No prediction failure – but a lack of sound policy analysis

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In a recent article published in La Stampa, Marta Dassù uses the current Egyptian crisis as a springboard to raise a series of fundamental questions about the state of social science as a field of enquiry. Her analysis takes on a lot. She laments the failures of political scientists to predict this latest crisis in the Middle East; the dangerous game of using historical analogies when formulating foreign policy; issues of “cognitive dissonance” which regularly affect time-constrained decision makers; and whether the more classical state-centric theoretical paradigms which dominate the discipline of international relations (IR) can effectively explain the complex, interdependent and multilayered globalized world we live in today.

Within all of this, one can easily miss the forest for the trees. Social scientists could debate and poke holes endlessly at some of the claims that Dr. Dassù makes. A group of political scientists have already responded that making predictions is not in their terms of reference. IR scholars could object to the article’s characterization of their discipline as too state-centric. Historians may have their own grievances, and so on. Yet, this overlooks the more substantial and serious critique in Dr. Dassù’s article. That is, the all too frequent failure of social scientists - not really to predict - but more importantly to inform sound policy-making. A failure which in the case of the Middle East has been apparent for decades on end.

Any attentive observer of the region knows that the Middle East is a powder keg. Its leaders have been in power (both those backed by the West and those tolerated or even opposed by the West) for far too long, and the means through which they have maintained this power has alienated most of their populations. Economic standards have stagnated, the quality of education is pitiful, societies are subject to destabilizing demographic pressures and rising food prices, water is scarce, oil is somewhat of a curse and climate change is starting to bite. On top of that, the region is riddled with inter-state and intra-state conflicts, and foreign meddling is a never-ending scourge. Social scientific research into the current meager state of affairs is surely not lacking. Take any UNDP or World Bank study, or even the 2009 Economist Special Report on the Arab world, let alone the endless academic literature on the Middle East, and the region’s bleak future is rather apparent for those willing to see.

Let’s bring it back to Egypt. Most of those who cared to know, knew that Hosni Mubarak was on his way out well before the recent popular revolt. His regime had lasted already three decades, his health was fragile, and he was widely reported to be preparing the succession for his son Gamal. Once again, The Economist showed some foresight, running a cover months back with a picture of Mubarak sinking in the sands of the desert. Given the increasing role El Baradei was playing in domestic politics, the ever present Muslim Brotherhood and an ubiquitous army with its own interests, the aging pharaoh’s succession was never going to be a straightforward affair.

How is it possible then that the Americans (and Europeans alike) appeared so unprepared when the Egyptian crisis materialized, even if sooner rather than later? No one seemed to have an informed plan. The Obama administration’s response to the crisis is disappointing not necessarily because it has been either too timid or not forceful enough towards the Egyptian regime, but because it appears built on shaky grounds and shifting day by day.

In parallel, out of the barrage of Western commentary on the crisis, fear-mongering rather than rigorous scrutiny of the forces shaping a post-Mubarak Egypt is saturating the news. At best we are fed an image of a dangerously unstable Egypt, at worst one of a new Iran. While reading the endless commentary about Cairo turning into Tehran, I often find myself wondering on what basis such judgments are reached.

The history, the institutions, the economic forces and political dynamics shaping present-day Egypt seem to differ widely: so, can we really compare a North African, largely Arab and Sunni Muslim country like Egypt to a Western-central Asian, largely Persian and Shia country like Iran? How profound is the difference between the international environment of 2011 and that of 1979? And how will this difference play into the Egyptian context? Are today’s Muslim Brothers the carbon copy of yesterday’s ayatollahs? Unfortunately, few of these questions are ever addressed, if raised at all, as thorough analysis often gives way to politicized opinion.

No serious observer of Egypt in past years was optimistic about the country’s fate compared, for example, to economists’ euphoria about the wonders of financial liberalization before the 2008 financial crisis. Thus, social scientists should not fret: they had for the most part anticipated the events which are today unfolding in the streets of the Middle East. However, it was when the crisis eventually materialized that social science was found wanting. Now that sclerotic Arab regimes face demands for change by their own people, sound analysis informing Western policy makers and public opinion on the events in the region has almost evaporated like water in the desert.

Read also:
Egypt and the political science crisis
by Marta Dassù
The Architects, the Oracles and the Ones
by Pasquale Ferrara
The positivist illusion
by Michele Testoni
The shocks that always make a difference
by Ian O. Lesser
Reading the future: not our job
by Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Read also in Italian:
Previsioni e profezie
di Angelo Panebianco, Corriere della Sera
Per capire la crisi serve una laurea in buon senso
di Raghuram Rajan, Il Sole 24ORE