CAIRO -- Rushing from one telephone call to another, Bothaina Kamel casually tosses her hair, as she answers questions from incoming callers. She radiates a winning combination of softness and power that in many countries give her nothing less than a knock-out punch for politics.
But here in Egypt, the quick moving and energetic Kamel is facing an uphill battle since she announced her intention to run for Egypt’s top job last year.
“I want to help bring change to Egypt. That is it. And I can do it,” she says, taking a moment to sip a hot drink from a glass at her headquarters in central Cairo. She told The Media Line she doesn’t have time for pomp and circumstance.
“Leave that to the men. I’m here to make a better country,” she says, grabbing another incoming call, getting updates from a march only a few blocks away. “It’s time to go,” she says and quickly shakes hands and jolts out of the room. Off to the barricades.
Kamel is no stranger to the frontlines of protests, having been there in November for the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in central Cairo, then again less than a month later when the military junta attacked a sit-in at the cabinet building. In February, Kamel was present, showing solidarity and support for whom she calls “my fellow Egyptian fighters” when clashes erupted near the Ministry of Interior.
She has been detained, beaten and arrested by the country’s military. She has featured in international media and has earned the support she has through attending protests, speaking to people in villages and working for grassroots change in Egypt, unlike any of the other candidates who have nominated themselves.
The nomination expected to create a field of about 10 or so serious contenders for the office when voters go to the polls at the end of May. Even though the revolution that led to elections brought an end to Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the front-running candidates in fact are holdovers from the old regime.
Amr Moussa was head of the Arab League and foreign minister under Mubarak. Mansour Hassan was a minister under Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor, and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander who appointed by prime minister in the final days of Mubarak’s rule. Others are Islamists like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a prominent Salafist.
Still, with less than three months until Egyptians take to the polls to elect a new president, most average Egyptians have never even heard of her. “Bothaina who?” they ask. When told she is the woman who hosted a call-in talk show a number of years back to assist women with personal issues, sometimes a light bulb goes off in recognition.
“But she’s running for president?” asks Mariam, a 47-year-old mother of four and housewife in the Garden City neighborhood of Cairo. For her, Kamel is not a politician, but a talk show host. Nothing more.
Apparently, the local press tends to agree with Mariam. In the past few months, not a single Arabic newspaper has mentioned Kamel as a candidate for the presidency. When her name comes up in their stories, she is called an “activist.”
Kamel insists that she isn’t bothered by this. “My supporters are growing and I believe in my mission. Maybe I won’t win this time, but it is important for women to be out there,” she added in a later phone conversation.
A television host and activist for most of her adult life, Kamel was born in 1962 and graduated from Cairo University in 1983, where she was active in the student union. Although she has long been part of the media establishment – anchoring a radio program called “Midnight Confessions,” working as a presenter for the Egyptian state television and hosting the hit show “Please Understand Me” on the Saudi-owned satellite TV channel Orbit – she has long been identified as a pro-democracy advocate and for repeated conflicts with the authorities.
But being a woman is not enough to get elected. Leading women’s rights advocates in the country, including Nawal Saadawi, have been apprehensive about throwing their support behind a female candidate simply because she is a woman. “I must know her program before I can support her,” Saadawi told The Media Line.
This month, however, ahead of the official nomination period, which began on March 10 and runs through April 8, Kamel issued a briefing on her campaign’s platform. It was a daring move because it was something her male counterparts have refrained from doing, preferring to refer to justice, freedom and democracy than actually talking about their platforms.
She talks about a minimum wage, rule of law, separation of religion and state, and a civil society based on a constitution. At a recent public talk, she spoke candidly about the role of her candidacy as a means of boosting female participation in Egypt’s future. nevertheless, she concedes that her country’s transition to democracy will be difficult.
Kamel says that while she opposed Mubarak`s regime, she never imagined that the revolution would occur as it did but warns that it has yet to achieve all its goals.
“The revolution did stop, however, the planned succession of power,” she says, referring to the military’s takeover of power last February, which removed the threat of Mubarak’s son taking over.
Still, the media rarely cover her events, and when they do they are often condescending to her as a female candidate, often referring to her dress and appearance instead of the substance of her remarks.
An assistant editor at a leading Arabic daily, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of his comments, told The Media Line that this is the policy within the old guard of newspapers.
“Women have traditionally -- and are still today --considered to be wives and mothers first. So when there is any coverage of women in the political sphere, there are ways of reporting it so they don’t get the credibility they deserve,” the editor explains. For this to change, “the local and independent media must step in to fill these gaps. The people at the top in most Arabic newspapers are older men and they don’t like to be stepped on, especially by influential and powerful women.”
That’s where Kamel’s candidacy will be instrumental in changing attitudes, she believes. “We can only do as much as we are capable of doing and if it helps to change a few peoples’ ideas about women and government then that’s great. I will keep fighting for what is right no matter what.”
Even if the media fail to give her the ink she deserves.