Dispatch

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.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GettyImages

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