Protester to President?

Megan Detrie for The National

Dec 3, 2011

Bothaina Kamel helped to topple Hosni Mubarak and now is the only female candidate trying to replace him as president of Egypt. Following the latest protests in Tahrir Square, the charismatic activist tells Megan Detrie about her time in jail and the latest unrest when Egyptian security forces fired barrages of tear gas outside the ministry of interior at protesters demanding Egypt’s army relinquish power last month during demonstrations that left at least 38 people dead and thousands injured, the country’s first female presidential candidate stood among the demonstrators.

Bothaina Kamel, a television celebrity, was a familiar face at protests even prior to those in January that ousted the then-president, Hosni Mubarak. As protests re-emerged in late November in Tahrir Square demanding the removal of the head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Kamel remained confident Egypt’s revolutionaries would prevail.

“Still, they don’t listen to us or our demands, but I am sure we’ll win,” she said.

Last month, thousands of protesters spent nearly five days in a continuous stand-off with Egyptian riot police on a side street near Tahrir Square. Demonstrators threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police to keep them from being in range to tear gas the square. Police still responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and, protesters say, live rounds. Throughout the square and surrounding neighbourhoods, the smell of tear gas hung heavily in the air days after fighting ceased.

In response, Tantawi dismissed the cabinet and set July 1, 2012 as the date for a full transfer to civilian power. But Kamel says the move is not enough, and like other protesters, insists on a full transfer of power now to a national unity government.

“She’s the only candidate who is taking an active role in the revolution on Tahrir Square, working from a grass-roots level to help the youth movement,” says Rowan El Shimi, an activist and blogger.

While visiting one of the field hospitals near Tahrir Square during the protests, Kamel was detained by riot police and hauled into the interior ministry building with around 25 protesters and doctors, where she says those in custody, including women, were beaten “severely”.

“The officers recognised me as a public figure, and offered to let me go, but I said they could release me when they released everyone else,” she says.

Security forces placed her in a room separate from other protesters and sexually assaulted her, before releasing her after an hour, along with a few doctors and a handful of protesters.

“Some of the soldiers grabbed me all over my body, despite officer’s orders to treat me well,” says Kamel, who returned to the fight in front of the Ministry of Interior on Mohammed Mahmoud street after being released.

Sexual assault and harassment against women has long been used as a method of intimidation by Egypt’s security forces. A few days after Kamel’s detainment, American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy was brutally beaten with sticks and sexually assault by Egyptian security forces near Tahrir square. The attack left her with a broken left arm and right hand. Released after 12 hours, her media status and dual citizenship saved her from far worse treatment, she said on Twitter.

This spring, the military faced accusations of serious abuse after Amnesty International released a report documenting 18 female protesters who were subjected to so-called “virginity tests” and threatened with prostitution charges after a crackdown on a March rally.

For Kamel, her experience at the Ministry of Interior was telling of how little has changed under the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

“I started a dialogue with the leaders in the ministry, and they told me frankly that they loved former minister of interior Habib el Adly [who is now facing fraud and money laundering charges] and were loyal to the old regime,” she says.

Kamel has a reputation for putting herself at the front line. She protested on the first day of January’s revolt, while many well-known political groups held off, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2006 she voluntarily took a leave of absence from her television show, rather than falsely report on rigged elections. She is a long-time member of the Kifaya (Enough) movement, also known as the Egyptian Movement for Change. As the first organisation to openly challenge the Mubarak regime, Kifaya played an important role pushing for political reform in Egypt since its founding in 2004 and during the 2005 elections. Though no longer prominent on the political landscape today, Kifaya was the first initiative in Egypt to truly explore and capitalise on social media and digital technology as its main means communication and organisation, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kamel adopted into her campaign many of the social media tools that had proved so effective in organising the January uprising. Last April, she announced her plans to run in the presidential elections over Twitter and relies on the site and Facebook as the main source of publicity.

In fact, unlike other tech-savvy candidates who use Twitter to release one-sided press statements, Kamel replies to most tweets sent to her, continuously re-tweeting, and posting opinions she finds important. Kamel pairs a clunky fuschia wristwatch and beaded bracelets with most outfits and has a habit of punctuating sentences with a sardonic laugh.

“At the time, I was naive, I thought we had made a revolution, now I know better,” says the 49-year-old politician.

A supporter of Egypt’s revolutionary youths, Kamel has acted as a human shield at protests and often used her celebrity status to give voice to their cause. According to Kamel, it is only now, after the revolution, that she could run for presidency. Most in Egyptian society are likely to reject the idea of a woman leading a country where the role of women in elections is often discouraged.

“My campaign is a face for the revolution, it supports the revolutionary youths, the demands of the revolution, and I always try to reveal the wrong politics of SCAF.”

Kamel has made a career of ruffling feathers. For half a decade she hosted “Night time Confessions”, a weekly radio call-in programme that handled taboo topics such as sexual abuse and premarital sex. Her show was cancelled after complaints from the government’s committee on religion that it corrupted youth and damaged the reputation of Egypt.

Her long-running satellite television talk show often criticised the Mubarak regime. It was abruptly cancelled by the Saudi-owned satellite network in February after Kamel planned a programme investigating where Mubarak’s billions of dollars were hidden. She has been one of the most outspoken public figures against SCAF.

“It’s fabulous we have a strong, female, character, who speaks for these values of dignity and human rights. Women like her in the movement are important because they can encourage other women to act in a newly political role,” says el Shimi.

Kamel hopes to act as a representative for Egypt’s marginalised – women, Coptic Christians, Nubians, Bedouins, and even, she adds with a laugh, “liberals.”

Perhaps it is her early career in journalism that has inspired her to focus her campaign on smaller communities outside of Cairo, in Egypt’s poor agricultural areas or oft ignored regional capitals.

As a young reporter, Kamel worked on a radio show called The Egypt We Don’t Know.

“I would travel throughout the country, and for each show would learn about some local irrigation, or traditional song or dance,” she says.

“The show taught me I must always talk to our people with dignity.”

I met Kamel in early September, when I joined her campaign team and a group of foreign journalists to a rally in El Aiyaat, a rural village a couple hours outside of Cairo. Dressed in a deep blue sebleh, a traditional wide dress with ornamentation around the neckline, Kamel spent the drive swapping between checking email on her blackberry, tweeting on her ipad and speaking with me about campaign methods.

“I wore their traditional gallabeya because people ignore them and consider them as something low. I want to tell them that ‘you are very precious, your culture is different, but exciting. Saying a political slogan is not enough, we have to respect people when they talk to you,” she says.

To reach El Aiyaat, one of the poorest villages in the Delta, the roads are narrow, crowded and bumpy. After four hours we arrive at the family house of Mohammed Ahmed, whose brother is the mayor of the village.

In a florescent lit room, El Aeyaat’s farmers, businessmen and leaders debate with Kamel over how how to limit corruption and improve local governance. She scribbles down notes in a small pad of paper, and fields mobile calls from residents who were not able to attend.

Egypt’s liberals have been criticised for being too cerebral in their parliamentary campaign, focusing on media appearances and statements, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s community efforts -offering price reductions on meat and vegetables during Eid – has further raised their profile.

Kamel has adopted a simple approach: Ask people what they need, then try to solve the problem.

During these trips, Kamel makes a point of campaigning door to door.

She’s led by by Ahmed down the dirt road that serves as the main thoroughfare of El Aiyaat. Bored young children, attracted by the video cameras chase ahead of her through the village as they chant “One, two, three, ana Masri” which means “I am Egyptian.”

She stops at a henna party, where many of the village’s Muslim women have gathered to prepare for a wedding that weekend. Kamel sits down next to a group of women, smiling enigmatically and asking them about their lives. She then joins the men, where they’ve gathered in small groups, smoking water pipes and lounging on rattan mats. Before leaving, she asks to visit one of the village’s few Coptic Christian families.

A Muslim, Kamel has made a point of reaching out to the Coptic community, which has long been discriminated against under the Mubarak regime and has faced increasing violence in recent months.

“We come from a dictatorship and police state, we don’t have parties, political lives or leaders, and the youth have never exercised democracy,” she says, adding that the media focuses on the wrong opposition leaders – those that are internationally known instead of those that will actually appeal to the ordinary person.

Though she’s appeared in news stories abroad, her campaign is largely ignored by local media when compared to the space given other presidential candidates Amr Moussa, the former chief of the Arab League and Nobel laureate Mohammed El Baradei, whom she dismisses, saying he’s unconvinced that Egyptians can change.

“He just gives the cause his pinkie finger, not all of himself,” she says.

Similar to the other candidates, Kamel has yet to outline a clear platform. There is little likelihood that she will win if the elections go ahead next June, but she insists that is not the point in her running.

“That’s not what I’m interested in,” she says, adding “It’s important I run because it’s not only a political revolution we need, but a social one.”

With a long history in television, Kamel has an aptitude for talking to people. By the end of her walk, Kamel had attracted a thong of new fans.

“Nobody else has done the country any good. It could be time for a female president, why not?” says Ahmed.

The Kamel file

BORN April 18, 1962, Cairo

FAMILY Recently married to Judge Ashraf El Baroudi, has a 21-year-old daughter studying at the American University in Cairo

EDUCATION Graduated from Cairo University, where she was active in student politics

CAREER Worked on the radio programmes The Egypt We Don’t Know and Night Confessions before hosting a satellite-television talk show, Please Understand Me, for a decade

POLITICS Founded Shayfeen (“We are Watching You”) with two other women to observe Egypt’s first multi-party elections in 2005. She is a Social Democrat who is a long-time member of the Kifaya (“Enough”) movement

CAMPAIGN SLOGAN “Egypt is my agenda”

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