Friday, July 05, 2013

How does Roger Cohen know what Egyptians want?

With all due respect to Roger Cohen's long experience as a reporter, how does he know what the Egyptian revolution has been "about"?

He addresses the question with apparent confidence:
The uprising that ended decades of dictatorship and led to Egypt’s first free and fair presidential election last year was about the right to that vote. But at a deeper level it was about personal empowerment, a demand to join the modern world, and live in an open society under the rule of law rather than the rule of despotic whim.

In a Muslim nation, where close to 25 percent of Arabs live, it also demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.
Cohen's sources? Heba Morayef, head of Human Rights Watch in Cairo, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the world famous "liberal modernizer" (Cohen's phrase) who signed onto the generals' coup. That's it -- the sum total of his cited sources for telling us what 80-plus million Egyptians want.

There are at least implicit tensions between Cohen's read on Egyptian desires and polling-based analysis posted yesterday by Elizabeth Nugent, a PhD political science student at Princeton who is conducting research in Cairo now. Citing a Pew poll of 1,798 Egyptians conducted in late 2011 (hold on, there's more recent data too), Nugent recounts:
74 percent favored making sharia the official law of their country, and this level of support varied little across age, gender, and education groups. Of those who favored making sharia the law of the land, 70 percent wanted sharia to apply to both Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The survey differentiated between and asked about support for a number of policies that might be considered part of Islamic law. There were high levels of support for many of these practices among those Egyptians who supported the implementation of sharia: 94 percent wanted religious judges (instead of civil courts) to decide family and property matters; 70 percent wanted corporal (hadd) punishments for crimes; 81 percent supported stoning as punishment for adultery; and 86 percent supported punishing those who converted from Islam with death.

While experiences of the last year and a half have doubtless changed some attitudes, the core commitment to sharia apparently hasn't changed much:
Pew recently released another report (“Egyptians Increasingly Glum”) using survey data collected in March 2013 among a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Egyptians. 58 percent supported having Egyptian laws strictly following the Quran, down only 4 percentage points since the center asked the question in 2011. An additional 28 percent supported Egyptian laws following the values and principles of Islam (compared with 27 and 32 percent in 2011 and 2012, respectively). While the percentage of those who did not want Egyptian laws to be influenced by the Quran rose from 5 percent in 2011 to 11 percent in 2013, the vast majority of those polled continued to support Islamism.
These reported attitudes don't necessarily mean that many or even most Egyptians don't want many of the things Cohen says they want -- though arguably, there's some tension between "reject[ing] authoritarianism...and uphold[ing] citizenship based on equal rights for all" and advocating a death penalty for conversion from Islam.

But the larger point is that we don't know how Cohen knows what he thinks he knows. In this data-driven age, a reporter can no more get away with "trust me -- I talk to lots of people"  than a political operative  can get away with a lawn-sign check as authority for electoral predictions.

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