Egypt's military rulers have posted a Facebook poll to gauge the popularity of nearly 20 presidential hopefuls as the North African nation prepares for its first post-revolution parliamentary elections.
The online survey, which had garnered more than 100,000 responses by Tuesday, was an unprecedented test of public opinion as the military rulers try to prove their commitment to a transparent transition to democracy. Previous elections were marred by fraud and allegations they were rigged in favor of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's regime.
Votes were divided among 18 names, including pro-reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the first female hopeful Bothaina Kamel and former regime officials, including the country's former intelligence chief. As of Tuesday, ElBaradei was in the lead with 35 percent of the votes, followed by prominent Islamic scholar Mohammed Selim al-Awa.
Organizers acknowledged the month-long poll that opened Sunday was not scientific but said it was an opportunity to determine the front-runners ahead of the balloting, which is scheduled for September. The poll also appealed to a small fraction of Egypt's 80 million population that is connected to the Internet.
Still, many welcomed the military's effort to reach out to a public that has grown critical of unilateral army decisions since Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11 after days of mass protests.
The political forces that emerged after the uprising have found themselves divided over the transition timetable with the debate focusing on whether to first have parliamentary elections or write the country's new constitution.
Nearly 22 percent of Egyptians have Internet access according to estimates in 2009. But the military has been trying to tap into the influence of social media networks that have helped fuel the mass protests, which were largely led by secular middle class youth.
Political analyst Emad Gad also suggested the military was shopping for candidates to back.
"Maybe the military is thinking about backing one candidate and wants to get an indication about the relative weight of the candidates. If the public is divided, maybe they can nominate one of their own," he said.
Mahmoud el-Hetta, a member of the National Association for Change, a leading group in the protest movement, said the motives were uncertain, but he hailed the poll as a recognition by the military that Facebook activists are public opinion-makers.
"They want to reassure the people that they will transfer power to a civilian president. But they also want to know the opinions of the population of youth who mobilized and worked with the protesters," he said.
It was a popular Facebook page created in memory of a torture victim that became a mobilization tool and a way to measure participation during the 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak out of office.
"This is a poll conducted by the military council. Whoever wins will be a rising star. The public, many of whom are largely still trustful of the army, will begin talking about that candidate," el-Hetta said.