The Arab Spring has made it clear to many that public opinion in the Middle East is an unknown quantity. This applies not only to Israeli intelligence but also to ostensibly knowledgeable journalists and experts. This week's presidential elections in Egypt illustrate even more graphically the difficulty faced by those who write and report about the Arab world in terms of understanding which way the winds of public opinion are blowing. It's always hard to forecast election results, though usually one has an idea of who the leading candidates are and who has the best prospect of winning. In the case of Egypt, every such conjecture, however learned, will be a gamble.
True, the Egyptian public has not changed its spots and has not become more secular since the parliamentary elections some months ago. In that case, the Islamist parties won big, attaining nearly 70 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly. It seemed likely, therefore, that in the presidential elections an Islamist candidate would also emerge the victor - such as Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, or his former colleague, who was expelled from the party in disgrace, Abdel Moneim Abu al-Futuh.
The very fact of their candidacies marked a radical break with the past. After the legislative elections, the Muslim Brotherhood decided, contrary to previous declarations, to run its own candidate for president. The party's members turned out to be hungry for political power, like their secular counterparts. The decision stirred considerable criticism and disappointment even among the movement's supporters. In addition, the sweeping Islamist victory in parliament roused the secular groups and minorities from their dormant state.
The Islamist vote is now split between the above-mentioned candidates, but in contrast to parliament, where there is "room for everybody," in presidential elections there is only one winner. It's not by chance that the only brawl that erupted on one of the two days of voting this week (Wednesday) was between supporters of Morsi and Abu al-Futuh. It's hard to estimate what influence this rivalry will have on the Egyptian street, which is largely religious.
At the same time, the other camp in Egypt also put forward some prominent candidates - Amr Moussa, Ahmed Shafiq, Hamdeen Sabahy - who split the secular vote. Whereas Shafiq and perhaps also Moussa got support from people who are disappointed with the revolution and want to see law and order restored to Egypt, Sabahy represents the Nasserist stream and may turn out to be the preferred candidate of secular and Christian groups that opposed the old regime.
The reliability of the many polls conducted in recent weeks in Egypt is not clear. Nearly all the data show that the prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate are very low, but it's hard to believe that the movement's vast apparatus will fail to make Morsi one of the top four leaders in the race.
Surveys published by government research institutes indicated that Shafiq is the leading candidate. This, too, is probably inaccurate.
Perhaps the biggest problem faced by Israeli journalists trying to understand the events is that we cannot be there to observe developments first-hand. Since the revolution, the Egyptian authorities have barred the entry of journalists traveling on an Israeli passport. Their stated rationale is our safety, and they may be right. Phone calls can help, to a point, as can Facebook and Arab television reportage. Still, even in the age of social networking, there is no substitute for the reporter's presence at the scene.
So, who will win? I am betting on Abu al-Futuh. And if I'm wrong, at least I will have enough excuses to explain why.
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