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.