Literacy Tests: From the Jim Crow South to Liberal Egypt

August 15, 2013

In Blog

The Dilemma of Egypt’s Future Elections


In an interview with the U.S.-based PBS channel, Mohamed ElBaradei said: “Today, we have an educated middle class on the one hand, and on the other a majority known as Islamists and illiterates.” Similarly, the prominent Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany recently stated that “Illiterates are our people and we respect them. But they are voting on issues they cannot read. Should we glorify illiteracy or admit it is an obstacle?”
According to this line of thought, some secularists are hoping to prevent Islamist electoral victories by disenfranchising Egypt’s illiterate population. While Egypt’s conflict is frequently portrayed as an identity struggle between Islamists and secularists, it might be more apt to understand it as a hybrid conflict involving class and religion. Illiteracy is a challenge to democratic processes in Egypt, yet the position articulated by ElBaradei and Aswany suggests a dangerous turn by those claiming to uphold liberal values.