FEATURE4 July 2011

Vivat vox populi

The fall of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia has led to a rise in the number of public opinion surveys and a new freedom to ask questions on previously taboo subjects. Chloe Shuff reports.

Researchers often warn that correlation does not imply causation, but the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and his Tunisian counterpart Zine Abidine Ben Ali has undeniably been behind the rise in the number of surveys taking place in those countries, as newly relaxed censorship rules offer the chance to get unprecedentedly detailed pictures of voter attitudes.

In Egypt alone, recent weeks have seen the release of three major surveys from the Pew Research Centre, the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and the International Republican Institute. Many more blogs, local newspapers, non-profit groups and even the Egyptian military have been quick to follow suit and conduct informal polls, adding to the surge of discussion on many topics.

An article on those surveys in the Miami Herald points out: “Until this year, such detailed polling was unheard of here – the government strictly controlled what questions outside pollsters could ask. Anything that might have exposed Mubarak’s deep unpopularity and Egyptians’ pent-up rage over rampant corruption, police brutality and poverty was strictly off-limits.

“Now, however, polling firms have a mostly free hand to ask what they will – though they apparently still aren’t allowed to probe whether the Egyptian military, which runs the country, should continue receiving billions of dollars in aid from the United States. Surveyors have rushed in to take advantage, some even setting up permanent offices in Cairo. Poll workers are crisscrossing the country, popping up in urban slums and rural villages with questions on once-taboo topics.”

With its survey, the Pew Research Centre sought a comprehensive representation of Egyptian society by speaking to adults over 18 across urban and rural areas of Egypt, with the exception of about two percent of the population living in frontier governorates who were excluded for security reasons.

But considering the unstable political situation and longstanding taboos against speaking out about political topics, are people still wary of responding?

Pew’s director of international survey research James Bell said: “The challenge is the same in Egypt as everywhere. We have not encountered major challenges trying to measure public opinion in Egypt. In fact we found that overall response rate was 63%, which is above average compared to our other global polls.”

Face-to-face and telephone interviews appear to be the favoured route to surveying Egyptians, not online methods. This might seem out of keeping with the role supposedly played by Facebook and social media in bringing about revolution in the country but only an estimated one-fifth of Egyptians have internet access. Polls have found that most people followed the rebellion through traditional means such as word of mouth or television.

However, in Tunisia, where around 34% of the population have online access, companies are exploring ways in which technology can support and encourage democracy. Panel and survey technology provider Toluna is launching a new website in the country to recruit survey panellists and give individuals and organisations the opportunity to submit questions and vote on the subjects of their choice.

“We do not have any political objectives,” says Selim Turki, a project co-ordinator for Toluna, “but we are happy that the Arab revolution is happening. We are all for the democratisation of surveys and opinions. We at Toluna believe that in the future the Middle East communities are a market that will grow. We will not stop in Tunisia.”

Leendert de Voogd, head of political and social research for TNS, is similarly optimistic for the future of places like Egypt, and the opportunities for research to thrive. He says: “We will be working with many of our clients to help them realise the growth opportunities as consumers’ new freedom to make more choices fuels demand for brands to enter the market. Providing informed, accurate and strategic market research to both local and international brands and businesses will be crucial to supporting this process.”

1 Comment

10 years ago

Good point, actually. Same should be true for Belarus - opinion polls are extremely problematic there - even media measurements are still conducted not with PPMs, but with PAPI "diaries". Lots of my fellow colleagues in Russian research industry are closely monitoring the situation in the country - if the current regime will fail, there will be a strong opportunity for Russian companies to enter and take this market. By the way, freedom of market and opinion research is a good indicator of political climate. Who could imagine that in Iran, which is often portrayed as an "evil state", there is a bunch of local research firms. This only adds to my impression that Iranian society is more democratic than we can suggest listening to their religious leaders' public statements...

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