Ambush at Perception Gap: Perception Bias, the Egyptian Judiciary, and International Relations

It is sometimes said, “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it.” 

Perception bias is the reverse: “If I hadn’t believed it, I never would have seen it with my own eyes.”

Imagine that in the U.S., the Supreme Court selected its own members, and that all other judges were selected by a judicial committee. Imagine that the Senate had no power to confirm or reject the judiciary’s selections, and the only role played by the President was non-discretionary, to sign judicial certificates of appointment.

Imagine further that the functions of investigating and prosecuting crimes were assumed by the judiciary, and performed by specially designated judges.

Imagine that the judiciary jealously guarded judicial independence, and developed a history of striking down laws enacted by the Congress and signed by the President, and even ordered the dissolution of multiple legislatures.

Imagine that over time, after decades of such institutional autonomy and power, the judiciary evolved internally from an elite to a class, almost a caste.

Now, imagine that there were a series of controversial criminal cases investigated and prosecuted by judicial officers, and in many of those cases trial judges entered highly controversial and politically inflammatory convictions and harsh sentences. Imagine that those controversial convictions were fairly consistently reversed on appeal.

Imagine further that foreign news media, political commentators, and even some powerful political leaders not only expressed outrage over those controversial convictions and sentences, but claimed the judges involved were implementing the policies and will of the President, who should be held personally accountable because, after all, the judges involved were all Presidential appointees.

And imagine that, in contrast to that foreign criticism, the President received no corresponding credit for the fairly consistent reversal of the controversial convictions on appeal.

Do you think that if such a scenario were real, the President, Cabinet officers, members of Congress, and the general public in the U.S. would have a legitimate basis to believe those foreign news media, political commentators, and political figures were uninformed or biased, or both?

What if such a gap between perception and reality were allowed to shape foreign policy and the bi-lateral relationships between nations?

Now, consider that in Egypt the essential features of that imaginary scenario are real.

Perception Bias

We all suffer from perception bias. And, the more unbiased and objective we tell ourselves and others we are, the more prone we probably are to it (“Exhibit A” being our perception of being unbiased). Unfortunately, the antidote usually requires much more than recognition.

Richards Heuer Jr., a noted authority on critical thinking and analytic reasoning, observed: “Cognitive biases are similar to optical illusions in that the error remains compelling even when one is fully aware of its nature. Awareness of the bias, by itself, does not produce a more accurate perception.”

However, countering perception bias begins with gathering as much reliable information about the subject matter in question as possible (which is the purpose of this website, and why comment, critique, and any needed correction are invited).

Misperceptions Are Compounded When They Go Both Ways

A gap between perception and reality exists not only among many foreign entities regarding the Egyptian judiciary, it also plainly exists in the perceptions of some judges regarding foreign entities. Mutual misperceptions are mutually reinforcing, which widens the perception gap. Dramatic examples abound on both sides.

One of the most instructive examples of a gap between perception and reality on the Egyptian side is found in the 2013 trial court judgment in the so-called “NGO case,” in which the defendants were employees of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House; the Germany-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation; and the International Center for Journalists, all of which had foreign (non-Egyptian) sources of funding. The following (in italics) is an informal English translation of a portion of the trial court’s judgment order:

In conclusion of the ruling and its reasons [for conviction], the Court wants to confirm the following facts:

    First: It is unimaginable that the USA or any other country supporting the Zionist state has any interest or real desire for the establishment of a real democracy in Egypt. Both facts and history affirm that these countries have a well-established belief that their interests are easily achieved through client dictatorships, and that real democracies are damaging [to those interests].

    Second: A donor pays money according to his own agenda and based on a strategy to achieve objectives that he seeks to attain. In most cases, such [objectives] are contrary to the noble objectives of voluntary [NGO] organizations that seek to spread awareness, develop society, and defend human rights. 

    Third: Foreign funding to non-governmental organizations represents a stumbling block for the Egypt as desired by its people, and at the same time paves the way for an Egypt as sought by its enemies. 

It would be difficult to imagine a wider gap between perception and reality. And yet, in view of Egypt’s long history of being exploited by colonialist powers, it is understandable how a deeply ingrained cultural distrust of the motives and agendas of foreign governments and the non-government organizations they fund could exist. But, no matter how understandable a misperception may be, it remains a factually flawed view of reality.

Mutual misperceptions can and do cause serious mutual damage between nations, which is both unnecessary and counter-productive for all involved. There are too many real problems to deal with to be able to afford the waste of resources and loss of opportunities caused by conflicts based on mutual misperceptions.