Domestic rifts: Egypt households divided by tough electoral choices

Bel Trew, Friday 15 Jun 2012

As country struggles with post-revolution democratic experiment, many families are divided against themselves over Egypt's hotly-contested presidential runoff

People argue about elections in Tahrir Square in Cairo on May 25, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

At a Mahalla polling station, during the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections, an Al-Ahram reporter spotted a couple fighting in the queue. The husband was threatening to divorce his wife if she did not vote for Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

We never found out if the marriage lasted long enough to see the second trip to the ballot boxes.

Speaking to voters across Egypt’s polling stations, it was clear that many families were divided politically. This division has only intensified with the polarising runoff between an Islamist, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, and a former regime member.

It became such a widespread phenomenon, in fact, that a popular hashtag – #CandidateDomesticFights – spread across Twitter and a joke campaign circulated on social media entitled, "If your father is going to vote for Shafiq, steal his ID." 

"We have fights over the breakfast table every morning about who to vote for… it’s a new thing for us, but at least we’re talking about it," said Sara, 23, a recent dentistry graduate from downtown Cairo, who will vote for the Brotherhood candidate.

Her extended family, which voted for different candidates, gathered for a rare familial outing to the polling station for the first-round vote and plans to convene again for the 16 June runoff.

"We didn’t have politics for 60 years. Only one year ago, not only did we not have candidates to speak of, but people were not interested. These conversations simply never took place," says Khalid Fahmy, history professor at the American University in Cairo, referring to Egypt’s newly-discovered political lexicon. "The elections are the talk of the day, in the street and in homes."

Post-revolutionary Egypt, Fahmy explains, has to a certain extent rid itself of the anxiety that long paralysed public political discourse.

One reason, he explained, is that Egyptians have gone to vote three times in less than one year, acquiring an "enormous amount of experience in a very short period of time."

The revolution is touching families’ daily lives, he adds, whether or not they support it.

Asmaa, 24, an English teacher from Cairo's Hadayek Al-Qobbah district, who spoke of fears for her life if she aired her opinions in public before the revolution, describes heated elections-related conversations with her fiancé at home, and fierce debates in the women’s carriages of the Cairo metro – which have become hotbeds of political discussion.

In one close-knit family, which, as she said, "used to just watch TV programs together" and rarely voted, now boasts members across the political spectrum: Asmaa’s parents and fiancé will vote for Morsi  ("otherwise, they think they’re voting against Islam"), her brother is opting for Shafiq, while she is planning to boycott the poll.

With the inevitable confusion that comes from a rapidly evolving post-revolution political landscape, Fahmy adds, it is not surprising family members are at loggerheads.

In addition, many families feel the two presidential finalists present entirely different versions of Egypt.

"They have cut out the middle ground candidates in the second round, so there is a lot at stake, particularly in a domestic context," says Nihal, 45, a development consultant from Maadi, who admitted to "publically shaming" her sister for voting for Shafiq. "Your economic livelihood, your kids at school, your work is all at risk; before [the revolution] you could convince yourself that politics happened on a parallel plain,” she said.

Many in her circle, she says, are choosing candidates for domestic reasons, such as "wanting to wear a bathing suit" or ensuring access to alcohol.

"People are voting negatively rather than positively," says Fahmy, explaining that voters were opting for candidates who would best counteract the contender they do not want. Despite the fact that the revolution gave the nation newfound confidence, he adds, Egypt has been unable to shrug off the politics of fear.

Fear, Fahmy says, still underlies much of the public discourse, most alarmingly with respect to the position of religion in politics and the role of the Islamists.

Now, with the possibility of a former regime member becoming president, Sara explains, the electoral landscape has shifted again, which is why – despite being a critic of the Muslim Brotherhood – she is voting for Morsi. And she has been fighting with her family to do the same.

"People are voting reactively, especially in the second round," says Magy, 40, who will spoil her ballot after experiencing firsthand the lack of transparency in the Egyptian electoral process while running for a parliamentary seat last November.

Certainly, Magy says, her extended family, who are all Christian, will vote for Shafiq, fearing an Islamist state for "practical" rather than ideological reasons.

"Coptic-Christians will vote in force in the runoff; to them, it’s almost a matter of life or death," she says.

Many families, she says, are finding themselves divided, as they vote in response to different fears.

In Cairo’s working-class district of Shubra, Mostafa, a 24-year-old activist and student, says he gets into daily screaming matches with his mother, housewife Hanan, who plans to vote for Shafiq.

He believes that the generation gap contributes to voting conflicts within the family.

"My friends and I are thinking about the long-term future, which is why we reject elections under these circumstances," Mostafa says. "But my friend’s parents are worried about how they will pay the bills; they're thinking about security right now."

This, he says, is his mother’s main reason for choosing Shafiq. "He’s got the police behind him," Hanan adds.

She sees a very different Egypt, Mostafa explains: she never witnessed state violence against protesters in Tahrir Square and instead gets her information from "her direct domestic surroundings and state television."

Hanan does not know that her son regularly attends protests and clashes.

"The difference is that Mostafa reads politics from the internet and from what his friends share on social media; it’s more like rumour than news," says Hanan. "This has affected their voting choices. The youth gave their votes to people without experience."

This triggers another fight, which is only resolved when both agree that a Salafist uncle – who is voting for Morsi in the runoff – is an "idiot."

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