Archives for category: development

Pyongyang’s Pizza Connection

The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il apparently is so fond of pizza that he decided, in his vast magnanimity, to ensure that the North Korean populace could also enjoy the privilege of having a pizza while in Pyongyang. He thus provided for the establishment of not one but two pizza restaurants in Pyongyang. We visited one and we learned that once a year two Italian chefs are flown in for refresher training for the staff. The restaurant we visited had a totally legitimate Italian feel with limoncello bottles for sale at 17 US$ and a margherita around 5 US$. I worked out that in comparison to the purchasing power of local salaries, a pizza and a beer cost the equivalent of 30 or 40 US$ in terms of European prices, so pizza is pretty much a luxury (shocker for a country with chronic food shortages), more or less like a sushi dinner in a fancy place is in Europe.

One of the guides asked about my opinion about the unfolding fiscal melt-down in Italy. I had caught the news on the BBC the night before so I explained the various measures that my beloved government has been taking to avert fiscal implosion. Leaving aside the slightly disconcerting fact that news of the Italian debt crisis had reached North Korea basically in real time, I will never forget the worried looks of our guide who, while living in the second happiest country in the world (according to Korean sources), seemed genuinely preoccupied with the prosperity of Italy and genuinely wished my country a speedy recovery from insolvency.

Revolutionary Art

Out of body experience. Feat. The Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung
As instructed by our travel company, we wore our best clothes for the visit to the Mausoleum where the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung lies in state in Pyongyang. The dress code requires a shirt, tie and smart-ish shoes for the gents and a long skirts for the ladies. I had to purchase a shirt in China before leaving for the DPRK, which has now become my Kim Il Sung shirt. We were slightly disappointed to find out that the rigid rules did not seem to apply to two Russian tourists who showed up in their blue batik shirts and sandals. The horror, the horror. When we pointed out the fashion faux pas, our guide shrugged and mumbled something along the lines of ‘Russians, they are like that’.

You leave cameras and all other belongings at the cloak room of the mausoleum, before walking the one kilometre that separates you from the glass coffin of the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Like tin soldiers we march with other visitors, mostly Koreans brought in by their collective farms and factories to pay tribute to the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader, Comrade Kim il Sung. We enter a big room with a marble (or is it plaster?) larger-than-life statue of the Great Leader, Sun and Father of Our Nation, Comrade Kim Il Sung against a pink and sky-blue background (recreating sunset, we gathered). The faux-plaster/faux-marble statue is lit with a light coming from above and a celestial sound is spat out by the speakers in the room. As told, we march in groups of four, get to a line marked on the floor, where we bow in front of the statue of the Great Leader etc. etc. Kim Il Sung. Thus we proceeded towards the Hall of Lamentation, where we are handed Sony MP3 players (made by the Imperialist Swines in Japan) whereby we can hear the mourning sounds (translated in English) of crowds of Korean lamenting the death of the Leader Maximo. The Koreans are luckier than us because they get a live rendition of the sorrows of the Korean people, courtesy of one of the guides of the mausoleum with indefatigable performance skills (As an aside, imagine having a business card that reads “So and So, Live Performer at the Hall of Lamentations of the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum. Just a thought for your next high school reunion). We are then showed a big collection of honours and awards received by Our Great Leader Father of the … you get the idea Kim Il Sung. These include, inter alia, certificates of honorary citizenships from Italy, France, Belgium and various other Western nations. We learn that those have been bestowed in acknowledgment of the Great Leader’s contribution to modern tought through his Juche idea (in case you haven’t yet, you can educate yourself about Juche here).

Finally we reach the Sancta Sanctorum of the Mausoleum. We pass a door that is like a mini car wash booth, where the soles of our shoes are brushed and we are sprayed some air (containing disinfectant? or perhaps it is communist holy water from Leningrad?). Ahead of us, lies the mummified body of Our Great Leader, perfectly preserved in a glass coffin. We march in rows of four, like little toy soldiers, in what is a spectacle of choreographed mourning. After forty minutes of interminable corridors, halls of lamentations, celestial visions of plaster statues the propaganda machine starts to work its magic. As we bow four times (one time for each of the sides of the coffin), I am only one step away from thinking to myself  “Thank you Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, Sun of Our Nation. Thank you for being the  Liberator and Father of the Second-Happiest Country in the World. Our Glorious Nation. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”

Outside the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, Pyongyang

Customs of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea

Upon going back to my seat after lunch on the Pyongyang-Beijing train I found that my fellow travellers had indulged in a weird sort of packed lunch which included clams, bananas and pumpkin seeds. Pretending to find the crustacean lunch explosion and the remains thereof absolutely in tune with my expectations of what a Chinese packed lunch on a train might entail, I sat on my seat while filling the exit card and the custom declaration form of the DPRK.

I prepared myself for the two hours it would take to complete formalities. First an officer came, took all of our passports and walked away. As he left, I realised that my passport was now entrusted in the tender loving care of Korean authorities, much like it had been for most of my time in Korea. I had become again member of the international brotherhood and sisterhood of people whose passports are taken away from them and who are thus at the mercy of their sponsors or guardians such as minors and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

A second official came and our compartment began the hectic process of luggage inspection that had already caused considerable chaos all over our carriage. The process started shortly after the officer  expressed some mild disgust at the manner with which the lunch leftovers had taken over most of the space on the table where the paperwork would have to take place. Perhaps hoping to get over the painful bit first the officer started with me. I opened both of my bags for the officer to have a look while also fishing out the electronic items I had declared on my form. The officer took my camera and tried to place it in the narrow empty space between the gaping carcasses of clams and the carpet of spat-out pumpkin seeds and banana peals. Then he proceeded to unwrap my phone which had been sealed in a paper envelope, stamped across the seal and wrapped in tape before being entrusted to my guide upon arrival at Pyongyang airport. Upon seeing a keyboard-less mobile not bigger than 5×7 cm the officer made a perplexed face and called a colleague over to show how Sony had managed to produce a Lego toy that can handle internet browsing and international roaming.

After that, the other passengers went through their customs checks. The numerous suitcases of the two Chinese business men were opened while the rest of us watched the process for its sheer entertainment value (incidentally, based on a nationally-representative sample of two people, I have decided that all Chinese traders are messy packers). Everything went smoothly until an undeclared phone was found in one of the bags. Some commotion ensued as the real owner of the suitcase was brought in from the other compartment. A calm exchange ensued via a Chinese passenger who was also fluent in Korean. More officers were summoned and a thorough search of the compartment took place as the mobile phone smuggler was sweating profusely. While I was wondering if we would be regaled with a body cavity search performed live on the train, the officer found some souvenir posters of mine which I was asked to unpack. Those were replicas of propaganda posters that we were told not to parade around customs. A perplexed look later the officer carefully packed the posters away and dished out my camera from the food-ocean and handed it over to a colleague who would go through all my photos to ensure they were all kosher. As the officer went through my holiday artsy fartsy pictures absent-mindedly some kind of solution had been found to the sino-korean mobile phone debacle, although what exactly happened is unclear to me. I noticed that the officer suddenly a 100 Chinese yuan (10 euro) note had appeared inside the pocket of the officer.

Eventually the customs inspection process came to an end and we received our passports back as well. We thus completed the 10 minute journey to  Dandong, China where a life of free mobile phone usage and a bright future of clam lunches awaited us.

Get your vote out. It’s the DEMOCRATIC People’s Republic after all…

For more photos from the DPRK, check my Flickr account

The thought of having to go to the bathroom in China triggers a physical reaction that resembles waking up from a nightmare: when it’s time to go my heartbeat accelerates, I sweat and my stomach closes, for the memories of past horrors re-emerge in my brain.

I shan’t describe some of the horror scenes I have witnessed. For a country that aspires to become our planet’s next super power China really needs to get its shit together. You can tell a lot about a country from its crapholes. It’s not even an issue of lack of resources, I think it’s lack of peer pressure. I remember going to the toilet in a small cafe in Laos only to find a toilet with turquoise tiles and a lotus flower in a basin. For one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia, such a toilet made you feel like you were having high tea at the Park Hyatt not a sticky rice mango pancake in an unassuming cafe in the back streets of Vientiane.

So this is my strategy to win hearts and minds of public toilets users in China. First you have to find an incentive, let’s say an item that oozes prestige and that is a status symbol. I don’t know China well enough to think of a better status symbol than a Louis Vuitton handbag. So if a family adopts a public toilet and keeps it clean for 365 consecutive days, the lady of the house (or maybe the gentleman) wins a real Louis Vuitton. Imagine how cheap it would be to purchase a billion Louis Vuitton bulk and you will realise how close a “One Billion Clean Public Toilets Great Leap Forward” would be. Practically a bargain.

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I accidentally booked a seat on the 6 sleeper part of the train, instead of the more tourist friendly 4 sleeper part. It would have not been so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that I am claustrophobic and once you lay on the top bed your nose is only 30 cm away from the cieling. As I was contemplating survival strategies for the 17 hour long journey, a boisterous Vietnamese family of 4 arrived.
They were better prepared for their 33 hour journey to Ha Noi, the kids playing on their I phone and portable Play Station, the father on his I Pad and the mother administering a seemingly endless supply of snacks and food.
They were cleary wondering what sort of scam I must have gotten into that sold me over priced second class tickets en lieu of first class. Nonetheless, they were as gracious as only the Vietnamese can be and while we chatted away in broken English, they made sure I partook in the food fest. All of a sudden I remembered long overnight train journeys as a child  with my family in Italy. A continuous supply of rice cakes, spicy dry meat, pickles, cured pork, pop corn, sandwiches, rice porridge, bananas and even wine was offered (I volunteered my cookies).
In the end the journey wasn’t as painful as it could have been, I got the opportunity to spend 17 hours with a boisterous and lovely upper middle class Vietnamese family, got my heart warmed to see their interaction and left with a great memory of the people that are projecting the country head-first into the 21st century.

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I am writing this post on the topic of the minimum wage at the request of a friend (not sure what this says about my personal life :)).

The Egyptian government recently announced a plan to increase the minimum wage first to 700 Egyptian pounds and then to 1,200 EGP (200 USD) for some 1.9 million public sector workers. The plan was detailed in the economic programme released by the Egyptian government which was the subject of a previous blog post:

The government is committed to provide a fairer wage structure. To honor this commitment, we will introduce lump sum wage increases in entities with low levels of remuneration, to achieve a minimum gross wage of LE 700 per month for all workers in the public sector in 2011/12. It is our objective to increase this wage level gradually in the coming years to reach LE 1,200 by mid-2015. The partial wage increase in 2011/12 is expected to benefit some 1.9 million employees (about one third of the total public sector work force), mostly municipal workers. It will increase the effective wage bill by around 6 percent and cost the budget about LE 7 billion. Workers earning wages above this minimum in non-targeted entities will receive their standard annual increases to contain the growth in the wage bill while maintaining incentives for progression and skill differentiation.

So this is overall good news: 1.9 million people (and their families) will supposedly received a better salary soon.

However, like in many other countries including developed ones, the issue of minimum wage becomes a highly political one (for a good overview, check this). While public sector employment is a life-time guarantee (although this has proven not to be true for those workers in publicly owned manufacturing industries that have been privatised in the past decade), a large number of  workers are employed in the private sector where the minimum wage does not apply. Actually, make it the private sector where hardly any labour law is really applied. In my personal experience, with the exception of few friends who work for large Egyptian or foreign companies (e.g. companies that are listed on the stock exchange, multinationals etc…), most Egyptians do not have a work contract. And the few who do, are often asked to sign a dateless resignation letter in case their employer decides to lay them off at some point in the future. So, it’s clear that even if a minimum wage became mandatory for private sector employees, it will probably not be applied.

So how could the Egyptian government improve the wages of the million workers in the private sector? The labour market situation requires overall restructuring in Egypt, if nothing because the informal sector, while providing employment for a large share of the workforce, is also the sector where abuses such as withholding of wages, lay offs without compensation, lack of insurance and pension rights are hardly ever addressed.

My argument is going to be that trade unions could be part of the solution (but not the only solution) to the problem of low wages in Egypt. This paper details the impact of trade unions on wage of workers. The subject is at the centre of a long and complex debate but in a nutshell, the more unionised workers are there, the more unions have bargaining power over wages and benefits. This creates a ‘Trade Union Wage Premium‘ (for more info check here). The paper mentioned above shows that the difference in wages between (similar) unionised and non-unionised workers averages around 15-20% with peaks of 34% in places like Brazil.

There are also a lot of other issues when unions come into play, including creating a situation where those who are not unionised basically represent a pool of workers that can be employed informally to avoid paying higher wages to unionised workers etc… The paper linked above does a good job of explaining the various caveats.

The point I am making here is that the discussion around the minimum wage should not only be centred around public sector wages or declaring a minimum wage also for the private sector that will not be enforced just like most of labour laws in Egypt.

Giving workers the right of assembly, the right to be a part of independent unions (with different political affiliations) could do a lot more for Egypt’s workers by increasing their bargaining power, somehow going against the patronising idea that the state gives its citizens rights as concessions as opposed to empowering them to demand, campaign and hopefully obtain what they think is best for them. Of course empowering trade unions will also require an industrial policy that is based on consultation and dialogue between employers, workers and the state – perhaps an even harder cultural shift from the current dynamics.

On the subject of labour rights, a little bonus track material on corporations and interns:
The Corporate Social Irresponsibility of the Internship Phenomenon
– aka “the highly competitive race to the bottom of the corporate ladder”

I have been reading a lot of articles and posts about the IMF deal and Egypt. And while these articles/posts were almost universally well researched and well written, I felt a certain unease while reading them. I felt they were masterpieces of criticism of the IMF discourse that would only preach to the converted.

When I was doing my BA in International Economics, I often felt like an alien. I often felt that I was one of the few in my class who questioned the models we were given. When you have someone present you with an equation that proves that some theory is the ultimate truth, and that is done on repeat for 20 hours per week for three years, then you do think that economics holds the ultimate truth and right answers to everything. Once in a practice test we were given this question to answer “Prove, with the help of the models we have studies, that liberalisation is not necessarily bad for child labourers in developing countries”. Out of the five people in my study group, I was the only one who seemed to have some moral qualms about the way the question was phrased.

Back to the initial point, this well-written article on Jadaliya presents this salient argument:

“Egypt is, in many ways, shaping up as the perfect laboratory of the so-called post-Washington Consensus, in which a liberal-sounding ‘pro poor’ rhetoric – principally linked to the discourse of democratization – is used to deepen the neoliberal trajectory of the Mubarak-era. If successful, the likely outcome of this – particularly in the face of heightened political mobilization and the unfulfilled expectations of the Egyptian people – is a society that at a superficial level takes some limited appearances of the form of liberal democracy but, in actuality, remains a highly authoritarian neoliberal state dominated by an alliance of the military and business elites. “

I agree with a lot of the points raised. Except, I disagree with the way it is presented because it is the same anti IMF rhetoric every politics/sociology student/scholar reads about and is satisfied with. But guess what? the IMF people ain’t going to be worried about the same criticism they have been hearing since the 70s. And, whether I like it or not, the IMF is not going away any time soon and yes, it is a massive post-colonialist, capitalist archetype of an organization, but unfortunately this is the world we live in and these are the people that call the shots.

So if you want to win the debate, you have to ask questions in their own language. Personally, if Egypt were my country, I would want to ask the following questions:

  • Until after the announcement of the IMF and other loans were made, there was no publicly-available economic policy document that would outline how the loans were going to serve the broader objectives of Egypt’s economic policy. In a sense it is like an entrepreneur going to ask for a loan from the bank without a proper business plan. This document was released by the Ministry of Finance around the 5 June, while first news of the IMF deals were circulating as early as 17 May.
  • Why is a non-elected, transition government signing big loans with a long-term repayment plan? One reason could be that the budget year begins in the summer in Egypt, so the government has to make sure it has enough cash lined up to cover the expected 9-10% debt as proportion of GDP. However, reading the seemingly author-less policy document that appeared on the Ministry of Finance’s website on 5 June (link here) the following emerge:
    • “The budget includes a temporary allocation of LE 15 billion for additional spending—mainly investment–in education and housing. The housing investment is part of a broader initiative to fund the construction of one million low-cost, environmentally friendly housing units for the poor and young families over the next five years.” (P. 3)  So couldn’t this expenditure be delayed until an elected government can put in place checks and balances to make sure low-cost housing is not subject to the speculations some may make on the real estate market?
    • “We are also putting in place a program of 6-month training stipends to provide support for unemployed workers and new graduates, at a cost of LE 2 billion” (p.3) Again a very noble reason to take out loans, but investment in training only yields results in the medium to long-term – so why the rush?
    • “The budget includes a total allocation of LE 124 billion to finance food and fuel subsidies […] The budget includes policy funding of LE 13.5 billion to the Egypt General Petroleum Company and other
      4 economic authorities, as part of a longer-term process to restructure their balance sheets. This funding is conditioned upon improvements in operational performance, including clearing outstanding balances among public sector entities” so on one hand they increased the subsidy for petrol, on the other hand they pour 13.5 billion into an inefficient machinery whose end product they subsidise.

There are more points in the document that raise some questions, but in general, the way this policy document reads (in conjunction with the various media statements made by MOF so far) may push the semi-engaged reader like myself to wonder to what extent this outpour of money on spending right before the election is an opportunity to project an image of a transition government that is trying to fix in 6 months things that have not worked in 30 years, and on credit. I am not so much doubting the intentions of the policy, but rather the fact that an unelected cabinet is going to saddles the country with long-term debt to cover the current projected deficit and increase spending – when one may assume the IMF loans bankrolling the process to be contingent on budget cuts in the future.

Paraphrasing my previous post, it’s like when the state spends like a single man on a dinner date, putting everything on the credit card.

PS: Also on the previous post, this is what the economic policy document had to say about the inherent inequality of the current subsidy system

Subsidy reform: Reforming Egypt’s subsidies, in particular the inequitable and inefficient fuel subsidies, and replacing them gradually with better targeted income support and other social safety net measures will be critical to improve the effectiveness of public spending and support fiscal consolidation in the medium term. To get firmly on the way, we will prepare during 2011/12 a strategy to expand the social safety net, improve pro-poor and social programs, and undertake subsidy reform. One area that we plan to address early on is to improve the targeting of subsidized liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The LPG subsidy has a very high cost and its benefits are largely captured by middlemen in the distribution chain, which has contributed to the emergence of a black market and shortages in the residential sector. Addressing subsidies will improve social justice (since benefits are mostly captured by the well-off), reduce waste, provide incentives for more rational use of the country’s natural resources, and create much-needed fiscal space.

Let me say that life has been rather hectic in the past three months, therefore I have not had enough time to write more econ-related posts, which was the original idea behind the blog.

Now that work life is a bit easier on me, I will start lecturing and pontificating about something most of you are not even interested in.

When I was working at a check out in a super market in Italy, I realised that there is a lot you can learn about a person’s life looking at how they spend their money on a daily basis. A single man going on a dinner date would buy wine, deodorant, a lot of food you cannot cook one single dish with and condoms. A working mother (with toddler) would rush through the supermarket on her way home and grab a disparate set of things such as baby food, comfort food, diapers, fruits, vegetable, staples, bottle of wine.

Because I do not have a life, I decided to apply the same approach to the Egyptian state so I went and downloaded the general budget final account data (available in Arabic for the year 2008/2009 here). The document looks at the budget commitments vs actual expenditures over the course of a fiscal year. So here’s some fun facts ( for comparison, 1 USD equals 5.9 EGP) :

On the revenue side:

  • Sales tax 64.5 million EGP (means on average every Egyptian pays less than 1 EGP per year in sales tax)
  • Taxes on employment 10.5 billion EGP (p.30) (on average 130 EGP p. capita p. year, but of course most of the people who pay employment taxes are those employed in the public sector and the few private sector companies that abide by labour laws).
  • Taxes on commercial and industrial activities 5.9 billion EGP (p.30)
  • Taxes on petrol agency and foreign partner (singular) 34 billion EGP (p.30)
  • Taxes on beer and alcohol: 330 million EGP  (p.59). This is higher than total sales tax (!) because places that sell alcohol are regulated as opposed to the rest of the economy.

On the expenditure side:

  • Subsidies to peasants committed 405 million EGP, spent 144.5 million (p.23). Maybe Egyptian peasants do not need subsidies – Meanwhile Egypt is reported to be the world’s largest importer of wheat. In 2010, the oil minister stated that Egypt imports 40% of its food, and 60% of its wheat (source: here).
  • Electricities subsidies 3 billion EGP committed, spent n/a ( considering it is one of the biggest line items one would expect a foot note but the document does not have an explanation as to why actual expenditure is not reported) (p.23)
  • Support to low-income housing 1 billion EGP committed and spent (p.23). (I wish I had the time to follow-up and see HOW these 1 billion EGP were spent).
  • Subsidies for Health and Drugs 399 million EGP (p.24)
  • Social security 1.2 billion EGP (p. 24) [compare with: expenditure on research and (feasibility?) studies for investment projects 1.5 billion EGP (p.27)]
  • Health insurance for the unemployed 14.4 million EGP (p24). With at least 2.3 million unemployed according to government sources, it’s an average expenditure of 7 EGP per person.
  • Subsidies for petrol resources 26 billion EGP (p. 24)
  • Subsidies for export promotion 3.2 billion EGP (p. 24)

This is of course a very superficial look at a complex issue such as expenditure allocation and social policy, however one could make a couple of observations:

  • Taxes revenues from sales are fairly low. This is partly because a lot of trade takes place in the informal economy. However, taxing sales (VAT style) means that does who consume more pay more – The same applies to tax revenues from employment which are much higher than tax revenues on industrial and commercial activities. At the same time, if you happen to be working in the formal economy or public sector, you will be paying a disproportionate amount of taxes on your income.
  • Expenditures seem to be geared towards subsidising consumption and the real estate market rather than, say, providing health insurance for the unemployed. Also electricity is subsidized – which is great, except these subsidies end up benefitting the ones that are better off .

For instance, let us look at petrol subsidies that absorb over 4.4 billion USD every year (incidentally you may wish to compare this to Obama’s offer of debt relief totaling roughly $1 billion “over a few years“). Let us imagine that on a given day a well-off expatriate (whom we shall call Mr Economic Revolution) fills his car with 30 litres of petrol. Now the price of each litre is 2 EGP half of which is subsidies (I am using a fictitious amount just to make the explanation simpler). Therefore the Egyptian state just paid 30 EGP towards the consumption of Mr Economic Revolution who happens to be a wealthy Italian expatriate working in Egypt. Ms Minimum Wage is an Egyptian mother who works as a public servant. She does not own a car so she uses public transportation to get around town. Because she shares the cost of a ride with many passengers her daily consumption of petrol is lower, say 1 litre per day (again, fictitious). Everyday, the Egyptian state spends 1 EGP ensuring that Ms Minimum Wage can get to work.

So basically, the morale of this blog post is that even a cursory look at the Egyptian budget reveals a regressive social policy (i.e. a policy that takes more in terms of percentage of income from the poor than the rich, check here). The expenditure pattern mirrors the one of the ficticious single man going on a date: i.e. one of instant gratification.

Of course the issue of subsidies and social policy is way too complex to be tackled here. However, one may only wish that the way public money is spent in Egypt is geared towards investment in public services (i.e. treating citizens as a resource) rather than towards subsidising consumption (i.e. treating citizens as consumers).

Of course I am not arguing for a blanket elimination of subsidies neo-liberal style, as some of them do play an important role in creating a safety net (especially food subsidies). What I am arguing for is a bolder vision of economic and social policy (an economic revolution, perhaps?). One way could be to eliminate some of the subsidies and redirect the savings towards better wages for public servants and conditional cash transfer programmes for the poor. I am including a link to a World Bank’s review of conditional cash transfer programmes to prove that I am not talking about sci-fi but mainstream public policy discourse spurred by socialist governments and embraced by the liberals as well.

I will conclude with two links. The first to a recent article on the Guardian on social policies and the second to the findings of a recent study of 750 Egyptian youth. Surprisingly (not), the youth interviewed viewed jobs and employment as their top priority. Corruption came second, followed by security with constitutional reform fifth and democracy/free elections at the bottom of the list (original link here)

Well, if it makes anyone feel better: Egypt, you are not alone. Democracy means being the victim of your fellow citizens’ idiocy. Trust the Italian on this one.

While theoretically direct democracy (of which referenda are the best example) is the ultimate realization of political participation, in reality there are a lot of things that can go wrong. For one, you have black and white decisions to be made (yes or no – ya3ani is not an option).  Referendum questions can be (and usually are) complicated. In a country where most people hardly ever set foot in a polling station of their own volition, it is safe to assume that the average voter is not well-versed in Egyptian Constitutional Law. Finally, politicians and media play a huge role in how public perception is shaped around the issues, up to the point that the actual crux of the referendum gets lost in political warfare.

Anyways, just to prove that direct democracy fails even in the most advanced (cough cough) democracies:

Of course the disasters of direct democracy are usually corrected by solid institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights (for the minaret ban) or state institution (in the case of DOMA) or auspicious events such as the imminent dissolution of the Catholic Church.

Despite the merit of the vote which I am in no place to comment on, there are two things that stands out: a 41% turnout and a 77% of people voting for yes.

The low turnout means that the majority is silent. More like, deaf and mute.

On the 77%, if any of you ever had the pleasure of taking a political economy class (sarcasm is my second language, did I mention that?) your lecturer would have bombarded with the notion of the median voter’s theorem. I will spare the long boring talk but basically it is a bit of an anomaly how skewed the results of this vote were in favour of ‘yes’. In Italian, we call elections with over 65 % of votes going in one direction as ‘Bulgarian Consensus’. Something just wasn’t free and fair. Not just the procedural aspects, but also how the referendum was communicated to voters. In most referenda I have voted for (and god, don’t we love wasting our tax money on direct democracy in Italy), the split is usually 50-50 or at best 40-60. So this is my shopping list of why I think the vote was so abnormal in its 77-percentedness:

  • The topic was very complex (constitutional amendments, last time I checked it was not bawab’s forte)
  • All the questions were lumped together so it was a packaged deal, take it or leave it. One might argue that constitutional reform ought to be a tad bit more nuanced. The fact that 77% of people agreed on all of those issues is a bit bizarre.
  • Article 2 on the religion and other attributes of the president (hardly Egypt’s most pressing priority at this stage, methinks) was thrown into the lot just for kicks or, if you are a cynical bastard like myself, to play off the secular vs the religious, the christians vs the muslims, the brazar muslimhood vs the salafi, my landlady vs. my bawab etc…
  • And finally, the referendum was organized in 3 weeks, against the backdrop of tanks in the street and media trying to cope with regional politics slowly imploding and various other  shenanigans such as torture of civilians.

So in the end, my impression is that most people were too flustered to concentrate on the essence of the referendum question and interpreted this vote as a vote of confidence in the army. And with generations of Egyptians being raised loving stability even if it means they get screwed sideways from life, one might not be surprised of this Mubarak-like consensus.

But my final question is: does this vote really matter? If the army is committed to democratic transition the yes vote does not matter because in the end they are going to devolve powers to a civilian government and Egypt is going to be the land of milk and honey. If the army is not committed to democratic transition, even if a no vote had won, they would have done whatever it pleased them anyways.