Bothaina Kamel is running for the Egyptian presidency on sheer bravura and the whiff of an oily rag. The former news anchor talks media conspiracies, political snobbery and the guts and the glory of revolution with eniGma’s James Purtill. He finds the lady’s not for turning . . .
Anarrow and rickety lift brings us to the headquarters of Bothaina Kamel’s presidential campaign. It is her living room as well; two Blackberry phones alternately ring and beep on the coffee table. We are a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square. As we sit with Kamel to discuss her role in post-Mubarak Egypt, she recalls how, during the 18 days of the occupation, just nine months ago, protesters threw onions from the same apartment balconies to counteract the tear gas. She is happy to tell stories of her clashes with the police in the square. How she clung to a lock-up van full of detainees until the door tore loose. How she told the massed police, “Please, if you love your mum kill me now. I want to be a martyr.” How she refused to leave a lock-up van on account of her celebrity and asked to be arrested with the other detainees. As she tells these stories, her voice retains a practiced calm. She has told them many times. And she will tell them many more times on the campaign trail.
Kamel is the first and, to date, only female candidate for Egypt’s vacant presidency. The prospect of an unveiled woman going head-to-head with male Islamic candidates made headlines in international newspapers back in April. The articles were generally positive; Kamel is for secularism, gender equality and social justice for ethnic minorities, such as the Nubians. Some Islamic preachers, meanwhile, have gone as far to suggest a woman’s menstrual cycle incapacitates her from governing. When several hundred women occupied Tahrir Square to campaign for women’s rights a month after Mubarak’s resignation, they were heckled for having lax morals and being “daughters of Suzanne Mubarak.” Some were even forced to undergo ‘virginity tests’. “Women are a marginalised group in any society,” Kamel says. “If we can break the taboo of women’s rights, it will be not only for women but for everyone: for Copts, for the Bedouin of Sinai, the Nubian, the poor, and the workers.”
In July, the same square filled with bearded men holding Islamist slogans and chanting for the implementation of Sharia law. As months pass, protests in Tahrir by various political factions serve as a vivid metaphor for the mercurial and elusive nature of the revolution itself. Young liberals who believe they were the revolution’s instigators fear they have lost control of its direction and that after the elections power may be handed to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Salafists or former members of the National Democratic Party. And it is possible that women will have less power than before. Already, the SCAF has done away with the quota of 64 seats in parliament reserved for women and has yet to appoint a woman to a position of power. To date, Kamel says she has not been invited to their meetings with candidates. “Salafis are not just against me, SCAF is against me too. During the Abbasia protests in front of the Supreme Council, I was going to get killed by thugs protected by the police and the army. Now I believe that we didn’t make a revolution, we just started a revolution and we must continue.”
Rather than dissuading Kamel, these political snubs have fueled her campaign. It is apparent that she relishes her status as the figurehead of a besieged and embattled liberal platform. In a previous interview she declared her intention for this election to be “victor or martyr”. The slings and arrows of the campaign trail only prove her dedication to the revolution. In February she was unceremoniously dropped from her position as a television anchor with the Saudi-owned channel Orbit, she believes for wanting to air a program about returning Mubarak’s estimated $70 billion to Egypt. Kamel’s campaign is run entirely on her own savings and the goodwill of volunteers. She refuses financial donations. This grassroots approach is based on what worked in Tahrir Square nine months ago and it is designed to speak as loudly as her policies. “I am coming from a revolution,” she says. “My campaign is not like Hillary Clinton or Obama or anybody else. I believe in Egypt. I have a very modest campaign, but it will be a very creative one. I will use all the brave minds of Egypt. I am a special candidate. All the other candidates are focused on the day of the election. But for me the journey is also very important. It’s a social revolution. I am one of the sacrifices of the revolution.”
Though she has a high profile overseas (the day after our interview she is to be shadowed by an Australian television crew), Kamel is rarely seen on local television. She asserts that this is because of a media conspiracy. And while she does not offer hard evidence in support of this, the fact that she has already been the subject of smear campaigns suggests she has the attention of powerful forces. “In 2006 I stopped reading state news because I lost all hope of making a change from the inside as a news anchor,” she says. “After the revolution I decided to return to my work, but only after two days the army council removed me from the schedule itself. Sometimes I get invites to appear on television and at the last minute they’re cancelled.” She laughs off the paranoid accusation that her threadbare campaign is being bankrolled by ‘the West’. “You know my car is a Suzuki,” she jests. Regardless, her campaign appears to have fallen behind the well-oiled political machines of frontrunners such as the former Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.
The Guardian newspaper has described Kamel’s campaign platform as a challenge to the culture of secrecy that permeates the military’s top brass. In September she called for the formation of an independent corruption watchdog, and she says the first thing she would do if elected president is transform the headquarters of state security into schools. “I try to be transparent like Tahrir Square,” she says. “The tents during the occupation were clear plastic.”
At times it can seem Kamel only sees political machinations where there may also be social causes. Maybe this comes from being consumed by politics, and it would be an unenviable destination for the self-styled martyr. Her politics, however transparent, can become opaque. For instance, while it is entirely possible that baltagiyya (paid thugs) were bused-in to disrupt the International Women’s Day march, it is also possible that some of the hecklers were passersby who sincerely believed women should not be so outspoken in public. “Sometimes the enemy of the women is the mother of the husband,” admits Kamel, “but at the same time it’s not the women who are against me. It’s a conservative mentality. We live with discrimination.”
This is the big question: How much of the opposition to Kamel’s campaign is organised from the top down to attack her liberal policies, and how much is the result of a pervasive mentality that says a woman should not be president? One of these will dissolve over the course of an election night, the other one will take much longer. It’s a question Kamel asks each time she appears on screen or before a microphone, even before she says a word. It makes her presence on the campaign trail discomforting to some, but also profoundly necessary, revealing and courageous.