The surprising priorities of Egypt’s public

January 25, 2013

Pop quiz: Which of these do you consider to be "very important" : equal rights for men and women, freedom for religious minorities or fair courts?

If you're Egyptian, you're most likely to choose that last one.

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In a Pew survey of Egyptian attitudes, about 81 percent considered it very important to live in a country with a judicial system that treats everyone the same way, while roughly six in 10 said it is very important to have a free press and free speech. The survey is from last year, but Pew brought it up again this week as a reflection on the ongoing protests there.

Meanwhile, fewer than half said freedom for religious minorities or an uncensored Internet were very important.

It's a fascinating survey for several reasons. First, it differs so starkly from the priorities we might see in many Western countries. Civil liberties, including equal rights for women, ranked near the bottom, while a fair judiciary and improved economic conditions ranked first. But it also reflects the main conflicts that have been underpinning Egypt's two-year transition to a democratic nation.

The economic aspect doesn't get a lot of attention amid all of Egypt's colorful protests, but it's arguably one of the country's biggest challenges. As the Post's Abigail Hauslohner reported, about 40 percent of Egypt's population lives on less than $2 a day, and the country is struggling with a massive budget deficit as it attempts to meet requirements for an IMF loan.

The government's attempts to introduce spending cuts and tax increases have been met with significant push-back, and meanwhile, tourism revenues have plummeted since the uprising began. Now, just 44 percent of Egyptians say the country is better off that when former President Hosni Mubarak was in power.

“There is the need for some serious and probably painful reforms,” Mohamed El Dahshan, a Harvard University researcher and lecturer on development economics at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, told Hauslohner. “On the other hand, you have a people that has been suffering for the past decade from a policy that has been very pro-market, without any social aspect.”

The judiciary part speaks to how powerful the courts are in Egypt's convoluted governing structure. The country's courts oversee elections, and last summer the Supreme Constitutional Court went so far as to dissolve parliament. When Morsi issued his November decree that made his decisions impervious to judicial challenge, Egypt’s judiciary saw the move as an attack on its autonomy.

Under Mubarak, the judiciary had partial independence, but he upheld their verdicts selectively. Since the revolution, there have been fresh fears that the judiciary will become politicized and subject to influence.

"The way that the judiciary has been pulled into ongoing political debates has provoked some unease. There is a general ethos among Egyptian judges that they should remain above daily politics, but there is much less of a consensus about what that means in terms of public statements and how relevant that general principle can be in revolutionary times," wrote political science professor Nathan Brown in a paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last year.

Meanwhile, according to the Pew survey, it's clear that Egypt's desire for a strong democracy still exists side-by-side with the general public's Islamic values.

"While Egyptians overwhelmingly value democracy, it is also clear that most want a democracy that is heavily influenced by the country’s religious tradition," Pew writes. "Six-in-ten say the nation’s laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran – a considerably higher percentage than the 23 percent who hold this view in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began."

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Max Fisher · January 25, 2013