QENA, Egypt -- 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 Brotherhoods candidate, Mohammed Morsi, in Egypts landmark presidential poll.
Instead, she voted for Morsis 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.
Alis independence wouldve been shocking here even a year ago, when the orders of clan leaders were law and their subjects fell in line. But Tahrir Squares 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 Egypts 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.
Its 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 theyd 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 Egypts uprising against Hosni Mubaraks regime, the heads of Qenas 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 Mubaraks 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 Shafiks rival, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
She and her friend, 42-year-old Fatima Abdullah, both said theyd chosen Moussa because they didnt 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 well 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 Brotherhoods ascent; they allied with the groups 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 Peoples Assembly.