Optimistic Egypt

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 4:30 AM GMT+0

Egyptians are mostly optimistic about their own, and their country’s future, according to the latest YouGov/Siraj latest survey in the country. Two months after the departure of President Mubarak, they seek a country in which Islam plays a significant role but is not dominant, and in which the country’s new rulers, whoever they turn out to be, address domestic issues rather than up the ante with its neighbours to the west (Libya) or east (Israel).

One change since our mid-February survey, conducted immediately after Mubarak’s departure, is that many more people are unsure about who they would like to lead Egypt. In February, 49% backed Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League. Ahmed Zeweil, the Egyptian-American Nobel Prize-winning chemist, came second, with 13%, and Omar Sulemain, briefly Mubarak’s vice-president, third on 9%. Just 13% expressed no opinion.

Our latest survey still puts Amr Moussa out in front, but with just 25%, Ahmed Zeweil on 8% and Omar Suleiman on 7%. But the ‘don’t knows’ have jumped to 30%. Amr Moussa must still be favourite; but there is now plainly room for one of the others, or a completely new figure, to build momentum and emerge as victor. And the signs are that Egyptians expect the elections to be conducted properly; fully 86% are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ confident they will be free and fair.

As for the overall mood of the country, 62% think the country is now ‘going in the right direction’; just 9% say it is heading in the wrong direction. Almost as many, 56%, say that things in their own lives are going in the right direction; only 10% disagree. One thing that might push optimism higher would be the removal of the Emergency Law. 65% want this removed and just 23% want it kept. As with most questions in this survey, YouGov/Siraj finds a broad national consensus, with little difference by gender, age or income.

YouGov/Siraj asked what the role of Islam should be in the new Egypt. This is what we found our respondents wanted:

  • A secular state, in which religious leaders play no formal role in the country’s government: 14%
  • An Islamic state governed according to the Koran and with a major role for religious leaders: 25%
  • A state where the constitution uses Islamic law as one source of several sources for the constitution: 57%
  • Don’t know: 4%

It is not unusual, when three options are offered in a survey, for the middle option to prove attractive. Nevertheless, the desire to turn Egypt into a full-throated Islamic state is limited (although younger respondents are keener on the notion than over 40s).

This is borne out by the results to a battery of questions in which we asked Egyptians whether they approve or disapprove on various people and institutions. Here are the main findings, in rank order:

Perhaps the most striking thing about these figures is that, with the exception of King Abdullah, the region’s leaders all score badly – and in the case of Gaddafi, Al Q’aeda and the government of Iran, extremely badly (as does Egypt’s own National Democratic Party, founded by Anwar Sadat and controlled for so many years by Mubarak). But the radicals of Gaza (Hamas) or Lebanon (Hezbollah) score poorly, too. Most Egyptians plainly want to build their own democracy rather than or seek inspiration from elsewhere in the region. Given the other findings in this survey, the approval figures for King Abdullah may reflect an appetite for domestic stability and international moderation, rather than a wish to copy Saudi Arabia’s system of internal governance.

These findings help to explain the views of Egyptians to events just beyond their borders. They are evenly divided on whether the Arab League and United Nations were right to support military action against Libya – but by five-to-one (74% - 14%) they think Egypt itself is right NOT to get directly involved.

There is slightly more support for Egyptian Special Forces supporting and training Libya’s rebels; but more Egyptians oppose (48%) than support (35%) such measures, which some reports in the international media suggest are underway.

Finally, a finding that will come as a great relief to Israel and much of the international community: 60% think Egypt should continue to uphold the peace treaty agreed in 1978 at Camp David; just 27% think Egypt should now end the treaty and sever diplomatic relations with Israel.