By Lucy Chumbley
As Egyptians headed to the polls this week to elect their next president, what were they looking for? While Western media focus on the role of religious parties and worry about unrest, a University of Maryland poll released 21 May at the Brookings Institution shows Egyptians are looking toward a more nuanced model for religion and politics – and that there are reasons to be optimistic about Egypt’s political transition.
Introducing the findings of the 2012 Public Opinion Survey in Egypt, conducted 4-10 May ahead of the Egyptian presidential debate, principal investigator Shibley Telhami, Senior Fellow at Brookings and the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, identified presidential candidates Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, formerly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Amr Moussa, Egypt’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Secretary-General of the Arab League, as frontrunners.
The top criteria Egyptians identified as being important in their next president were personal trust in the candidates and their position on the economy, with the role of religion in politics and party affiliation at the bottom of the list.
Though religion was not a deciding factor in the choice of candidates, Telhami said, 66 per cent of those questioned favoured using sharia, or Islamic principles, as the basis of Egyptian law. But of that number, just 17 per cent said it should be interpreted literally, with 83 per cent advocating adapting it to contemporary times.
“Sharia is very important psychologically for most Muslims, but the way they interpret it is flexible”, Telhami said. Although religion remains important for Egyptians, the role it will take when it comes to the legal system is yet unknown. The fact that Egyptians do not see Islamic principles as monolithic or immutable is a point that those observing the country would do well to remember as the country transitions.
When asked about what role religion should play in the political system, 54 per cent of respondents identified Turkey as the model which most closely matched their aspirations from the six choices offered: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, Malaysia and Morocco. (Saudi Arabia came second, with 32 per cent.)
Turkey also emerged as a leading influence in other areas: Outside Egypt, 63 per cent of respondents identified Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the leader they most admired in an open question, while in a question that did not exclude Egyptian leaders, Erdoğan came third after former Egyptian presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
In a world where there could be just one superpower (Egypt excluded), 41 per cent of those polled said they would like to see Turkey in that place, with Saudi Arabia again coming second (25 per cent).
“The Turkish model clearly is the one that resonates most so far with Egyptians,” Telhami said.
Beyond the role of religion and politics, the poll indicates that the Egyptian people are looking at their political system holistically, evidenced by the fact that they are differentiating between the president and parliament, he added.
While Egyptians listed personal trust, the economy, and track record and experience as being most important in determining how they will vote in the presidential elections, the key factors determining their choices in the parliamentary elections were different. Here, the political party was seen as most important, followed by record, experience and the economy.
Noting that the poll’s results are indicative of trends rather than election results due to the lack of benchmarking data, Telhami pointed out that these findings for the most part track the conventional wisdom in Egypt, though the political situation continues to be “fluid”.
Most Egyptians he consulted “were not surprised by the results,” he said: “It matched the general perception.”
Conducted using a nationally representative stratified sample of 773 people from cities and rural areas, the poll was carried out via professional face-to-face interviews.
“Most political parties are really behind peaceful mobilisation,” Telhami said, noting that Egypt – a country of 80 million – has come a long way in the last year and a half. “That’s pretty optimistic stuff, I think.”
Lucy Chumbley is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.