Archives for posts with tag: Egypt

I went to watch the movie “The Help” with some other people in my programme yesterday. The movie is very good, but one scene made my mind wander and would eventually result in this insomnia-induced blog post. The main character’s family (and domestic help) all gathered in the living room to watch the news of JFK’s death.

Being in the States on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 prompted a similar reaction in my head, as I tried to piece together the last ten years of my life in relation to the various events of History I have had the fortune to witnessed.

Italy, 11 September 2001

I am putting on my boy scout uniform (ha, now you know my dirty secret!). In my town the boy scouts are responsible for providing a human cordon for a religious procession that takes place every year. It’s a sticky late summer afternoon and at 3 pm I am watching Ally McBeal on TV. I am already indifferent to the Catholic Church and its obsolete rituals, but for the sake of tradition I just put that uniform on. It is around 15:45 pm and we are late. The Ally McBeal episode is interrupted by news footage of planes flying into the twin towers. I do not think much of it, it all seems distant and surreal to me so I just hurry up and leave the house.

London, 15 February 2003

I was studying in Wales and kids in my (very liberal, tree-hugging, fantastic) school organised buses to join the anti-Iraq war protest in London. The other students are all more politically aware than me and more outspoken against the Blair-Bush decision to invade Iraq. I am really puzzled and do not know what to think. Having grown up in a politically-conservative family, my political journey towards the left had been one of self-questioning a lot of what I had been taught and exercise critical thinking. I was jealous of my friends for their unshaken beliefs. On 15 February approximately one million people went down to protest in London, the biggest protest ever recorded in the history of the city. On that day, it is estimated that between six and ten million people around the world protested against the decision to invade Iraq. I was one of them.

Cairo, July 2007

I finally  managed to get an internship in an international organization. It is my first day and my supervisor is showing me the ropes. As I sit at my desk doing a press review of regional newspapers, I can see the waiting room where five/six families of Iraqi refugees are waiting for their resettlement interview to go to the United States. I suddenly feel like history is not something you just witness on TV. I remember all the doubts I had when I marched in London four years before. I was right, but I did not know it back then.

Benghazi, April 2011

I have always thought of myself as a pacifist. It seemed a pretty obvious thing to me. Whenever asked, I would just say that war is wrong in that it violates the sanctity of human life. It had all been a purely intellectual exercise, that pacifism of mine. I am working in a transit centre for displaced people in Libya. It’s Easter Sunday and we have a bit of a management crisis. The camp is full to over twice its capacity and people are getting edgy. I call my family to wish them a Happy Easter and to tell them that everything is ok. I ask them what they are having for lunch and I secretly wish I could be there. I feel bad my parents are worried about me. A few minutes later my colleague and I are sandwiched in between one hundred angry people and a security man armed to its teeth. We try to talk to the people to diffuse the tension and avoid that the security man starts shooting his machine gun into the air, just like he did a few minutes ago. I am standing right in between them and this man, his machine gun twenty cm away from my face. Unarmed people keep pushing me towards the machine gun. I finally know why I am a pacifist. You put a weapon in a person’s hand and he/she thinks they are God’s gift to the planet.

New Jersey, 11 September 2011

It is the ten-year anniversary of September 11. It’s all over the news. The day goes by in a haze because I have one of the worst hangovers of my life. I am barely able to process things. I quickly look at the walls of my Facebook friends, people I have met in the past ten years. For some of them 9/11 was the day America lost its innocence, they mostly leave in the West. For others it was the trigger of a spiral of death and hate, they mostly leave in the Middle East. My friend C says “Number of people killed on all sides during or as a consequence of 9/11: 131,000 (low estimate). If I had to go in front of God or a Galactic Council as a representative of humankind and justify this, I’d be ashamed“. For me, 9/11 marks the tenth anniversary of the day I became a pacifist.

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)

Try growing up gay in small town Southern Italy in the late 1990s. When I came out to my parents almost 10 years ago I had never met a gay person in real life. The closest role model I had was this transgender woman who adopted the son of my neighbour because the biological father was in jail (yay!). The only gay themed movie ever to be shown on Italian public TV was Philadelphia. Do not get me wrong, it is always great to see Antonio Banderas, but it would have been even nicer if instead of one of the guys dying of AIDS the couple would have ended up buying a house in the suburbs, an SUV and maybe even have a dog. Although I guess it would have not made it one of the highest impact LGBT movies in history.

Now in my country and many others, teenagers see positive role models on TV, they can meet gay people in places other than public urinals (unless they want to), some work places mention in their vacancies that they are an equal opportunity employer etc… (I got a message from our legal department today about IDAHO, what a pleasant surprise!)

Still, if the quality of life for the average LGBT person has improved, we still have a long way to go:

  • Recently even the UN realised that since LGBT people are humans, LGBT rights are human rights (shock horror!). Yet, homosexuality is still illegal/punishable by death and/or imprisonement in a number of countries.
  • A lot of countries recognise some type of same-sex partnerships, mostly in Latin America, Canada, Australia, the US, South Africa and most of Western and Central Europe except the Vatican Republic of Italy. My personal resolution is that if by 2014 Italy has not passed any type of law on civil unions I will marry the first national of one of the civilised countries above (Brazilians encouraged to apply).
  • Violence and hate speech (especially against gay teenagers and transsexuals) is still prevalent in environment such as schools, prisons and religious establishments (not making any value judgement by putting these places in the same category!). Just to throw in some random stats “lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers

Personally, my gay coming of age has been, all in all, a lot of fun. The big step I took some 9 years ago coming out has paid off and I know of a lot of people who took very risky and bold steps to live their lives the way they wanted, lost some friends and in very few cases family members for some time or indefinitely, but at least managed to lead happy and fulfilling lives as people and not as half-dead walking lies (sorry if this offends you, Mr/Miss closeted reader). I have taken some shit by some people, but by far and large I have had the fortune to be surrounded by amazing people that just see me as a person and not as a gay man (and yes, for some of the Arabophobes out there, that includes people from all walks of life I have met while living in Egypt).

So – I will go out to enjoy International Day Against Homophobia (aka I ain’t taking shit from nobody day). If any of you is contemplating suicide (hopefully not as a result of reading this blog) please watch this cute little video:

etc…

I am writing this on my last day in Benghazi. I was supposed to leave on a flight at 8 am but I am stranded here because my flight has been, ehrm, delayed. So delayed I might end up driving back to Egypt tomorrow instead. The flight operation was managed between Italy, Malta and Egypt – the only way this could get worse is if the flight attendants were French. Of course none could have seen this cock-up coming.

I wish I could blog about my five weeks in Benghazi – but partly because I do not feel that a blog is the best platform to bitch and moan (or boast) about my work and partly because I am drained I do not think I will. Or maybe in the future I will, who knows. So you will not hear me talk about being given a morality check by a petroleum engineer; or sitting through endless coordination meetings that look like this; or having the pleasure to be on the receiving end of some 20 phone calls every day from journalists that cannot take no for an answer or being called a misogynist racist over-paid aid worker by a Spanish journalist that then called me a faggot.

So what I am going to talk about is the reactions I have been getting from people when I tell them that I will be leaving Egypt in August. Reactions from foreigners who just got off the boat but also some well seasoned expats that have been marinating in the region since Anwar El Sadat was in elementary school.

When I say that I will be taking unpaid leave from my job and thus leave Egypt in June, jaws drop and I am usually asked why I would live the region right now when things are getting ‘real exciting’. The same way you would tell someone who is leaving the cinema room in the midst of a gory murder scene to go buy pop corn.

I do not know why but I get slightly offended by these comments, by the superficiality of it. I feel like people are saying: why would you voluntarily give up a front seat as angry Arabs try to fight for their freedom? Maybe you will get to take a snap shot as the tanks roll into Deraa and get to post it on flickr or maybe you will be telling the grand-children that you watched the revolution as it took place on twitter and conversed with the local activists over Turkish coffee and shisha, part Robert Fisk part Lawrence of Arabia.

If you are enjoying watching churches being burnt down on TV in your flat in Zamalek and then blogging about it for the friends back home, than darling please call yourself by your real name: a free rider. Not paying any of the costs yet enjoying the benefits. (Sorry if this offends anyone – maybe I am also an opinionated, holier than thou free rider, but at least I am ok with it).

So here it is my thoughts on why I am not dying of fear of missing out:

  • Things are not just getting interesting. The region (and the world even, shall we say) is an interesting place even when things do not make headlines.
  • In my personal opinion, the real revolution has not even started and probably it will not start until a few months down the line. The symbols of power have been taken down, but the link between power and money has not been severed (let’s think large monopolistic interests linked to strategic industries such as the military). Ahmed Ezz maybe in prison, but I did not see many headlines on how the steel monopoly in Egypt is going to be open up to free and fair competition. Never been a fan of economic liberalism nor I am arguing that it is a cure, but I feel that if things change they will change when resources (especially public ones) are more equally redistributed and this is one of the issues that could be a litmus test – more so than democratic elections that can be used as a way to pacify outsiders and insiders’ anxiety about democratic reform (read: psychosis of a take-over by the Muslim Brothers) without really creating a shift in they way a country is run (again, not saying elections are useless, just they might end up being more of a symbol rather than a real process until they become an established pattern).

So let me get on with my life for a year or two and maybe come back when things will get even more interesting, yet they most probably will not be making the news (also, on a slightly different topic, a screenshot of what’s hot on aljazeera today, bonus material just for kicks).

So, I have been meaning to write something about this before but never quite got round it. I have been leaving abroad now for 7 of the past 10 years. Inevitably, I have gone out with a number of people who are not Italian like myself (I’ll leave it to you to guess how many. If you get it right, I’ll buy you a yearly subscription to the Reader’s Digest. Hint: It’s less than a 3 digit number).

I am always slightly irked by the reaction of some gay people I have met and/or have gone out on dates with. Because Italian men are usually associated with a number of (positive?) stereotypes, I am often under the impression that I am being placed somewhere on the spectrum of potential Italian gay man stereotypes which spans roughly as follows: suave latin man with hairy chest and golden cross meets elitist european meets queer fashionista meets mama’s boy.

Of course self-righteous me is quite horrified at the idea of my ‘self’ being compressed and pigeonholed into a cliché, although I guess it is normal that people try to decipher your identity through some cognitive shortcuts such as stereotypes. I have actually done that to others a number of times without noticing.

Anyways, I was a LGBT mixer (or, as I like to call it, a fruit salad event) in the US last week. I had to go through a bit of the usual Italian Gay Manometer business but in addition, thanks to having survived the Egyptian revolution, I get to add an extra layer of revolutionary je ne sais pas quoi to the equation. At one point I felt people looked at me as if I am some kind of war veteran, almost asking me to lift my shirt so that they could behold the scars and shrapnel wounds. Maybe it’s just me reading too much into it but still I tried my best to explain to people that I witnessed 99% of the revolution watching Al Jazeera in my living room and that I am no suave latin lover meets Che Guevara meets Elton John.

When I feel like people fail to see me as a person and that I am being repackaged into a stereotype, I comfort myself by thinking that this stuff happens all the time to so many people (a friend of mine complains about the frequent emasculation of the Asian male – and do not get me started on the not so positive stereotypes some of my Russian girlfriends complain about).  In fact, I think this poem by Palestinian-American artist Suheir Hammad sums up what usually goes through my mind in such circumstances:

I have to go to the airport at midnight to make a 5 am flight because of the curfew. Then I have a 5 hour layover. So I am pretty pissed. In total 10 hours of airport and 12 of flights. So I came up with this:

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.

This morning when I woke up, I found that the army had sent me a text with a public service announcement astonishing in its brevity and incisiveness:

Referendum on Constitutional Amendments = Democracy

It seems that they have hired a PR consultant to come up with ways to use social media to patronize their citizens. After the barrage of texts and their facebook page, I am waiting to see what’s next.