Polls: Democratic fervour grips Egypt

2012-05-17 12:57

Sohag - Democratic fervour is gripping Egypt's big cities ahead of a presidential election but in the provinces many are nostalgic for the autocratic past.

In Sohag, a town 400km up the Nile from Cairo, residents have been alarmed by civil unrest, labour strikes and lax policing since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year.

"Egypt is a land of pharaohs. If it isn't ruled by an iron-fisted pharaoh, it won't work," said Metias Rezq, a 65-year-old farmer, who believes life was better under Mubarak.

"Do you like the state we are in now? Does anyone know where we are or which disaster we are heading into?" he said, his voice tinged with exasperation.

The latest national opinion survey, published on Wednesday by newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, supports the impression of an open race, with 37% of voters still undecided.

The poll, by an independent body called the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research, saw Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq winning 16.3% in a first-round vote on 23 and 24 May, former foreign minister Amr Moussa on 16% and Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh on 12.5%.

Most polls show rural areas giving the strongest support to former establishment figures. Opinion polls, however, are untested in a country where elections were rigged for decades.

As better-educated urban Egypt argues over the shape of a new constitution, the influence of Islam over public life and whether the army will truly relinquish power to a new head of state, millions of others have more basic priorities.

Residents of Sohag, one of a chain of towns that have expanded along the fertile Nile valley as Egypt's population has soared, say they want a stable society and safe neighbourhoods.

Eagerness for stability

It is a mid-sized town typical of many, where affiliation to tribe or loyalty to a wealthy local figure can override personal preference at the ballots. But views held there can also be found in other provincial areas, such as the Nile Delta, an agricultural and industrial heartland.

Eagerness for stability and the influence of tribal or family groups could help candidates who hail from Mubarak's administration such as Shafiq and Moussa.

Although he shows no lack of confidence, Shafiq is seen as less articulate than some of his rivals in the race, with media picking up on slip-ups in his speeches and his campaign's failure so far to produce detailed economic policies.

But what he says could matter less than what he is - a former air force commander, like Mubarak.

Playing up his military past, he has promised an end to the turbulence that has followed Mubarak's removal. One of his campaign slogans reads: "Action and not talk".

Ahmed Abdel Halim, a 45-year-old government employee with a white beard, said Egypt needed a strong figure who could restore the law and order that lapsed along with police morale after last year's uprising.

Peace and pesticides

"I can't take my wife to the hospital if she feels ill at night - some thugs might attack us. It can't work like this," he said.

Rezq, the farmer, said what Sohag needed most were higher prices for produce and the provision of fertilisers, pesticides and other products. "These are useful to peasants," he said.

Banners of candidates in the city centre promise a return to security.

Many of Sohag's citizens do not seem to have made their minds up yet. Some say they are open to an Islamist or ex-military man.

Omar Abdel Latif, 59, a farmer from the village of Baga, said it might be time to give the Muslim Brotherhood the presidency by voting for its candidate Mohamed Mursi.

The movement, long banned by Mubarak, is popular in many poor areas for its charity work and Sohag has a 40% poverty rate, according to an Egyptian human development report.

Abdel Latif said Baga was "one of the most neglected of the neglected: no sewerage, no hospital or anything that God has created".

But he concluded: "This country must be ruled by a military man. It can't be run except with harshness ... Honestly, Mubarak didn't do anything bad. He was surrounded by the wrong people."

Marwan Ali, campaigning for Amr Moussa, said democracy was a tough sell far from the capital, among people whose concerns are more immediate, like short supplies of petrol and cooking gas.

"People feel desperate ... There is anger at the revolution. They say 'Since the revolution, we haven't had a good day'."

Tarek Azab, a local campaign coordinator for Islamist candidate Mohamed Selim el-Awa, said voters in Sohag were more interested in a candidate's background than policies.

The same reflex showed itself among many citizens in the Nile Delta north of Cairo.

"Shafiq is a decent, strict military man which makes him the only one fit to lead, protect the country, stop this continued chaos and force his words upon everyone," said Mahmoud Abdel Razek, a 52-year-old from the city of Tanta.