Female presidential candidate tests Egypt's new democracy


Egyptian presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel speaks to guests in her downtown campaign office on Sept. 7, 2011.


Penny Bradfield

CAIRO, Egypt — “Given their emotional nature, women cannot be president. Women are always affected when they see somebody weeping, for example.”

That’s the opinion offered recently by Mohamed Hassan, a spokesman for the Islamist Construction and Development Party, on why a woman cannot become president in Egypt’s new democracy.

It is not an isolated view. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party is likely to win the largest share of any party in upcoming parliamentary elections, has flirted with the idea of banning women from the highest office.

Bothaina Kamel, who will swim against this tide of opinion as Egypt’s first woman presidential candidate, however, is undeterred.

“They can say whatever they want. This is a democratic country now,” she said in an interview at her campaign office in downtown Cairo.

Kamel, a 49-year-old former television and radio journalist with a long history of opposing former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, has little choice but to be philosophical. Pundits give her only a slender chance of winning the presidential election, which is scheduled for some time next year. Local media haven’t taken her seriously, Kamel herself says.

Yet her candidacy alone shows how much Egypt is changing. New parties and candidates are blooming in the fertile post-revolution political environment. Seeds are being planted, including the idea that a woman can get elected in the Arab world’s largest nation.

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The revolution that toppled Mubarak in February proved anything is possible in Egypt, she says. Few Egyptians could have imagined a year ago seeing Mubarak in a court room, facing testimony from his own inner circle.

“Egyptians have already broken the wall of fear,” she said. “Nobody had ever imagined there would be a revolution here. 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.”

Kamel, who recently remarried — she is divorced from her first husband, with whom she has a daughter — has strong credentials as a pro-democracy activist. In 2005, she took a leave of absence from working as a newsreader for state television rather than continue to read what she considered government propaganda.

She also helped found an election monitoring group, called We’re Watching You, for Egypt’s 2005 poll and was an early supporter of the Kefaya (“Enough”) movement, a broad coalition of anti-Mubarak activists.

She was dumped by her most recent employer, a Saudi-owned broadcaster, early this year after she reported on what happened to the billions of dollars that Mubarak allegedly fleeced from his people. Kamel says station executives were worried about her raising Saudi Arabia’s role in hiding the money.

With Mubarak gone, Kamel has taken aim at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is ruling Egypt until elections are held. She has become a prominent campaigner against military trials for civilians and has accused the military council of stoking recent sectarian violence between Muslims and Copts, which has left dozens dead.

Her campaign is not targeting women in particular. Indeed she insists she is “not a feminist” and doesn’t want anyone to vote for her because she is a woman. Rather she is championing the cause of Egypt’s poor and its minorities — including subsistence farmers, Coptic Christians, Bedouins and the disabled. (She has purposefully hired campaign staff with disabilities, including a nearly-blind campaign manager.)

Stuck between a hostile interim military government and a dismissive media, Kamel, a self-described social democrat, says she is running a grassroots campaign, traveling the country and speaking directly to the people.

This strategy has its risks, not least of which is security. At a recent rally, she was attacked by a man wielding a sword. She points to a graze on her wrist that she suffered during the scuffle. Her driver received a serious head wound protecting her while police and soldiers, she said, stood idly by.

“It’s safer for me to do small events and visit people’s houses, particularly in the presence of thugs out there, the presence of remnants of the (former ruling) National Democratic Party and the enmity between me and the council of the armed forces.”

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Still, it will be difficult to win one vote at a time. Despite having been well-known as a broadcaster, Kamel is struggling to be heard against high-profile candidates such as former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed elBaradei and former foreign minister and Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa.

In remarks that show the offhand attitude of her peers, Mounir Saad, a Coptic vice-presidential candidate, recently told the daily Al Masry Al Youm that Kamel’s run for president was “unrealistic.”

“I only included her picture on my promotional material with the other candidates to be polite,” he told the paper.

Kamel says she is untroubled by such remarks. The future course for Egypt’s democracy will be “long and difficult,” she says. The right ideas have to be planted today. As an example, she refers to an email she says she received from a young girl.

“(The girl) wrote, ‘I know you have a long and difficult road, but you have already opened the way to us. You have allowed us to dream and have our own ambitions.’”