A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

One Reason Egypt's Liberals Lose Elections

I plan to write at some length soon about the Egyptian Constitutional referendum, but this is an inital comment. As expected, it passed: most voters want stability and are not terribly concerned about turns of phrase in a constitution. Turnout was low, opposition high in Cairo and major cities, but Upper Egypt carried the day. Like other countries I could name (I live in one), the views of urban elites are often not very compatible with those of the less urban hinterland. In a democracy, though, winning candidates need to appeal to a broad spectrum of opinion. You do not say to the voters what you may say to your inside-the-Beltway drinking buddies. Not if you want to win.

Now, Mohamed ElBaradei is an extremely popular Egyptian liberal among Western journalists and some of the intelligentsia, though he has spent more of his time abroad than in Egypt for decades: he's a key figure in the liberal (not the revolutionary) secular side.  Days before the second round of the referendum, the former IAEA head tweeted:
The Arabic goes a bit beyond the English, indicating that poverty and illiteracy create fertile soil for trading in religion.

Now, illiteracy is a big problem in Egypt and in many emerging democracies, as is poverty.

But the thing is, Dr ElBaradei, you just called the people whose votes you need in order to win illiterate, and probably offended their religious beliefs to boot.

Ah, you may say, but if they're illiterate and poor, they can't read you on Twitter. True enough. But the Muslim Brotherhood can; the Salafis can; the preachers these folks listened to on Friday before voting on Saturday can. Do you think they don't quote this and similar comments to their flocks?

Democracy 101: telling the voters they're illiterate rubes is generally a bad way to win votes, even if it happens to be true.

No comments: