Middle East

Opinion polls give few clues to Egypt presidential election

Woman walks past posters of Egyptian presidential candidate in Cairo (May 2012)
Image caption Polls have been inconsistent and confusing in a country unused to polling

For what is probably the first time in Egyptian history, no-one knows who is going to be leading this country in six weeks time.

The presidential elections which begin on 23 May are the first fully democratic polls in Egyptian history, and the first in which no-one has emerged as a clear front-runner.

It is also the first time that proper opinion polls have been taken, but they can be frustratingly varied in their results.

In the most recent poll, for the Baseera Centre, the former Prime Minster, Ahmed Shafiq, has apparently moved into the lead, just ahead of the former foreign minister and Arab League chief, Amr Moussa.

The independent Islamist, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, is in third place, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Mursi, is fourth.

In contrast, a poll carried out the previous week by the government-owned newspaper al-Ahram put Mr Moussa way in the lead with 40.8% support, ahead of Mr Shafiq (19.9%), Mr Aboul Fotouh (17.8%), Mr Mursi (9.4%) and then Mr Sabbahi (7%). The poll was a face-to-face survey carried out 5-8 May among 1,200 respondents.

Another poll, by the Cabinet Information and Decision Support Centre, has the top three candidates running neck and neck.

According to this poll, Mr Shafiq is on 12%, Mr Moussa on 11%, Mr Aboul Fotouh on 9%, Mr Mursi on 6% and Mr Sabbahi on 5%. The survey is based on a sample of 1390 respondents interviewed face to face on 11-13 May.


Egyptians are naturally suspicious of these polls, believing the pollsters are simply getting the answers they want to hear.

That suspicion is heightened by the fact that the candidate who seems to be making a late surge, Ahmed Shafiq, also just happens to be a former general whom most people believe would be the favoured candidate of the ruling military council. The military have insisted they are entirely neutral in the poll.

Image caption Candidates have recently woken up to the need to target the female vote

But the Baseera Centre has no special reason to pander to the military. Its research is funded by the independent, liberal-leaning, al-Masry al-Yowm newspaper.

It is run by Magued Osman, who was minister of communications in the months following the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, someone with no strong reason to favour Ahmed Shafiq.

Magued Osman believes the dramatic differences in poll numbers may be the result of different sampling methods. His polls take a sample of 2,200 voters, polled by telephone - both landlines and mobile phones.

He explains how they are still learning about polling in Egypt. For example, calls at different times of day produce different results. Housewives tend to answer the phone more in the daytime. Landlines are more prevalent in the cities, and there is a higher proportion of mobile phones in rural areas.

Fluid politics

Public opinion appears to be very fluid as well. "Political life is very dynamic. There are lots of changes," explained Magued Osman. He believes it is important that his polls are conducted in the space of just one day. The other organisations take several days to complete their polls.

Many observers believe that the the two participants in the first presidential debate, Amr Moussa and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, both suffered because of lacklustre television performances.

Ironically they were chosen to take part, ahead of the other candidates, because they were the top two candidates in the polls - hence a late swing to Ahmed Shafiq, and to a lesser extent Mohammed Mursi and Hamdeen Sabbahi.

Another crucial factor is the very high proportion of undecided voters. In the latest poll for the Baseera Centre, 37.4% of voters were undecided.

Magued Osman says the highest number of undecideds are in rural areas, primarily women. Some of the candidates have recently picked up on the need to win the female vote.

Ahmed Shafiq was the first to promise to appoint a woman vice-president. Abdoul Moneim Aboul Fotouh held a special women's rally in Cairo earlier in the week, and a liberal-minded woman is one of his top political advisers.

Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyid, politics professor at Cairo University, who is also connected with the Baseera Centre, also says the fluctuations in the polls reflect an evolving situation.

"The situation changes from one week to the next," he says. "Ahmed Shafiq came up in the last week. It really reflects the state of opinion from one week to another. So I don't think there is any political bias (in the polls)."

Urban vs rural

Ahmed Naguib Kamha, of the al-Ahram Centre, says they get different results because they do face-to-face interviews, not phone polls.

"I prefer to use the methodology of face-to-face polls. It is more reliable for the cultural base of Egyptian society," he argues.

Image caption Many Egyptians believe the country's military rulers are trying to manipulate the election result

For example, while many people have mobile phones, richer people often have multiple phones, he says.

He also believes conducting face-to-face interviews is the reason his sample has far fewer undecided voters: 18-25% of those questioned, compared to 37.4% in the latest Baseera poll.

By spending time with people, he explains, they are much more willing to give their opinion.

Perhaps the most sobering lesson from the parliamentary elections last year is how little most "opinion formers" in Cairo know about public opinion across this vast country.

The strong showing of the hardline Islamists known as Salafists in the rural areas came as a particular surprise to many people.

Perhaps that should be expected in a system which has never before known full democracy, or indeed any means of reliably sounding out public opinion. Egypt has been run from the top down since the time of the pharaohs.

Another first: Egyptians are no longer afraid to give their opinions to strangers, and to express independent ideas. And despite the legacy of years of cynicism, many are genuinely excited about the election.

The best guess is that this election will be decided outside Cairo, in the rural areas, especially those of Upper Egypt.

And a very large number of the voters have not made up their minds, or may yet switch their choice.