The right to vote only for illiterates

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Thursday 21 Nov 2013

There is a seasonal phenomenon in Egypt as polls approach, whether parliamentary or presidential, or referenda: the call by some to block from voting citizens who don’t know how to read or write

The Cairo elite are making noises today to spotlight the issue of illiteracy and its link to citizens exercising their political rights. Some have said they do not object to the idea and in fact demand that illiterates should not be allowed to vote. Tweets by writer Alaa Al-Aswany and earlier press statements by Mohamed ElBaradei have said as much. More recently, several judges have joined this campaign, which not only wants to block illiterates but even suggests limiting voting to those with at least a middle education. They argue that people voting for their parliamentary or presidential representative should have a certain level of awareness and culture.

As these shameless calls continue, the best way to respond to them is for government agencies in Egypt to limit voting in parliamentary, presidential and referendum balloting to illiterates who have been ignored by the state, its institutions and the ruling elite in Egypt’s modern history.

Limiting voting to illiterates would be the application of a world trend known as “positive bias.” For example, the US uses a policy called “Affirmative Action” to compensate sectors who were dealt with unjustly by state and society in a way that adversely affected their ability to fairly compete in politics, employment or education. In this manner, there is positive bias towards African Americans and Native Americans to find senior level jobs and advanced education opportunities, despite their limited qualifications compared to White Americans.

These policies boost marginalised categories to reach a level of competitiveness in entering top universities in the US and big firms, and gives them benefits to assist them in acquiring other rights in terms of housing, health, the business sector and others domains.

The main goal of this policy is to spread social equality through preferential action in favour of the economically and socially underprivileged.

In Egypt, illiterates have suffered the most injustice and discrimination by state and society. They were denied a key constitutional right, namely that the state would provide free mandatory basic education opportunities for every Egyptian citizen. Limiting voting to illiterates only would compel everyone to deal directly with the shame of continued suffering of a quarter of Egyptians who are unable to read or write in their native Arabic language, the language of the Quran.

Limiting voting to illiterates will also help compensate for the discrimination, persecution, poverty and exploitation they are subjected to as a result of their illiteracy. It would also help end illiteracy once and for all.

Ten years ago, UNESCO launched an initiative to make 2003-2013 the decade to end illiteracy in Egypt. But after this period, illiteracy rates in Egypt remain one of the highest in the world. The numbers show that most initiatives to eradicate illiteracy in the past were nothing more than public relations campaigns with goals unrelated to ending this disgrace.

In 2012, statistics by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) show that 24.9 per cent of Egyptians cannot read or write, while the world rate is 12 per cent, including very backward countries. Illiteracy among males is 17.6 per cent and 32.5 per cent among females. CAPMAS also noted that illiteracy in urban areas is 17.7 per cent and 30.7 per cent in rural areas.

Illiteracy is more than just a person’s inability to read and write; it denies Egypt immense human resources because of performance levels, productivity and efficiency. It also adds an extra burden in terms of thinking and dealing with an age that relies on technology. There are of course serious obstacles preventing the eradication of illiteracy, most importantly a weak political will in general and especially at the ministries of defence and interior. I don’t understand how any conscript who is drafted by them to serve his country for three years can leave at the end just as he walked in, without knowing how to read or write.

When the Cuban Revolution took place in 1959 some 40 per cent of the citizenry were illiterate. The young leaders of the revolution, Fidel Castro and his comrade Che Guevara, adopted an ambitious plan to end illiteracy in the country since it is a main obstacle facing the rise and advancement of any country. The plan by the young revolutionaries was to eradicate illiteracy within one year, called the “Year of Education”. They launched a campaign across the country. Literacy brigades composed of more than 100,000 volunteers and non-volunteers began their work on 1 January 1961, and before the end of the year, on 22 December 1961, illiteracy in Cuba had dropped to four per cent.

Most international experts and UNESCO described this as the miracle of the Cuban Revolution and a phenomenal achievement. Today, the number of people who do not know how to read or write in Cuba is zero.

Egypt’s thinkers, politicians and intellectuals have competing theories about the coming phase, and promote an array of formulae to boost Egypt and achieve social justice by applying genuine democracy and achieving economic prosperity — and all for good reason. However, ignoring the issue of eradicating illiteracy is inexcusable since it is a national and moral mission and duty, without which the social justice many dream of can never be achieved.

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