Unveiled female former television broadcaster aims to bring a social revolution to Egypt in run for president (NATIONAL POST) Peter Goodspeed 03/31/12)
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No one gives her a chance. But the prospect of an unveiled woman
becoming president of Egypt in an election battle with a dozen
Islamic male candidates is making headlines internationally.
It’s just that in Egyptian newspapers, former radio personality and
television news anchor Bothaina Kamel, the first and only woman to
run for Egypt’s presidency, is usually referred to only as
an “activist” — if she is ever referred to at all.
“Some people have come up to me and asked, ‘Is it even legal for a
woman to run?’” she says. “I hope to set a trend, to open a door.”
For nearly a year now, the 49-year-old brunette has been actively
campaigning across Egypt, meeting people face-to-face in small
rallies and arguing that Egypt needs a social revolution in addition
to a political one.
“We are moving through the villages and bringing the revolution to
all of Egypt, not just the big cities,” she says.
“Women are a great part of this revolution,” she recently told
Egyptian journalist Manar Ammar. “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.”
Assertive and accessible, Ms. Kamel has almost always been
controversial. For six years she was the host of a late-night radio
program in Egypt called “Nighttime Confessions.” Listeners would call
in to talk about their problems and seek advice on everything from
sexual abuse, premarital sex, homosexuality and spousal abuse.
It was one of the most popular shows in Egypt at the time, but was
taken off the air after outraged religious authorities complained and
a government advisory committee claimed the program portrayed
Egyptians as depraved and sinful.
Ms. Kamel then moved to state television where she served as a news
But within two years she angrily applied for a leave of absence,
insisting she was unable to continue reading the propaganda bulletins
the government of Hosni Mubarak put out as news.
In 2005, when Mr. Mubarak staged Egypt’s first ever contested
presidential election (and won a fifth term in office with 88.6% of
the vote) Ms. Kamel and two friends set up an election monitoring
group, “We Are Watching You,” to document voting irregularities.
She also became the host of a popular interview and talk
show, “Please Understand Me,” on the Saudi-owned satellite station
While she has never had the type of influence or popularity of Oprah
Winfrey, she still created a stir during her coverage of the Arab
Spring, when her show was suddenly canceled, 30 minutes to air time,
over plans to document how Mr. Mubarak spirited billions out of Egypt.
Apparently station executives were worried the show might reveal
Saudi Arabia’s role in propping up Mr. Mubarak.
Ms. Kamel played a prominent role in the Tahrir Square protests that
toppled Mr. Mubarak, touring the square frequently and joining
thousands of other women who stood side-by-side with male
demonstrators at the barricades.
By April, before Egypt’s ruling generals had even set a date for
presidential election, Ms. Kamel announced on Twitter that she would
be a candidate and intended to represent the poor and disadvantaged,
championing the cause of Coptic Christians, Bedouins and the disabled.
She adopted “Egypt is My Agenda” as her campaign slogan.
“While Islamists, remnants of the former regime, businessmen and the
military are vying for power, I will represent the marginalized in
Egyptian society,” she says.
While women were in the vanguard of the protests that ousted Mr.
Mubarak, it didn’t take long for Egypt’s long held sexism to reassert
itself. The army council that replaced the dictator rapidly moved to
eliminate the 68 parliamentary seats that were reserved for women and
female demonstrators were forced to undergo “virginity tests” by
security forces to ascertain whether they were “suitably moral.”
At the time, Ms. Kamel was married to Emad Abu Ghazi, the culture
minister in the new post-Mubarak transition government.
By August, she had divorced and remarried a reform minded judge,
Ashraf el-Baroudi, vice-president of Egypt’s High Court of Appeal.
In November, when 24 protesters were killed in a security crackdown
in Cairo, Ms. Kamel complained to reporters that she had been a
victim of sexual assault by soldiers who beat her “all over”
and “touched her sexually” while trying to clear Tahrir Square.
A vehement critic of the armed forces, she has accused the military
of trying to thwart Egypt’s revolution.
“Who dragged us into all this?” she demanded in a recent interview on
the Saudi television news channel Al Arabiya. “Who opened the door
for the remnants of the former regime to come back? Who delayed the
purging of the judiciary, the media and government institutions? Who
killed the revolutionaries? Who refused to restructure the police and
helped in making the security situation much worse? The military
council did all this.
“I am not only calling upon them to step down, but I also want them
The chances of Ms. Kamel making much headway politically in Egypt are
slim. Since Mr. Mubarak resigned, power has shifted to the hands of
Islamists, with the
Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis controlling nearly
70% of the seats in parliament.
The Salafis are already on record as rejecting the idea of ever
having a woman or a Christian as president, while the Muslim
Brotherhood, which doesn’t grant women seats on its leadership
council, is still debating adopting the restriction.
Only five women have seats in Egypt’s new 508 seat parliament.
Still, Cairo University political scientist Moustafa Kamel al-Sayed
warns the coming elections may be unpredictable, since Egypt has
never experienced anything like them before.
“Kamel’s candidacy carries more weight than many observe — even
though she has no realistic chance of winning,” says Egyptian
Internet blogger Bassem Sabry. “At a time when political and social
values are being rewritten… the shockwaves of a legitimate female
candidacy could be massive.”
Earlier this month, when she visited the University of Michigan to
speak to Arab students during International Woman’s Day, Ms. Kamel
said she has a younger sister, whom she described as a religious
conservative who wears a hajib and votes for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Her sister is supporting her presidential bid, she said, telling
her “it is something you’re doing for Egypt, not for yourself.”
“Egyptians have already broken the wall of fear,” she said. “Nobody
ever imagined there would be a revolution. But we did it. You ask if
Egypt is ready to vote for a woman? We have to make it ready.
“Once the idea of a woman presidential candidate is out there in the
light of day, nobody will be able to kill it.” (© 2012 National Post,
a division of Postmedia Network Inc. 03/31/12)
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