Friday, 16 December 2011

An interview with Egypt's First Woman Candidate for the Post of President

Bothaina Kamel is the first woman to ever run for president in Egypt. Her candidacy comes at a crucial time, as women are trying to assert the social status they gained during the uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in February. But her presence in both local and international media is virtually non-existent.

Bothaina Kamel is the Feminine Face of Egypt's Tryst with Democracy. Photo sourced from:
Hossam el-Hamalawy's Flickr Stream

When she announced she would be campaigning to become Egypt’s next president in April, Kamel stirred up virulent reactions. Religious and conservative groups contested her right to run, arguing that a woman in a position of power was against the Sharia, Islam’s code of conduct. But in her opinion, these are false claims. “It is part of the male-dominated mentality to use religion to oppress women,” she said. “They are manipulating the Sharia.”

Manipulation is something Kamel knows a lot about. From 1992 to 1998, she hosted the late-night radio show Night Confessions, in which callers discussed social and sexual issues openly. “I suffered a lot during those six years, because they kept trying to stop the program,” she said. Despite pressure from conservative groups, the show became popular among young people. It eventually got cancelled in 1998, and Kamel was left with her other job as a news presenter on national television.

Around that time, she joined Saudi-owned channel Orbit TV to present a show called Please Understand Me. At first, the program featured psychologists answering viewers’ questions, but as it grew more popular, it became an opportunity for her to tackle political issues. “It was a very accessible format, so we tried to discuss corruption and criticise the regime,” she adds. This decision owed her young people’s approval, but cost her her job on Egypt’s state television. “I needed a break anyway,” she said. “I couldn’t read their lies anymore.”

It is not the first time Kamel gets involved in democratising Egyptian politics. In 2005, she founded the election monitor “We are watching you”. But taking the leap into the presidential race was a bold move. Isobel Coleman, director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the US Council on Foreign Relations, said: “She’s very brave. She knows she has little to no chance of winning, but she’s putting herself out there.”

Kamel’s gender is not the only obstacle to her victory. Next year will be the first time independent candidates are allowed to run in the presidential election. In the past, they all had to be approved by former president Mubarak and his parliament before campaigning, but that rule was cancelled in 2005, giving everyone the right to run independently. As a result, there are more than 25 candidates in this election. “It’s a crowded political field,” Coleman said. “The strongest candidates have been on the political stage for decades, and Kamel has no name-brand recognition.”

The competition will be tough, but the 49-year-old might benefit from a voter turnout expected to be historically high after years of corrupted elections. “The overall participation has been very low because Egyptians felt there was no point in voting, but this time it will be very high,” Coleman said. Women in particular are more likely to go to the polls than in the past because of the confidence they gained during the revolution. Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Al Saadawi explained that a lot of women found the strength to divorce their abusing husbands after the uprising. “I was on Tahrir Square in February,” she said. “Not a single girl was harassed.”

Unfortunately, the feeling of equality women briefly enjoyed while fighting on the front line of protests has faded, and many are complaining that things have gone back to the way they used to be. But according to Kamel, this is due to a security void left by the police after the uprising. “The police left the country and communities were alone to sort the chaos. It was very dangerous.” She believes it was the intention of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to make people feel unsafe. She said: “They are trying to tarnish the revolution and soil our image.”

Egypt is now at a critical point. As the country’s former leader is facing trial, people are trying to consolidate democracy in a very unstable social climate, and Bothaina Kamel is a symbol of this transition. “She’s a trail blazer,” Coleman said. “She’s laying the ground work for a more normal political role for women.” But her candidacy has not received a lot of media coverage. The Egyptian press is mostly critical, but it is Western media’s apparent lack of interest that is the most surprising. In the UK, The Guardian was the only national newspaper to print an article about her, and her name is nowhere to be found on the BBC website. Yet, the power of Western media to influence events in Egypt became obvious when the military was forced to abandon virginity tests it had been conducting on female protesters after American television network CNN denounced the practice. Coleman said: “Western media have a role to play in shining the spotlight on this type of issue.”

But getting a lot of attention from the West could also backfire. Kamel explained that protesters were accused of serving “the foreign agenda” during the uprising. She added: “Since the revolution, there has been a lot of hostility towards people who talk to foreigners.” And on the Egyptian political scene, showing good relationships with Western media is often frowned upon. However, Coleman believes that since Kamel’s candidacy is already controversial, she could only benefit from the exposure. “She is playing an important role and breaking down stereotypes, so she needs more attention,” she said.

Bothaina Kamel is not likely to win this election, but her ambition is to pave the way for the next generation of Egyptian women. She said: “By running for president, we are sending a message to everyone, opening the door for women to even dream of getting a top job one day. These rights have to be fought for.”

Melodie Michel

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