Egyptians want more butter and fewer guns
In the early months of this year, Egyptians experienced a (mostly) peaceful revolution that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Only weeks before, few pundits would have predicted the end of his thirty-year regime. Many reasons have been cited for the proximate cause of the Egyptian revolution, including police brutality, a desire for political freedom, low wages, high food prices, the effect of social media on political mobilization and state corruption. All these potential explanations have their merit.
In our view, the Egyptian revolution is a classic case of where those who govern could no longer meet the most basic needs of their people. The basic social contract was, in essence, defunct. Our own polling in both democratic and non-democratic societies shows striking consistency: that most people worry about their most basic needs, including putting food on the table, job stability, personal safety and their children’s future. If such needs are left unmet, they then serve as the ingredients for citizen discontent, dissatisfaction and ultimately a catalyst for regime change.
In Egypt, according to Pew, economic optimism levels fell by over 30 points between 2007 and 2010, as a result of spiking food prices and widespread unemployment. In democratic societies with open and free elections, such numbers would be the death knell for the party in power. In non-democratic societies like Egypt, revolutions and coup d’état’s are the only real mechanisms for transfer of power.
Mubarak saw the writing on the wall and stepped down in February, handing authority over to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Elections are tentatively scheduled to take place in the fall of 2011. Presently, Egyptians are extremely optimistic about their future, with over 85% in a recent Ipsos poll saying that the country is on the right track and 66% believing that Egypt will have free and fair elections. High expectations to say the least: but will they be met?
Pundits and policy makers alike are most concerned about two related issues: (1) whether the transition will be a smooth one or one marked by violence and (2) what Egypt will look like after the elections. More specific concerns have also been raised, including the role of the military in a democratic Egypt and the threat of sectarian and religious violence. Most of this analysis has focused on the political actors involved — institutions (military, Muslim Brotherhood) as well as individual political players (Mohammad El Baradei, Amr Moussa, Dr Saad Ketana, and Essam Sharaf). In contrast, little attention has been paid to the most important actor of all — public opinion. What do Egyptians want? What do they need?
The short answer to these questions is that Egyptians are most concerned about their jobs and personal safety. Other issues — like foreign policy — are much lower down on their wish list. Indeed, in a recent Ipsos poll, when asked to list their top five concerns, Egyptian voters listed unemployment (83%) and crime/personal safety (75%) as their top concerns. When asked to mention their number one issue, crime and safety was the clear winner.
“What do you think are the (five) most important issues facing Egypt today? “Among them, which is the #1 issue?”
|TOP 5 ISSUES||TOP 1 ISSUE|
|Corruption and financial scandals||61||7|
|Wages / salaries||47||4|
|Morality / discipline in society||27||2|
|Democracy / Government||9||–|
Source: Ipsos Poll, May 1-11 2011
So why is this important? What are the implications of these voter demands? First, such demands are excellent gauges of what people actually want: they help identify the issues that will most resonate with the populace. A quick glance at the polls in Egypt suggests that most other issues take a back seat to concerns about jobs and public safety.
Second, “most important problem questions” are highly correlated with objective reality: jobs and crime are the main voter concerns because unemployment is high and crime is on the rise in Egypt today. Practically speaking, this means that spin and vulgar populism may work in the short-term, but without policy initiatives that produce tangible results, any new government will have very short legs. Real problems need real solutions.
Third, voter demands are relatively stable and slow to change over time. The year-to-year ranking order of priorities is highly correlated — the number one priority today typically will be the number one priority in the coming months and the next year. Barring an unexpected event like a natural disaster or act of aggression against the body politic, this means that the electoral agenda later this year will be about job generation and crime. The candidates may focus on other issues, but the Egyptian voter wants to hear solutions to these problems.
Finally, such priority questions are highly correlated with success or failure on Election Day. Those Egyptian candidates who are perceived as credible on the most important issues will have the greatest chance of success. In practice, while talking about Israel may stoke the passions, candidates providing concrete solutions to jobs and crime will most likely win at the polls. Candidates that can project the image that they are “good economic managers” and/or “law and order sheriffs” who are able to establish stability will have the greatest chance of success.
The Egyptian Revolution was a clear example of how the will of the people can manifest itself. This should be strongly noted by all interested parties. Indeed, while Egypt’s impact on regional issues, such as the Israel/Palestine conflict and religious or sectarian conflicts are important, Egyptian voters — like voters everywhere — are ultimately most concerned about things closer to home: the safety of their friends and loved ones and providing for their families.
Egyptian politicians forget this at their own peril: at its core, public opinion has been the key player in the Arab Spring, and citizen demands will shape what the country (and region) will look like in the coming years. Political actors who cater to a global rather than domestic stage will quickly find themselves unpopular and will struggle to gain traction with the majority of Egypt’s electorate.