Lies, damn lies and national security

Writing about the Arab Human Development Report yesterday, Inoted with pleasure that Capmas had not been involved in the research, and promised to explain more about this dreadful Egyptian institution.

Capmas, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, is a hangover from the Nasserist era. It was established by a presidential decree in 1964 as the country’s “official source for the collection of data and statistical information, and its preparation, processing and dissemination”.

Capmas is in charge of “providing all the state bodies, organisations, universities, research centres and indevelopment [sic] and evaluation processes with the information that can help them to make informed deceisins [sic]”.

In effect, this gives the Egyptian state a monopoly on statistics. The idea behind it is that keeping control over research is an essential part of maintaining state security. Since 1981 (and probably before) Capmas has been headed by a succession of major-generals from the military.

Anyone wishing to compile data independently, through surveys or interviews, must first obtain a permit from Capmas’s “General Department for Security”. Where controversial issues are involved, the security department often delays permission indefinitely or refuses it outright, without giving reasons. Capmas may also delete certain questions from a survey or demand that they be re-

Whether or not a permit is granted “depends on contacts and the sensitivity of topics”, according to Reem Saad, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, but “certain topics can’t be researched”. For more details, see the Human Right Watch report, “Reading between the ‘red lines’: the repression 
of academic freedom in Egyptian universities”.

Besides restricting academic work, this also affects opinion pollsters. Region-wide polling, which began in the early 2000s, has been hampered by some countries refusing permission for questions that they regarded as too sensitive. A Gallup poll in 2002, for example, included the question: “Do you believe news reports that Arabs carried out the September 11 attacks?” – 
which was forbidden in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 July 2009