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Egyptians polled during uprising: Many still scared to speak up

No one knows what this evening will bring for Egypt. But a new Pechter Poll, funded by the Washington Institute for Near East policy, offers a remarkable insight from the days of revolution. Beware: It’s a small sample of just 343 respondents, reached by land line and cellphone, from 5-8 February, during the third week of the uprising, in  both Cairo and Alexandria.

I have a hard time believing that the poll is “enough to be representative” as the authors claim. The sample size is of course not as important as the correct demographic and geographic distribution. Maybe that’s why the authors don’t provide a margin of error (my guess, at the very least: around +/- 7%).

And yet, it is data – think of it as a small peephole into a very big room.

The authors offer their summary of the main findings, which I have summarized even more concisely here:

This is not an Islamic uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood is “approved” by just 15%, and its leaders get barely 1% in a presidential straw vote…

…the peace treaty with Israel, more support it (37%) than oppose it (22%). Only 18% approve of either Hamas or Iran. And a mere 5% say the uprising occurred because the regime is “too pro‐Israel.”

El Baradei has very little popular support in a presidential straw vote (4%), far outpaced by Amr Musa (29%). But Mubarak and Omar Suleiman each get 18%.

A narrow plurality (36% vs. 29%) say Egypt should have good relations with the U.S….

Those are the authors’ observations. Here are mine:

1. A very clear plurality says this uprising is about internal domestic issues – economic woes and corruption (22% and 21% say those are the number one reasons, respectively). The next highest reason is “unemployment” – just 4% say “the regime is not Islamic enough” is their top reason.

2. When asked who should be the next President, the top answer with 33% of the votes is: Don’t know (19%) or refused to answer (14%). Many of the sensitive political questions in this survey show similarly high levels of “don’t know” – that’s a typical sign of people who are afraid to say their views for fear of some form of retribution. Given what we’ve seen in the streets, it would be hard to imagine that very many people don’t have a view.

3. The American administration fares unambiguously poorly; even in an imperfect sample, when 53% say they disapprove and just 17% approve, it’s safe to say the respondents were truly disappointed with “how President Obama handled the crisis.”

4. By a 10-point lead, respondents preferred to keep the treaty with Israel, rather than annul it (37% to 27%). The intensity showed a similar pattern: 26% strongly oppose annulling the treaty; 15% strongly support it.

5. When asked if they support the government in Iran, the Hamas leadership in Gaza, the Tunisian uprising against Ben Ali, and – interestingly – the referendum in Southern Sudan – large portions ranging from one-quarter to over 40% said they don’t know (in some cases, this was the plurality response). Understanding those respondents is key to learning which way society will tilt in the coming phase. But they definitely, clearly do not feel free yet. (On those issues mentioned here, the majority of those with an opinion disapproved.)

The next few hours could tell us much more than the polls. Overall, the data here affirms what much commentary has said: the revolt is secular leaning, driven by economic and internal discontent and dislike for everything associated with the Mubarak regime – more than radical religious anything. America and Israel might now realize that choosing bad friends for short-term reasons has long-term consequences.

Most notably – with so much fear and self-censorship burned into people’s minds, it will take a long time until the people in Tahrir Square feel genuinely liberated.

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