It was a stifling June day in Cairo and pollster David Williams was striding to the top floor conference room of the city’s Sheraton hotel ready to brief a prominent Egyptian political columnist on the results of his firm’s latest survey. Before he could even start, though, the columnist interjected, and Williams knew he had some convincing to do.
“Polling won’t work here,” the Egyptian writer told Williams. “People won’t tell you the truth.”
The quick dismissal wasn’t a surprise given that the country of some 82 million was just starting to feel its way to democracy after the collapse of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February.
Undeterred, Williams launched into his talk, presenting the findings of his Massachusetts-based firm’s survey of 1,200 Egyptian adults.
“The cooperation rates,” Williams explained, “are about what we would expect virtually anywhere else.”
The skeptical columnist listened intently, slowly coming around to a tool that, for decades, had been of no use in Egypt’s authoritarian political culture.
“By the end of it, the guy was just totally amazed,” says Williams. “He had come around 180 degrees.”
The revolutions that toppled Mubarak in Egypt, Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and those that jostled Yemen and Syria, have left a historic opening in North Africa’s politics. It’s an opening that some U.S.-based political consultants are moving quickly to fill.
“It has the same feeling and the same potential of the fall of the Berlin Wall,” contends Williams, who was in Cairo as part of his work with the International Republican Institute (IRI). “The same potential for political professionals is there in Tunisia and in Egypt as there was, and there still is, in Central and Eastern Europe.
“You’ve got a blooming democracy,” he says. “You have parties and politicians who really don’t know how to operate in a democracy, and they’re dying, figuratively, for advice.”
Egypt and Tunisia plan to hold their first truly competitive elections before the end of the year. It’ll be a new experience for their nascent political classes, and one that is sure to come with the involvement of U.S. consultants.
(With a ban on TV and radio advertising in the country, moderate parties in Tunisia are using web videos to spread their message ahead of elections later this month.)
In Libya, American groups and strategists were barred from involvement in the country’s politics under Gadhafi, but since troops loyal to the Transitional National Council (TNC) captured Tripoli, that has begun to change as well. With an eye toward the country’s first post-Gadhafi elections, groups like IRI have already established contacts within the TNC.
While Washington hasn’t decided how much to spend on democracy building in Libya, what is certain is that the region’s fledgling democracies will all need international assistance to hold credible elections—the first and most important opening for U.S.-based consultants.
“Democracy building is always step one, and that’s what gets everyone in the door,” says Tyler Harber, a Washington-based consultant with experience in post-war Iraq.
The key, he says, is getting in on the ground floor. Pollsters are among the most valuable initial players, often contracting with government agencies or NGOs from the beginning to provide much needed public opinion research. Once consultants are on the ground through work with IRI or similar groups, they often have a leg up on competitors who enter the fray once some of the dust has cleared.
Along with helping construct the basic building blocks of democracy in the Arab world, American consultants also anticipate a market to dispense more traditional campaign advice given the abundance of parties and political players jostling for power.
“There’s a lot of need for just being able to get some basic skills—election targeting, list building, for example,” says Cathy Allen, a consultant who has worked in the region.
With political parties and candidates that need advice, Western businesses that need guidance through the region’s halls of power, and State Department and USAID staff engaged on the ground, “there’s work right now for Western consultants in the Middle East, there’s no doubt about that,” says Aristotle’s John Phillips.
It’s the birth of an entirely new—yet potentially perilous—market for U.S.-based political consultants to peddle their expertise.