Egypt and Poli-Sci US academia

Andrew Exum touches on an academic issue here worth mentioning: that the events in Egypt have been poorly predicted by North American academia, perhaps because political science departments largely focus on quantitative analysis. Andrew, as ever (and I blame living in Washington as well as his southern roots for this), is very polite about not bashing the "quants", as he calls them.

Personally, I would be more blunt. Quantitative analysis and the behaviouralist approach of most American PoliSci academics is a big steaming turd of horseshit when applied in the Middle East. Statistics are useful, yes, when you are in a country that has relevant statistics or where polling is allowed. But things like electoral statistics tell you very little about the political reality of dictatorships, because the data sets are inherently flawed, since they're either unavailable, fraudulent, or irrelevant.

I remember reading a year or two ago some bright young thing (who is now on tenure track at Harvard I believe) wrote some turgid paper about electoral participation and vote buying in Egypt. I won't name the person in question, since you have to do this kind of thing for your career, but the paper relied on a mishmash of social statistics (literacy etc.) and grand assumptions about the behavior of electors whose votes are bought, as well as electoral results. This is nonsense, because while the social indicators can be taken at face value, the rest (results, turnout, etc.) is most probably the work of the fertile imagination of an Amn Dowla officer. So focusing on the details of elections that are fraudulent may as well be an endorsement of fraud. 

I'm a bookish fellow and long considered pursuing a PhD, but was turned off by this American approach, which is not only largely useless and dreadfully boring, but actually positively dishonest and misleading. Turn to the more historically-minded British analysts (and those few Americans who eschew QA) for real insight to the Middle East. In the meantime, it's sad to think generations of political scientists are still fed this claptrap.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.