Ask Me No Questions…

How come Egyptian polls are so useless?

CAIRO – The 15 months since Hosni Mubarak was driven from power have brought Egypt any number of previously unthinkable democratic novelties.

We've had fiercely contested and well-attended parliamentary elections with many Egyptians voting for the first time in their lives. Muslim Brotherhood officials now appear regularly on state television channels that spent years referring to the Islamist organization only as "the banned group." Earlier this month, the top two candidates squared off in an actual televised presidential debate that (in true Egyptian fashion) lasted well past 1 am. And as Egyptians head to presidential polls on Wednesday and Thursday (with expected run-off elections extending through mid-June) the nation has been in the grip of a new democratic craze: Post-Mubarak Egypt has discovered electoral polling with the enthusiasm of a shiny new toy.

Every few days for the past several months, a new set of polling numbers has emerged -- with the results heavily reported. The legitimacy or accuracy of the poll numbers aside, everyone's watching and they've affected public perceptions of momentum for each candidate. It's a completely new concept in a race that has 13 candidates, with at least five of them regarded as plausible contenders to qualify for a run-off. So, who's actually in the lead? Like most things in Egypt these days, it's not that simple.

The most credible polls, according to the professionals, have been run by the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in partnership with the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute. But parallel (and often contradictory) numbers have been produced by local newspapers such as Al Masry Al Youm and Al Shorouk and by the Information Decision Support Center -- a government research body affiliated with the Egyptian cabinet.

Not surprsingly, this sudden flood of polling data has failed to produce much clarity and may have even muddled the electoral waters even further. The former Arab League chief and Mubarak-era foreign minister, Amr Moussa, and former Muslim Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh spent months as the presumed frontrunners. But in recent weeks, fresh numbers have suggested surges in support by Mohammed Moursi, the official candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood; Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force commander and Mubarak's last prime minister; and even Hamdeen Sabahi, a longtime socialist politician previously regarded as a fringe candidate.

But despite all the time, manpower, and funding being devoted to tracking Egyptian voters, nobody really has any idea who is going to win this election. After all, how do you scientifically predict the behavior of an electorate that's suddenly drowning in choices and seemingly can't make up its mind?

"I still think there's a large chunk of the population that are undecided. We have no idea which way they're going to go," said Hisham Hellyer, a former analyst with the Gallup polling agency.

In January, Gallup released a survey that revealed a massive 55 percent of respondents who said they didn't know who they were going to vote for. As the elections kicked off today, Reem Abuzaid, a project officer with the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute, estimated that the undecided bloc still comprised 33 percent. That's enough to swing the election in anyone's direction.

That's a pretty big grey area. The parliamentary elections conducted last fall were the first indication of the limitations of this new Egyptian polling phenomenon. Despite multiple overlapping surveys, none of the polls accurately predicted the strong showing by ultraconservative Salafist Muslim parties -- who came from seeming obscurity to capture nearly 25 percent of the parliament. This failure to predict the rise of the Salafists has since been attributed to a number of factors. For starters, there's the potentially shaky methodology of the still-nascent Egyptian polling industry. The Ahram Center polls are conducted in person by a nationwide team of researchers, but most of the other polls are conducted via telephone -- widely regarded in the polling industry as a credible option in the West, but not in modern Egypt.  

"Polling here is very, very dodgy," Hellyer said. "Telephone polls are crap, especially in Egypt."

But the main reason for the flawed parliamentary polls might be far more simple: At this stage in the nation's history the Egyptian electorate might just be, well, un-pollable.

"Was it that the Salafist voters were deceptive about who they were going to vote for? Or does it mean that they decided at the last minute?" said Craig Charney, president of the U.S.-based polling firm Charney Research that conducted opinion surveys before the parliamentary vote. "I think it was the latter, judging by the large numbers of voters who said they were unfamiliar with almost all the new parties until the very end of the campaign."

The presidential vote should suffer from less of a problem of voter unfamiliarity. Most of the top contenders are well known public figures and the campaigns have plastered their faces across the country. Last week, a several-mile stretch of the Nile-side cornice south of downtown Cairo was lined by hundreds of male and female Muslim Brotherhood campaigners holding a seemingly endless ribbon of posters bearing Moursi's face. But greater familiarity won't necessarily lead to less voter flip-flopping.

The infant Egyptian electoral polling industry isn't just contending with obstacles of technical sophistication and voter schizophrenia; it's also partially constrained by government interference. One of the under-reported aspects of Egypt's new polling craze is the quiet but crucial role played in the process by a relatively obscure government agency: The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, or CAPMAS -- a wing of the Ministry of Planning, run by an Army general -- vets all potential polling questions and has the right to ban prospective pollsters from asking certain questions.

Alia Abdel Hamid, the general manager for public relationships for CAPMAS, acknowledged the organization's central role in the polling process, but described it as a matter of protecting Egyptian security and public morality. "We have to agree and the security services have to agree," on any questions in a poll, Abdel Hamid said. "Some questions are just inappropriate."

None of the pollsters interviewed for this article would comment formally on CAPMAS's role for fear of jeopardizing a crucial relationship. But the red lines seem to involve sensitive questions regarding perception of religion, the army, or the security services. Examples of questions banned by the CAPMAS censors include asking how many times per day a respondent prayed, whether they had ever had any dealings with the police, and what they thought of U.S. aid to the Egyptian military.

There is rarely a reason given for why a certain question is out of bounds, although one polling professional said the agency was fond of saying that a banned question was "outside the theme" of the overall poll.

"They are a cautious bureaucracy," said one pollster, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The impression that I have is that controversial questions make them nervous. And it's often a surprise just what they consider controversial."

All in all, it's easy to feel a twinge of sympathy for those tasked with gauging the political winds in Egypt. This promises to be one of the most intensely scrutinized and dissected national votes in Egyptian history. And it's still an absolute black box.



Syria's War Comes to Beirut

Sunday's spasm of violence bodes ill for Lebanese stability. But the real problem is that there's nobody in charge.

BEIRUT — The streets of Beirut's working-class Sunni neighborhoods started filling up with all the signs of trouble by about 9 p.m. on Sunday night. Young men on scooters clustered together, barricading their neighborhoods with burning tires and overturned dumpsters. But even cynical observers of Lebanon's descent into chaos couldn't predict how bad it would get.

The youths' fury stemmed from a killing earlier in the day of two prominent Sunni religious figures from north Lebanon, who died in a hail of bullets at an army checkpoint. But how and why the two men -- strong supporters of the Syrian rebellion just over the border -- were killed quickly became moot in the eyes of the frustrated young men of Beirut. The Army, long a symbol of national unity in a country torn apart by religion, now appears to have become their enemy.

Tensions between Lebanon's political movements, which are divided between supporters and enemies of the Syrian regime, are nothing new. Just last week, the northern city of Tripoli witnessed clashes after a Lebanese security agency arrested a popular Islamist activist. But what happened on Sunday night went well beyond Lebanon's normal dysfunction.

It all began when a group of openly armed men attempted to close the office of the Arab Movement Party, a Sunni group allied with Hezbollah. The party members in the office were armed but badly outnumbered, and they confronted the group of furious young men on the street, forcing the Army to intervene. Usually, the presence of the Lebanese Army calms such incidents. But not this time.

I was on the corner of Beirut's Tareeq Jdeideh neighborhood when things turned bonkers. Attackers opened fire with multiple automatic weapons on a group of arguing men and soldiers. The soldiers ducked for cover along with the civilians: A young soldier and I fell behind a Volkswagen sedan for cover as scores of kids sprinted down the street away from the gunfire. Several were hit in the back as they fled.

It was impossible to see the source of the gunfire, although it was direct and very close. As rounds bashed into the car and ground around us, the young solider and I decided we were far too close to the front. Waiting for a lull in the firing, we both counted off "one, two, three" and he stood up to run back toward better cover.

The soldier stood up with his M-16 ready to spray covering fire for our retreat when he was promptly shot through the shoulder. He paused and stared down at me with a confused look on his face. "Run, man, run," I hissed at him, deciding that he was better off running wounded down the street to his mates, while I was now much more comfortable laying where I was for the time being.

He ran, and I could see him get into a Humvee, his wound serious but not life-threatening.

Bad as it was at the front of the street, where I appeared to be the only one without a weapon, the block we were trying to reach wasn't much safer. Armed kids on scooters were using the anarchy to try to assassinate soldiers from behind. One boy even drove up the street with a face mask on, pulled a pistol, and pumped a few rounds into the back of a soldier who was returning fire down the street in the other direction. I heard the pistol shots and saw the soldier fall, and my colleague witnessed the gunman casually drive away and hand his mask to one colleague and the gun to another, who zipped away into the night.

At least three people were killed and more than a dozen wounded in the mayhem. As tensions mount between Sunnis and the pro-Syrian neighborhoods of Tripoli, fears that the rage would spread to Beirut were realized in force Sunday night.

How did it all unravel so quickly? The May 20 violence was the culmination of a steady drumbeat of humiliation for Lebanon's Sunnis that stretches back for years. In May 2008, militiamen belonging to Hezbollah and its allies ended a long-simmering political crisis by invading Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut. Then, as the Arab Spring unfolded across the Middle East, the main Sunni leader, Saad al-Hariri, was forced from the premiership by a Hezbollah-led coalition. And now, as a primarily Sunni rebellion rages against President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon's Sunnis are once again outraged at their government's efforts to clamp down on their attempts to aid their co-religionists across the border.

Unusually, yesterday's violence didn't spread outside of traditional Sunni strongholds. Tareeq Jdeideh lies alongside the Shiite neighborhood of Chiya, and the fear was that the chaos would draw in gunmen from Hezbollah and its chief ally, Amal. But Sunday night seemed more about revenge toward the army for the earlier shootings, months of pent-up frustration from being saddled with a government perceived to be doing Syria's bidding, and an effort to cleanse Sunni neighborhoods of proxy parties aligned with the Syrians and Hezbollah.

Moreover, the experience of May 2008 has shown that the Sunnis are nowhere near capable of tangling with Hezbollah's well-trained and equipped fighters. By 11 p.m., I was in a Shiite neighborhood just a few hundred meters away, talking to sources who described a mobilization by Hezbollah and its allies for a potential conflict. While that skirmish never arrived, Hezbollah forces did mount an operation late at night to extract the beleaguered staff of the Arab Movement Party -- sending in several SUVs to make sure their allies got out.

Despite being one of Lebanon's largest communities, the Sunnis have never been able to match Hezbollah's street power -- another fact that has added immeasurably to their humiliation.

"The government kills us. Hezbollah can do anything they want without thinking. They can take the entire country over if they like," moaned one Sunni partisan on why they weren't pushing the fight toward their main rivals. "The Sunnis have nothing."

That's actually a pretty fair assessment. Lebanon's Sunnis don't hold real political power in Beirut today: Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, is by all accounts a decent and honest man, but he is forced to walk a tightrope between his pro-Assad coalition partners, who are responsible for elevating him to the top seat, and his friends in the Syrian regime who have repeatedly threatened to invade parts of the north if the Lebanese Army does not get tough on smuggling to the rebels. Whether he's a colorless technocrat doing his best in a tough situation or a Hezbollah and Syrian stooge, he can hardly be seen as a representative of the Sunni street.

It's this complete lack of real political leadership that bodes ill for Lebanon. Since Hariri's departure last year, no Sunni political leader has gained the respect and national patronage machine -- critical to getting anything done in Lebanon -- to take his place.

Rafiq al-Hariri, Saad's father and the country's longtime prime minister, once held the community together through force of personality and generous financial backing from the Saudis. However, his death in 2005 -- allegedly at the hands of men affiliated with Hezbollah -- has left a hole his son hasn't been able to fill with anything beyond money. And it would appear the Saudis have withdrawn their backing for Saad as he waits out events abroad.

"The Shiites have [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and [Amal leader Nabih] Berri to tell them when to fight and when to stop, and their people listen," one frustrated Beirut Sunni told me late in the evening as he checked the casualty reports on his phone. "The Sunnis? We have a poster of a dead man."

As Lebanon descends into lawlessness, it's hard to see what would assuage the anger of this proud community, which feels alienated from its own government and caught between a regional civil war.

It's only going to get worse: The government's response to the violence will almost certainly be the tightening of pro-Assad forces' control over the Army, police and intelligence services. There's already been a quiet movement within the ministries to stack the bureaucracy with those sympathetic to Hezbollah and its allies, and the arrests of Sunday night's partisans had already begun by Monday morning.

But as Lebanon drifts further into Syria's orbit, a large community of very angry people began rebelling Sunday night. And the path ahead is neither clear nor safe.