Move to close polling firm reveals Egypt's fear of statistics

Egypt faces multiple security threats, with the continuing Islamist insurgency in Sinai and the bombing of churches not least among them. But the latest threat detected by the ever-vigilant Sisi regime comes from a different direction – from researchers doing surveys.

Last November the regime warned Egyptians against taking part in surveys by "foreign media organisations", describing them as a threat to national security. And now it has swung into action.

The authorities in Cairo have have issued an order (not yet implemented) to shut down the Egyptian branch of Ipsos, the international polling and market research firm, on the grounds of "workplace health and safety violations".


More specifically, the company is accused of "not carrying out a natural disasters assessment and not making a contingency plan to protect the building and employees in case of a disaster".

Admirable as the authorities' concern for the welfare of Ipsos employees might be, this is obviously not the real reason. If every business in Egypt without a contingency plan for natural disasters had to be closed the economy would come to a halt.

In Egypt, Ipsos has been embroiled in controversy for several years – mainly because some of the TV channels did not like the viewing figures produced by its surveys. Several of them, including Dream TV, OnTV and CBC, threatened to sue Ipsos, claiming damages for lost advertising revenue.

Ipsos's managing director in Egypt, Amr Kais, responded to these claims at the time in an interview. He explained the firm's research methodology, describing it as transparent, and suggested reasons why some TV channels had been getting disappointing figures:

"Over the last few months, a number of regional satellite channels decided to invest significantly in Egypt, including new programmes and infrastructure. This has led to their viewership audience share to increase as reflected in our TV measurement system which we have been operating in Egypt since 2008.

"Over the years, we often saw fluctuations in the weekly TV audience measurements. This is very common in such a dynamic market as Egypt, as this happens when new popular programmes are introduced or [there is] a big push by a certain TV channel."

Amr Kais of Ipsos: "Transparent" methodology

Predictably, pro-government talk show hosts and state-aligned newspapers have also accused Ipsos it of favouring the banned Muslim Brotherhood, according to Reuters.

Its supposed pro-Brotherhood sympathies will probably come as news the virulently anti-Brotherhood UAE, where Ipsos has previously come up with figures to delight Emiratis.

Last March it reported that Sky News Arabia – which is based in Abu Dhabi and has recently been doing sterling propaganda work in the battle against Qatar and the Brotherhood – was the most-watched news channel broadcasting from the UAE and was especially popular among "the valuable demographic of UAE males" [sic].

Yesterday, an Emirati newspaper, The National, hailed another Ipsos survey which said Abu Dhabi had overtaken London and Paris to become the world's "second-best city to live, work and do business in" (New York came first).

Egyptian authorities have long been wary of any kind of research that might discover unwelcome facts and, dating back to the time of Nasser, preventing their discovery has been been treated as a matter of national security. 

In 1964, Nasser issued a decree establishing Capmas, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, as the country’s “official source for the collection of data and statistical information, and its preparation, processing and dissemination”. Anyone wishing to compile data independently, through surveys or interviews, first had to apply for a permit from Capmas’s “General Department for Security”. 

By tradition, Capmas is not headed by anyone versed in statistics but by a major-general from the military. Its current head is Major-General Abu Bakr al-Gendy.