How I managed to get over that overwhelming antipathy to the unjustified determination to hold a democratic procedure in circumstances that I personally saw as flagrantly undemocratic remains a mystery to me till this very moment. This aversion to a long-awaited process for which a revolution erupted and a decades-old regime was ousted would sound outrageous in normal times, and for the majority of those watching Egypt while huddled under velvety blankets that provide perfect shelter from both the cold and the truth, yet it feels so natural for those who forfeited the comfort of their warm beds and ventured into the battlefield that was Tahrir Square. I, for one, believe in pyramids and I think Abraham Maslow would have become one of history’s lunatics had he placed self-actualization at the bottom and basic needs at the top, for anyone can see how impossible it is to think of professional career or intellectual development when you have no access to food and shelter. Similarly, I found it highly nonsensical to give citizens the right to choose their representatives in parliament while robbing them of their human dignity, and at times their lives, to engage in a practice in the absence of the essence upon which it is supposed to be based.
The fact remained that elections were to take place a few hours later and I, like many disgruntled Egyptians, had one of two choices: boycott altogether as a statement against a hollow formality that does not by any means mirror a parallel transformation in human and citizenship rights or spoil the vote through writing the one phrase that has been echoing in Tahrir for the past 10 days: “Down with military rule.” I was never in favor of the second option, not because I didn’t want the army to return to where they came from and leave us in peace, not because I didn’t realize how tempting it is to show the military council the exact number of Egyptians who want to do away with them, but rather owing to my conviction that if squares are for protesting then ballots are for choosing and I would rather not mix this with that. On the eve of the elections, I gave in to physical and mental exhaustion and left the demons that I had constantly tried and failed to exorcize to lead me through a turbulent night in which my principles were put to the test and after which I was certain that while people would be flocking to polling stations, I would be nibbling on popcorn and watching Hangover- Part II.
The first morning light saw me hopping out of bed like a school kid late for the bus and to my surprise I found myself totally braced up for whatever action that will chart Egypt’s future and totally rid of any guilt trip that I expected to accompany such a decision. In some mysterious way, I made peace with myself. Fighting on two fronts enhances the chances of winning, I seemed to have been repeating all night or maybe my demons decided to give me and themselves a break before moving on to the next battle. So off I went.
At exactly 7:00 am, I was behind the steering wheel and at 7:15, I arrived at my polling station only to be stunned by a spectacle I have never seen throughout the 30 plus years I have lived in Egypt. The queues were infinite and everyone looked as excited as if they were getting ready for a fishing trip. I tried to imbibe the same attitude as I took my place at the end of the women’s queue and got ready for a voting-day-out. I gathered that I have a minimum of three hours until I can set foot into the grounds of the polling station itself and only God knows how much time it would take inside. I unzipped by bag and reached out for my iPod, the only way I can kill all that time besides maybe making some phones and checking Twitter and Facebook to see how things were going in other parts of the country, but I changed my mind as I realized how stupid I would be to waste such a priceless chance to be among that big of a throng, especially when it is all women who did not stop talking for a split of a second.
From the first moment, it was easy to detect an amazing microcosm of Egypt in this queue. I saw a considerable number of women who look like me, jeans and no headscarves, some apparently Christian, a lot who look like the majority of Egyptians, conservative outfit and headscarf, and a few who looked pretty hard line, covered in black from head to toe. The first group, Muslims and Christians, were obviously the liberal bunch who voiced their fears of a religious state and started speculating on what the likely scenario would be in case Islamists win a majority. Christians, the ones I recognized by the cross they were wearing, gasped and screamed and talked about relatives in North America and chances of asylum “anywhere but here.” The second group was the most diverse for while some of them did not mind liberal forces coming to power as long as they preserve the Islamic identity of Egypt and not come near the article in the constitution that makes this clear, others saw moderate Islamic parties the only solution to maintaining this balance and argued that Christians are overreacting; some of them were all for parties and candidates that represent the revolutionary youth regardless of their political affiliations because according to them “these are the good ones who really love the country.” The third and last group, of whom I only saw two, was quite predictable. They said little about the elections besides portraying the ultra-conservative Salafis as the sole saviors of the people and the sole guardians of God’s laws and talked more about women’s role in bringing up men who will run the country and also in cleaning the streets … Don’t ask me what the last bit meant because I decided against asking her and I don’t regret it!
As much as I enjoyed being in the middle of that patchwork of Egyptian society and seeing everybody speak their mind in front of others they knew would disagree with them, I have to admit that being among only women is quite tiresome not only because you can’t have one moment of quiet or because there is too much focus on details, but also because many women in Egypt, and this is not the first time I have noticed this, think it is totally fine to touch each other and are quite shocked when you complain as if this was done to you by a man. This reminded me of the one time I decided to get on the women-only car in the underground and one of the passengers literally sat on my lap then when I objected, she snapped, “Aren’t we both women?” Kids were another issue for if you add to the trouble of standing for hours and listening to a dozen people talk at the same time little creatures pulling at your pants or running between your legs or punching you in the knee, you can easily go out of your mind.
Every half hour, part of the male queue and another of its female counterpart was admitted to the polling station where inside they were divided alphabetically among rooms where they were supposed to cast their vote by filling in two papers, one for party lists and another for independent candidates. You get to know the number of your room and your own number on the list of voters in this room from the internet or via a phone service, and I have to admit I was so impressed with seeing each and every one holding a little piece of paper with those two numbers. This made things a bit easier when we went into the polling station even though it took ages to admit voters one by one in their respective rooms. When I finally submitted my ID and was handed the voting cards, I was as elated as I could be. Yes, I was happy to be doing this, but I am afraid my aching calves and pulsating feet were starting to take precedence. After voting for my candidates, I dipped my finger in some blue ink (which I estimate would take at least two weeks to come off) but I am fine with a little democracy mole at the tip of my thumb!
After I was done I maneuvered my way out as I marveled at the madly increasing numbers and the endless queues that extended all around the polling station and into the neighboring streets.
I passed by the men’s queue and made a huge effort to listen to what they were saying, but I failed. Some had earphones plugged in, others had their heads buried in newspapers, and many had their fingers tapping nonstop on their Blackberrys. None talked! As I walked past no less than 500 mutes on my way to the car, I thanked God for being a woman and felt suddenly reconciled with the squeezing and the kids and the headache and realized how proud I was to see my female compatriots of all looks and sorts and regardless of what ideology they are out to defend aware of the role they need to play in determining the future of this country that is in bad need of the passion of each of its citizens. They were not squeezing each other and had no kids, and I have to give them that, though!
It took me 15 minutes to reach the polling station in the morning and exactly three hours and a half to return home. I can’t deny that I was on the verge of throwing a fit each time I saw nothing in the horizon but zillions of non-moving cars and that by the time I arrived I was as stiff as a wood plank and my stomach was screaming with hunger and my head was shutting off for lack of caffeine. But I can’t deny that every time I was about to lose my temper, I looked around at my fellow motorists, who usually jump each others’ throats in traffic jams and treat driving as a video game, only to see patience and contentment and to find myself cooling down and recalling a unique experience that deserves giving what it takes to see it happen.
I also remembered how depressed I got in the morning when the streets were empty and my demons started messing up with my head again: “You are the only one!” and felt that only a spoiled brat who wants to catch a hairdresser’s appointment would get cranky in such a situation and not one that claims to be a patriot whose top priority is seeing that power is really to the people. I chose to be the second and started thinking of how delicious my first post-election dinner would taste!
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: email@example.com)