Egyptians were deeply divided on whether to say “yes” or “no” to the proposed amendments to their country’s constitution following the January 25th Revolution. On the hot and dusty morning of Saturday, March 19th, after weeks of debate on-air, online, in newspaper op-ed pages and in our own living rooms, we lined up in droves to cast our votes.
I prepared carefully for this historic day: Through an online portal set-up by the armed forces I checked which schools were designated as polling stations in my neighborhood; I made sure my national ID, proving my eligibility to vote, was in my wallet; I hired a baby sitter to watch my toddler so that I could go brave the long queues unhampered.
Most importantly, in the few days leading up to the referendum, I read all the different editorials and analyses both in favor of “yes” and “no” so that I could make an informed decision on which way to cast my vote. Exercising my right to vote as an Egyptian citizen was made much easier by the technology, finances and education that my upper middle-class background afforded me.
Umm Fatima, who is married to the neighbor’s bawab (building keeper), doesn’t have access to any of these things. She lives with her sister, her three kids and her husband in a small, unadorned room under the stairwell of the building they guard. She doesn’t know what the internet is and she doesn’t know how to read or write. She does know, however, that it is important – very important – to vote in Egypt’s first free and fair referendum.
After listening to her family and the residents of the building she works in debate the respective merits of a “yes” or “no” vote, she’s decided that the latter is the only viable option for Egypt at this time. In choosing to vote “no,” Umm Fatima allies herself with most of the country’s intellectuals and democracy activists who’ve argued that a yes vote – which hastens the election process – would marginalize yet-to-be-organized liberal coalitions and favors the only two organized political groups in the country: the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
For Umm Fatima, however, her no vote rests on a much simpler, more intuitive, premise. As we drive together to the polling station (Umm Fatima asked to come with me because she was afraid she would fumble her “no” vote by marking the wrong box and wanted a literate person with her to ensure that wouldn’t happen), she explains: “I am voting no because we made the revolution to get a new constitution, not Mubarak’s tattered corrupted leftovers.”
She peers anxiously over my shoulder as I drive to make sure I don’t miss the turn at the right street leading up to the school. After a moment, she ventures another thought, “And in the new constitution, they need to put a six months review clause so that we can hold whatever new president we elect accountable.”
“We?” titters her sister, who had joined us for the ride and also planned to vote no. “You think you will be able to hold a president accountable?” Umm Fatima shoots her an indignant look. “Just because I am not educated doesn’t mean I am a dumb-ass – yes me. Am I not one of the people?”
Once at the school, the whole process takes less than 10 minutes – we had beat the long lines by arriving early in the day. We enter one of three classrooms off the playground area where six desks, each etched with school-kid graffiti, are set up for voting purposes and manned by two people. A woman dressed in jeans and a blazer sits at the front, hands folded, watching – she is one of the many civilian monitors present to ensure there is no tampering with the votes.
One official charged with registering our names asks for our IDs, while the second hands each of us the voting paper. The no box is black and the yes box is green. Umm Fatima asks me to identify each for her. I watch her make a wavy horizontal line in blue ink inside the black “no” box. Her hands are trembling. We carefully fold our voting sheets and place them in a locked glass box that is already, at only 11:30 a.m., half full with ballots.
Once we are outside the school, Umm Fatima squeezes my hand. “Thank you for bringing us,” she says.
“How do you feel?” I ask.
“I feel good; what we just did is important.”
She asks me if I will take a picture of her and her sister so that she can show it to her kids and husband. They both proudly hold up their fingers coated with the pink ink that indicates their voter status. As she reviews the snap shot I took, Umm Fatima ventures a final thought. “I feel like a human-being for the first time in my life. We used to be insects – now we are people.”
Yasmin Moll is a Ph.D. student in socio-cultural anthropology at NYU and a documentary film-maker. She is in Cairo doing field-work research on Islamic televangelism. Yasmin is Egyptian, Swiss and American.
Read Moll’s other coverage and commentary on the Egyptian revolution here.