CAIRO: While experts highlighted the important role think tanks play in the social and political life, they agreed that there remain obstacles to the phenomenon growing in Egypt.
Think tanks, independent research institutes that engage in public policy, are noticeably few in Egypt. They were established in Arab countries in the post-colonization era, which makes them new relative to think tanks in Europe and the United States.
Aly Salah, communications officer at the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), stressed that although the emphasis should be on quality over quantity, the number of autonomous think tanks in Egypt is small.
“A comparison with the United States would be unfair, since think tanks originated there, and there are currently tens of them in each state,” he said. “However, even if we compare Egypt with Eastern Europe, the number in Egypt remains very small.”
According to Kamal El Menoufy, head of the Center for Political Research Studies and Cairo University’s former Dean of the College of Economics and Political Science, "Independent think tanks in Egypt add up to only around four. Think tanks in public universities are around 200-300, with Cairo University hosting around 150, but a lot of these centers face budget problems," he said.
“Instead of supporting university think tanks, the finance ministry has imposed an 11 percent tax rate on them,” he said, “Think tanks in technical fields receive financial support from private sector companies who seek their advice in problem-solving, but most think tanks in social or political fields are not as well-funded."
A researcher at Egypt’s oldest think tank, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, who preferred to remain anonymous, stated that the center receives funding from a well-established organization — Al-Ahram — whereas it would be difficult to secure long-term funding otherwise.
"There are plenty of examples of think tanks that were forced to close down due to problems with funding," said the researcher. "Our educational system does not support think tanks, either. People who work in think tanks come from multiple fields of study — political science, law, media, business. They must be talented writers who enjoy doing research, and our educational system should help develop these skills."
Restrictions on freedom
In his research paper, “Think Tanks in the Arab World; Challenges and Opportunities,” Azmy Khalifa, researcher at the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), explains that restrictions on the freedom of think tanks to generate knowledge and ideas limit their impact on social and political development, both domestically and regionally.
He lists that think tanks are affected by policy factors, such as the extent of the role played by civil society, the diffusion of powers in society, and the nature of the educational system.
Despite the abundance of "scattered intellectuals," writes Khalifa, there remains a scarcity of think tanks in all Arab countries. He explains that the lack of recognition of the role of these intellectuals, in addition to complex bureaucratic structures restricts think tanks from playing a bigger role in the region.
He writes, “Political institutions are mixed with bureaucratic institutions, and the latter has the priority and influence, for example political parties either are not established yet, or established — if existed — by the government and its main function is to justify the governmental policies.”
Another factor restricting the role of think tanks is mistrust, he adds.
“Unfortunately, mistrust and tensions are characterizing the relations between the governments and the think tanks because the government hopes that think tanks should justify the government’s policies or at least they should not criticize it."
Think tanks are also unable to thrive where the educational system does not create dedication to research and development, says Khalifa. “The policy of recruitment — in this atmosphere — is based on guardian policy, or on kinship policy, rather than merit bases,” he writes.
Khalifa also writes about the effects of the lack of the socio-political development of a nation-state. “The Arab world received this concept suddenly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, and unfortunately no single Arab country had a vision to deal with the new situation.”
“Later developments increased the confusion in how we organize power, the relations between different bodies of the political system, the basis of political recruitment, the control of government, and the functions of the head of both the government and the state.”
Due to this confusion, there exists a lack of an organizational intellectual framework to support think tanks, notes Khalifa.
Salah highlighted the importance of the role of think tanks, but added that "they cannot play an important role without the government being open to suggestions.”
"Our website received over 1.6 million visitors since January 2009 and students regularly tell me they have used the information we provide for their research. Of course this shows people are interested in what think tanks do," he said.
"University professors should become more active in establishing independent think tanks," Salah said.
The role of think tanks
According to El Menoufy, think tanks could help Egypt deal with rising challenges.
“Egypt faces a wide range of problems that make the need for more think tanks in multiple fields more urgent,” he told Daily News Egypt.
Salah, from the IDSC, explained, “Think tanks are not decision-makers. Rather, we support the process by gathering and analyzing information, and provide the government with policy options that facilitate sound decision-making. We also communicate with the public, such as through public-opinion polls, and publish a wide range of publications to provide information for citizens."
Khalifa stressed the impact of greater social and political complexities on the need for the comprehensive studies that think tanks provide.
In his research paper he writes, “The essence of any political system is power. In the mid 80s of the 20th century, the age of information technology, a new element was added to the components of power; namely information and knowledge. Knowledge is power in itself and at the same time, creates power.”
“The role of think tanks is becoming more and more important due to the swift and deep changes taking place in the political systems and their impact on social life,” he adds.
According to El Menoufy, collaborative work among think tanks could produce solutions for complex problems. “Collaboration not only has networking benefits, but also helps produce more comprehensive solutions. A lot of the problems we face in Egypt are multi-dimensional, with political, social and economic components. Each think tank usually looks at one component of the problem, depending on its expertise. They can produce more creative solutions for any issue by working together.”
According to Khalifa, this collaboration becomes more important in the age of globalization. He writes, “For instance, the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, is collaborating with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Qatar for an initiative on West-Islam relations."