Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 January 2005
Issue No. 724
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What's in a centre?

The number of political studies centres continues to rise, yet few, if any, have much influence on policy-making. Magda El-Ghitany goes in search of enlightenment

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Library of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

"Even if I got the chance, I would not work as a political researcher here [in Egypt]. If I did, I would have a really hard time. Because I would put a huge effort into research that I knew would mean nothing to anyone. In addition, I would earn a poor salary that would never allow me to live a decent life."

Thus spoke one political science graduate, who requested anonymity, when asked whether she would consider quitting her current job with a multi-national company to work in her original area of specialisation.

Indeed, unlike research centres in the Western hemisphere, their Egyptian counterparts are not generally seen as very effective. According to Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri, professor emeritus at Ain Shams University, "Egyptians do not have a clear idea of what these centres do or what agenda they are working to."

Nor is it possible to say exactly how many Egyptian political and strategic research centres there are. As Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed, political science professor at Cairo University and former director of the university's Centre for Developing Countries Studies , told Al-Ahram Weekly, the problem in assembling statistics is that centres vary widely in their nature, aims and objectives, as well as in the parent institutions under whose wing they have emerged.

However, according to El-Sayed, there are now around 30 research centres that specialise in political and strategic studies. They are either governmental, belong to universities or a press institution, or they are "independent centres which, unlike the rest, do not take any financial support from the government".

The first political studies centres emerged in Egypt after the 1967 defeat when Al-Ahram established its Centre for Israeli Studies -- subsequently renamed Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. However, the concept did not really take off until the 1990s, as steps were taken to expand the realm of democracy in the country's political life.

More is not always more, however. Most such centres have little impact on Egyptian politics because of their low perceived status. Like think tanks, which differ from research centres in having a more direct relationship with decision-makers, no one seems to have much respect for them. According to Bahgat Korani, AUC political science professor and head of the university's Middle East Studies Programme, political studies centres tend to be inferior to their counterparts in law or economics. "The main problem is that the decision-making process [in Egypt] is very centralised, so most of the time officials do not see science as having a role to play in that process." In general, they just assume that "they know it all."

El-Sayed agrees. "Officials do not expect centres to provide them with alternatives," he argues. "They just expect them to be mouthpieces for their policies." Indeed, officials will sometimes exert pressure on centres -- for instance, by cutting back their funding -- if they produce "results that oppose the official mainstream".

According to Abdel-Moneim Said, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies, the main objective of such centres in the West is "to gather information and provide all sectors of society with both research and alternatives regarding the hot issues". Western officials, unlike Egyptians, consider such centres to be part of the decision-making process, even when they do not have any direct relationship with decision-makers. Today, there are some 3,000 research centres and think tanks in the US and Canada. "Most of them are very influential," Korani explains, adding: "The neo-cons' policies, for instance, were first prepared in research centres."

The same "mindset" problem extends to include other branches of society. For society as a whole does not admit the "legitimacy or legality of the researcher". In Said's opinion, Egyptians believe that anyone can be a researcher. In contrast, the role is clearly defined and highly appreciated in Western countries. "There, today's researcher can easily become tomorrow's politician, and vice versa," he argues. "Researchers are not isolated from the rest of society, as they are here."

All these prejudices lead to poor funding. As well as hampering them when it comes to recruiting top quality staff, this confronts the centres with a dilemma: if they accept financial donations from the national government, their "autonomy" and freedom to criticise that government's policies will be diminished. At the same time, as Korani points out, receiving funds from foreign sources will "definitely harm their credibility in the eyes of society".

Yet, as Osama Ghazali Harb, editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya (International Al-Dawlia), pointed out during the International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies' (ICFS) first symposium on 21 December 2004, almost "all Egypt's research centres receive foreign contributions."

Perhaps the main cause of this dilemma is the fact that the independent research centres in this country receive almost no funding from the private sector. Nor are those centres which are sponsored by the government well funded. According to El-Sayed, the Egyptian government allocates only one per cent of its income to research centres, whereas Israel, for example, gives three per cent.

Another problem faced by researchers is access to statistical information. Mohamed Mustafa, a freelance researcher, told the Weekly that it is very difficult for researchers to get the data they need, and when they can get it, most of the time it is "incorrect" and does not bear comparison with the statistics currently published in international reports. Any information which relates to the National Accounting Office and public security report is confidential, and is only rarely made available to researchers.

Coverage is also a problem. According to Iran expert Mustafa El-Labbad, there are important gaps in terms of research specialisations: "We [in Egypt] have only one or two centres studying important areas such as central Asia and Africa, and there are areas in which coverage is totally lacking." This may even negatively impact Egypt's position as a regional power. "A regional power needs to be very well informed about all issues and all areas," El-Labbad insists. "Turkey has more than 70 excellent centres. Egypt should have even more."

Political analysts believe there is still a long way to go to strengthen the ties between research centres and Egyptian society. "Currently, we are in a 'no war, no peace' situation," Said said. The priority should be to enlarge the segment of society that really understands the role research centres can play. Analysts believe that establishing an Egyptian non-governmental organisation for the exclusive purpose of sponsoring research centres would help such centres achieve "psychological independence" in the face of the pressures currently exerted on them. The most important thing is to ensure that they have the freedom they need "in action, and not merely in words".

For El-Sayed, though, the picture is less bleak. "It is true that political studies centres in Egypt are confronted with many obstacles," he admits. "But a considerable number of them do function very well." Galal El-Zorba, a prominent businessman and chairman of the Egyptian Exporters Association, previously told the Weekly that Egyptian businessmen are eager to support research centres, without interfering in their work, for the positive impact their work can have on the economic sphere.

Still, at the end of the day, most political analysts believe that there is only one remedy for the current predicament: and that is, time.

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