by Manar Ammar
In a sea of local press coverage and media appearances of presidential nominees for Egypt’s upcoming election, Bothaina Kamel’s name is left out. As the country’s first woman to nominate herself for Egypt’s highest position, she is doing more on the ground than any of her male competitors.
The 49-year-old former talk show host is no stranger to breaking social norms of what a woman can and cannot do. A self-proclaimed social democrat, her campaign motto is simple: “Egypt is my agenda.”
“I intend to run for [the] presidency in 2011” came her nomination announcement on the micro-blogging website Twitter. Coinciding with the announcement, she changed her profile description to “Journalist, mother & Egyptian presidential candidate.” She felt there must be a woman candidate and has been traveling around Egypt since.
“I decided to do a tour around Egypt to know what people are thinking,” she told me over the phone while on a train heading to Southern Egypt. Her voice carried unusual energy and from time to time she would stop to say remarks about the fleeting scenes she was watching through her window. Once or twice she commented about the Nile, the trees, and how the glowing sun was casting an afternoon light. Kamel, as busy as she is, agreed to do our interview over the phone and I found her hopeful and optimistic.
“I couldn’t have done it if it was not for the revolution, no one could have nominated themselves if it wasn’t for the revolution.”
Egypt’s 18 days of protesting that started on January 25, 2011 brought down President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The peaceful revolution was met with violence from security forces and riot police who opened fire at protesters killing at least 1000 and injuring thousands more. Mubarak, his two sons Alaa and Gamal, former minister of interior Habib al-Adly, and six of his top aides are on trial; and if convicted, they could face the death penalty for the killing of protesters.
“I am the nominee of the revolution. I came out of this revolution’s womb.”
Kamel, like thousands of other Egyptian women, was part of the revolution from the beginning. She was seen marching and chanting and at times forming a human shield to prevent police from arresting the young activists.
“Women are a great part of this revolution, they helped plan for it and participated in it and we also gave many female martyrs. We have a share in this revolution, in our revolution,” she says. Many Egyptian women gave their lives to the revolution, including housewives who were shot while watching and cheering the protests from their balconies and windows, according to eyewitnesses and rights activists. There are no official numbers of how many women died during the uprising, but according to testimonies, the number is in the hundreds.
Kamel is not a stranger to hearing people and listening to their issues. She hosted a popular radio show in the 1990s called “Nightly Confessions” where callers told her personal stories and asked for advice. The program broke social barriers when it discussed sexual violence and relationship affairs, thus was stopped after a religious committee ruled that the show “gave Egypt a bad name.”
Kamel later moved to TV and hosted an interview-based program called “Please Listen to Me” where she had social and political figures discussing an array of current issues. Her show was stopped by the channel after the January 25 revolution, being notified only 30 minutes before the show.
“My nomination is really a message to the country. Amid a patriarchal society it is an important step. With the implementation of human rights and freedoms, people will start to feel that their country is theirs once again.”
In the heart of who Kamel is, she is a defender of social justice. In a country where over half the population makes less than $2 a day, the “poverty and corruption fighter” has put her hand on real development issues. She is engaged in many development projects outside of Cairo with an aim to give locals tools to better their lives.
Kamel’s adversaries are well known and established politicians. For example there is Amr Moussa, Egypt’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and former head of the Arab League, a man with great appeal on the street. There is also Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) did a poll on the presidential nominees on its Facebook page, her name was not even included.
So where does Kamel see herself among these nominees? She says that the political powers and the other nominees are far from the revolution and that they have “lost touch with the base.”
“I am a revolutionist more than anything else. I used to consider myself a rights activist before, but now I am mainly a revolutionist. So when I felt that the revolution was slipping away from our fingers and that other powers were trying to grab their share of the cake, I knew I had to do something.”
Kamel is an outspoken critic of the SCAF, Egypt’s ruling power after Mubarak. She believes they only supported the revolution after it was internationally hailed.
On May 14, the military prosecutor questioned Kamel for over five hours regarding messages she wrote on Twitter following a conversation she had with General Ismail Etman, head of Moral Affairs of the SCAF. Kamel confronted the general on the arrest and abuse of demonstrators by the military police and the forced virginity tests of female detainees. Kamel says the meeting went “all right” and no charges were pressed against her, but it revealed the army was following what she says.
“I see what is going on now as a dirty game on the SCAF’s part and besides the army was never a democratic institution, it goes against democracy and civil rights.” She seems to have no intentions to stop defying the military.
Asking Kamel about the reactions she received after her nomination and whether the negativity from some has gotten to her she laughed, saying that it was the Egyptian press who seemed focused on issues like her cooking and her domestic duties and how she would be drifting away from her traditional role as a woman. She said that on the ground people she meets are very supportive and she is always received with great warmth and friendliness. She strangely added that the older generations seem more open-minded and welcoming than the younger ones. Kamel’s observation seems to echo new conservatism spreading through some of the younger generation of Egypt who, being affected by the Salafi, puritanical way of thinking, try to diminish women’s roles in society and participation in public life.
“When an Islamic law student came to me and told it was ‘haram’ [forbidden] for women to hold a position such as president, I told him to go home and study because there is nothing in Islam that opposes that.”
Kamel is now always on the move, traveling from one city to another - talking, meeting different groups, and participating in new projects. She is hoping that the SCAF will set a clear date for the elections and a clear plan for the upcoming period.
As she travels, Kamel’s real base continues to grow. No matter how many experts say her chances are slim and how much the press ignores or stereotypes her, she remains a fighter and her work with people seems to not to be bound to an election. As much as Egypt needs a leader with a vision for political and economic reforms, it also needs a voice of reason that fiercely fights for the little man. This seems to be where Kamel’s strength lies.
While it is still hard on many Egyptians to digest the concept of a woman president, it is easy for many to like Bothaina Kamel. For all her engaging liveliness and grassroots efforts, she is still going to be in history as the first woman who went head to head with other nominees without partaking much in political games.
About the Author:
Manar Ammar is an Egyptian journalist who was born and raised in Cairo. Her work has appeared in the Daily News Egypt, All Headline News (AHN), Al Helwa Weekly, Women News Network (WNN) and Bikya Masr. Manar's writing and reporting focuses on politics and women's issues in the MENA region.