The issue of illiterate democracy

In my last post I argued for the possibility of a kind of “super democracy” unfolding in Egypt, but right now there’s the problem of the partially “illiterate democracy” we’re currently exercising.

There are a lot of figures for literacy rates in Egypt, but most settle somewhere just above 70% (with the average for women being closer to 60%). Today, I was emailed an interesting table detailing the percentages of votes in each governorate, as well as illiteracy levels in those governorates. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the illiteracy stats, but if they are remotely accurate then what they reflect may be crucial.

I won’t argue that those who voted “Yes” are morons (I like to hope only 30% of us are morons, not 77%), but at least from the people I’ve spoken to and heard on TV, one thing is clear: the more educated and politically aware you are, the more likely you were to have voted “No” (I say that realizing there are plenty of exceptions on both sides of the equation. I am just noting a general trend).

This observation seems to be supported by the table below: the governorates with the highest rates of illiteracy are the ones that were overwhelming supportive of the amendments (which, alas, many couldn’t even read).

This is particularly evident in Fayoum, which has one of the highest levels of illiteracy as well as “yeses” (37.5% illiterate and 90% in favour). Same for Beni Suef: 40.6% illiterate and 87% in support of the amendments. On the other hand, Cairo and Alexandria, with the lowest levels of illiteracy, had the highest percentages of “Nos”.

Having said that, not all the stats overwhelmingly support this hypothesis. But they raise an important question: How can you really vote on the wording of a document (i.e. the constitution) when you cannot read to begin with? Unfortunately, you end up doing what your local sheikh tells you to, or your local asshole (and they often overlap, sadly).

This is not an argument for why democracy and illiteracy are incompatible. Most Western countries started on some path to democracy with poor levels of literacy – during the French revolution literacy was only at 40% (or so Google tells me). Moreover, there are plenty of illiterate people with seriously sharp minds and plenty of well-read people with the seeming intelligence of senile shrimp.

The point is, this is something future potential politicians like ElBaradei need to constantly keep in mind: playing the cool and collected intellectual card can only get you so far in this context.

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One Response to The issue of illiterate democracy

  1. taha says:

    In the same light how do we deal with people who are literate but simply can’t be bothered to take the time to read and sort through all the information and political jargon, which is often quite confusing.

    Although for right now, it seems like this might not be so much of an issue as generally people are very excited about all the debating and voting!

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