In a village on the outskirts of this southern hub, Hala Ali smiled Thursday morning after a casual act of defiance at the ballot box.
Her uncle, a prominent member from one of the three main tribes that control most aspects of life in this region, had instructed the clan to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, in Egypt’s landmark presidential poll.
Instead, she voted for Morsi’s archrival, the more moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.
“My uncle told us we need to unify the votes for our family, but everybody just chose who they wanted – especially the youth,” said Ali, 21.
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Ali’s independence would’ve been shocking here even a year ago, when the orders of clan leaders were law and their subjects fell in line. But Tahrir Square’s infectious rebel spirit has spread to the upper Nile countryside, residents said, making it very difficult these days for tribal leaders to deliver intact voting blocs to the many candidates courting them.
All of Egypt’s recent trends – the rise of political Islam, the revolutionary spirit of the young, a wariness of the Brotherhood and a resurgence of old-regime sympathy – have converged here to chip away at the once-unquestioned authority of tribal leaders.
The Qena tribes are still important, and virtually every candidate has wooed them in hopes of winning over the 3 million residents of Qena province. But tribal leaders here can no longer give ironclad promises on behalf of their hundreds of thousands of members.
“It’s changed by about 80 percent from the time when the tribes used force and pressure on us to vote for what the tribe wants,” said Ali Ahmed Sayed, 43, a Morsi supporter and the imam of a mosque in the village of Ashraaf, which is named for the tribe that inhabits it.
The cleric stood on the unpaved road in front of the village polling place chatting with his neighbors, all fellow tribesmen, including those who openly told him that they’d shunned Islamists in favor of an Arab nationalist, Hamdeen Sabahi.
“In the same house, there are differences now,” Sayed said. “This is a healthy atmosphere.”
Before Egypt’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the heads of Qena’s powerful tribes were reliable supporters of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, and in exchange received plum local security and municipal posts.
With those days gone, tribal leaders are now split in their endorsements – with one village endorsing Morsi, for example, and its neighbor a couple of banana groves away pledging allegiance to Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik.
“Shafik came and fixed whatever deal with the tribal leaders, but the people will vote how they want,” said Soad Abdel Radi, 36, a mother of seven who walked half an hour in the searing heat to cast a ballot for Shafik’s rival, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
She and her friend, 42-year-old Fatima Abdullah, both said they’d chosen Moussa because they didn’t know enough about Shafik or other secular candidates and resented the Islamists for providing community service based on conditions.
“They tell us, ‘Be with us to get help. Grow out your beard and we’ll give you gas,’” Abdullah said, shaking her head in disapproval.
Many tribal leaders who were erstwhile Mubarak allies made a shrewd about-face when they saw the Brotherhood’s ascent; they allied with the group’s spinoff Freedom and Justice Party during parliamentary elections last winter. The local clans held more sway in those polls, residents said, because candidates from the tribes were running for office to represent Qena in the People’s Assembly.
Nearly all the province’s 18 seats in the assembly went to Islamists, undoubtedly in large part because of tribal endorsements. Judging from the heated debates in and around Qena province’s polling stations, however, such voter unity shouldn’t be expected for the presidential election.
“I don’t listen to the tribal leaders anymore – the youth made everybody more aware,” said Hassan Mohamed Ali, 67, from in the village of Gablaw, also named for a clan. “The leaders used to tell us, ‘Vote for this or that,’ but now they say, ‘Go ahead, it’s your choice.’”
For Ali, that choice is Moussa, the Mubarak-era foreign minister, and not because he’s a fan of the candidate’s platform. His first pick was the Brotherhood’s Morsi, but the group failed to deliver on promises to address the village’s complete lack of sewerage.
Raw sewage still spills from every home and pools in the narrow dirt roads, creating a health crisis that’s especially devastating for children and the elderly, Ali said.
“We cooperated with the Brotherhood in the parliamentary election, but they proved even worse – they did nothing,” Ali said. “We removed the old people from the National Democratic Party because the Brotherhood promised us change, but we’ve seen none, so we’re going back to the old figures.”
Eman Mohamed, 52, a women’s advocate in the provincial capital, rattled off the names of six influential clans and their favored candidates – a mix of Islamists and former-regime officials – and added that the local Coptic Christian church, which is quietly backing Shafik, represented yet another important constituency.
Mohamed said that a lack of voter awareness stemming from the region’s endemic poverty and illiteracy still ensures that each of those blocs is beneficial to their respective candidates. Still, she, too, has witnessed firsthand the effects of the nascent youth-led revolt against tribal authority.
She has one daughter campaigning for the secular Moussa, and another daughter whose top contender, the fundamentalist cleric Hazem Abu Ismail, was ruled ineligible to run. Mohamed’s husband, a police officer who belongs to a rival tribe, was leaning toward Moussa, but he hadn’t made a final decision just hours before polls closed.
Mohamed said she voted for Aboul Fotouh, even though her tribal leaders had instructed all members to vote for “the scales,” the ballot symbol of the Brotherhood’s Morsi.
“Aboul Futouh isn’t going to make us wear facial veils and turn women into ghosts, but he also won’t turn the whole country into a disco,” she explained. “We need a moderate now.”