CAIRO, EGYPT -- I witnessed a transformation on my return to my childhood home in Cairo on Wednesday.
Three generations of my family piled into a Hyundai hatchback and headed off to the polling booth.
After boycotting politics for much of their lives, my aunt Faten, 64, my cousins, Mai, 27, and Reham, 33, along with Reham’s two daughters, Habeeba, 6, and Fareeda, 1, braved the heat and stood in line to vote.
Like millions of other Egyptians, they were claiming a stake in their country. Their decisions were in the works for weeks, but it only took a few minutes to cast their ballots in what could be the most important choice any of them has made in shaping their country's future.
“It was important to vote because these were the first elections after the revolution. The next president will have so much to do to put this country on a better path, which is what everybody wants,” Mai says.
As for my aunt Faten, she never imagined that she would vote in a genuine election in Egypt during her lifetime.
Standing in front of the five-story building where I once lived with my parents and sister, and where my extended family still lives, I saw myself 30 years earlier as a little boy looking out the back window of a car loaded with luggage heading to the airport.
My parents had seen Egypt’s glory days in the 1960s and 1970s fade away after President Hosni Mubarak took power in 1981. A brighter future full of opportunity awaited us in the U.S., my parents believed. So, they like so many others, they emigrated.
There were good reasons to leave Egypt.
My aunt, uncles and cousins sat idly year after year as Egyptian leaders were confirmed by popular referenda. Corruption flourished, and people’s votes and voices mattered less and less.
“Our voices never mattered, it was the voice of the president that would be dictated on to the people, not the voice of the people that would be dictated to the leader,” my aunt tells me.
“I thought my daughters would never genuinely vote in their lifetime either,” she says.
My cousins Reham and Mai are both around my age. They grew up in an Egypt gripped by the sense of bleakness and lack of opportunity that had driven my parents to emigrate.
Their vote on Wednesday was meant to reverse those stagnant decades. More precisely, their vote was simply about believing they could reverse those times.
These presidential elections – Egypt’s first free and fair vote – were a step along a painstaking process that began nearly 16 months ago with a public uprising that swept Mubarak from power.
For many who live in active democracies, the idea of casting a ballot can be taken for granted: Voting, whether it's for local councils or presidents, is a routine, often fleeting moment squeezed into the day before rushing off to work or perhaps during a lunch break.
But this historic moment is not lost on people in budding democracies, like Egypt’s: My family voted knowing that others had died to make it possible.
Aside from the politics of the vote – who they would vote for, why they chose their candidate, what did they want their candidate to achieve on their behalf – there was an underlying belief among my aunt and cousins that this time they had a role, this time their voice mattered, this time the candidates have to work to earn their trust.
“Who could believe that these people would stand up on TV and try to convince us that he is one of us, worthy of our confidence and that he would serve the people,” my aunt said.
My family lived one of the paradoxes of Egypt’s revolution. On Jan. 25, 2011, when the movement began, they sat in the comfort of their home, anxiously watching what was unfolding just a few miles away.
They didn’t participate in the revolution and never went to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests. The weight of apathy from years of being marginalized as citizens was too much to overcome.
Their pessimism was deeply entrenched, and they didn’t believe change was possible.
Instead, those who did believe took to the streets every day for 18 days until they dislodged Mubarak.
The revolutionaries achieved change that few in my extended family thought possible. Their sense of optimism not only galvanized a country but also resonated around the world.
Nearly 16 months later, the roles are somewhat reversed. Many in the youth movements and activists who brought about the change boycotted the presidential elections. And many who didn’t support the revolution early on are participating in the electoral process to bring about change.
Even notable political figures like Mohamed Mustafa ElBaradei – a famed diplomat who ran the International Atomic Energy Agency during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq – withdrew from the race in frustration because the transitional process from Mubarak to a democracy was being led by the military council.
Many revolutionaries shared his frustration that Egypt’s transition to democracy had been botched. Almost all agree the process could have been better.
Still, so many did vote.
My aunt and Reham voted for someone very few would consider resembles change: Ahmed Shafiq, a former commander in the Air Force who briefly became the prime minister in the final days of Mubarak’s presidency.
Shafiq, they argue, represents stability and security, the very things that Egypt needs now after 16 months of chaos and uncertainty. Everything else for them is secondary. Security is the gateway to everything else and the only person who can deliver it is Shafiq, they say.
And while they understand why people criticize him for being a remnant of the old regime, they say it’s admirable that he would choose to run in the face of such adversity.
“It shows that he has character,” Reham says.
And if he steps out of line, Tahrir is always an option, she adds.
They argue that the other leading candidates, mainly the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, is duplicitous. His political party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party, has made every possible mistake they can so far, they believe.
“They have lied to the people about their political ambitions,” Reham says.
And for people new to the untrustworthy nature of elected officials and their constituents, that goes a long way in a place like Egypt that is experiencing the cunning of politics and politicians for the first time.
“All you have to do is watch them fighting in parliament and you will see that they are not up to the responsibility of being in power,” my aunt adds.
As educated women who have worked, Mai and Reham don’t trust any Islamist politicians. They have already lied about many issues, so why would they not lie about their intentions to curb the rights of women or society at large? they ask.
Many Egyptians feel this way. A poll conducted by Gallup shows Egyptians have quickly grown weary of Islamist politicians, who have seen their popularity wane from just a few short months ago.
The yearning for security and stability among the older women in my family gives away to the idealism of youth.
My youngest cousin, Mai, voted for a socialist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahy. While she does like Sabahy’s egalitarian campaign program, she concedes he is a tough sell for most Egyptians and a longshot for president. But she was disheartened by the choice of candidates that emerged in the wake of the revolution and so thinks that Sabahy was the best of the options, not because who he was per se, but rather who the others were.
The most touching moment for me was watching 6-year-old Habeeba try to dip her finger in the voting ink as an election official pulled the bottle away.
After my aunt voted, with the ink still fresh on her finger, Habeeba reached up and pushed her finger up against her grandmother’s to rub some of the liquid onto herself.
Habeeba has seen her family genuinely vote three times in the past year. She has witnessed the democratic process in action, no matter how flawed, more than any other woman in my family had in their entire lifetimes previously.
She is now growing up in a house where opinions differ and debates rage, but most importantly, will have a sense of belief that she and her voice will matter.
My aunt Faten, who spent her life believing her daughters would never cast a ballot that really mattered, is convinced her granddaughters will one day vote and it will make a difference.
Who knows, by the time Habeeba grows up it may become as routine as voting during a lunch break.
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