focused on the elections. Ramadan gives these people the time to discuss, debate and, afterward, to regroup.
Public opinion cannot be ignored like it was under the former regime, even while public opinion does not (yet) rule the country. While political factions are already speaking their minds in the new Egypt, good ideas alone do not make good leaders. Even when they disagree with the public mood, successful politicians must speak to the public’s concerns.
The economy, religion, the military and social media are four of the key issues politicians will need to understand and consider. The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center is tracking the country’s pivotal transition on a monthly basis – and data from the last few months reveal some intriguing intelligence on those four issues.
Egypt’s political parties have yet to provide fully constructed economic plans – something they are going to need to do quickly. Gallup’s data show Egyptians are more optimistic about the future after the revolution. They want to know how they can improve from this economic situation, which they know will be bumpy in the short term, to a much better one in the future. It is important to emphasize that, according to public polling, the improvement of the economic situation tops all other concerns. No political force can afford not to address it properly.
The role of religion in the public sphere is another key concern – at least in media – both nationally and internationally. According to Gallup data, there may be some benefit in reconsidering this focus.
Egyptians (Christians and Muslims alike) are generally receptive of other religions; after the Lebanese, they are the most likely population in the Middle East and North Africa to welcome a neighbor of another faith. At the same time, most Egyptians (96 percent) feel religion is important, which suggests Egyptians may want religion to play a similar role as it does in European countries with established churches – to provide a moral core in the public sphere.
However, respect for religion does not necessarily translate into an Islamist vision: the main political Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, polls at only 15 percent support, and less than 1 percent identify Iran as Egypt’s political model. Religion need be a fault line only if parties decide to make it one.
Regarding the military, Egyptian media outlets are rife with criticisms of the armed forces on a variety of issues. However, for all of the discontent expressed in different mediums, justified or not, the army enjoys widespread public popularity. Gallup recently found 94 percent of Egyptians express confidence in the military, something any successful political force will have to consider carefully.
Finally, social media, the impact of which has been so widely publicized, is unlikely to be pivotal in the elections. World Bank figures show one-fifth of Egyptians use the Internet overall, let alone access sites such as Twitter or Facebook. Despite claims to the contrary, Jan. 25 itself was not a ”social media revolution”; only 8 percent of Egyptians say they used Facebook or Twitter to get their news about the protests, according to Gallup’s data. Social media was not then, nor is it now, the core information medium for the average Egyptian. There are no shortcuts in reaching out to that “man on the street,” and all parties must be perceived as trying to do just that.
Ramadan gave political forces a time to strategize, but it is now over and elections are nearing. No one can take popular support for granted. Gallup’s data show a majority of Egyptians as political party agnostics, with no party polling more than one-seventh of the population. Those who react strategically to public opinion stand to benefit greatly in this environment; equally, those who underestimate it stand to lose substantially.
The time for planning will not come now that Ramadan is over. It came the day President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power. Those who have not realized this need to catch up, fast.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 30/08/2011
-H. A. Hellyer is a senior analyst at the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center (UAE)/Gallup Center for Muslim Studies (U.S.), and a fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick (United Kingdom)

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