- Published on Wednesday, 09 May 2012 07:30
Bothaina Kamel, ex-wife of a former culture minister, television presenter, and activist, made a historic bid for the Egyptian presidency cementing a legacy of possibility for women across the Middle East in the wake of an ongoing Arab Awakening. Nonetheless, her campaign was widely discredited by the media and generally acknowledged as the dark horse of the Egyptian presidential election. A lack of critical support for Kamel’s candidacy led to her withdrawal from the election slated to take place this month. In an exclusive interview with Aslan Media before pulling out of the race a few weeks ago, the candidate spoke to us about why she was running, the evolving face of women’s rights in Egypt, and her hopes for the country.
Aslan Media: Can you talk about your former radio call-in show Eterafat al Layali?
BK: In 1992, I pitched the idea to take calls from people. I wanted confessions and have a show so it could be the voice of the country. This all preceded blogging. People could talk about their mistakes in a way that was unprecedented and the show was focused on young people. It was polled number one radio show in the Middle East and Egypt for 5 years in a row. The show aired from 1992-1998.
AM: Why was it taken off the air?
BK: The allegation was that [Egyptian] society has values and this show did not agree with them. These accusations came from sermons at Friday prayers, to editors to my superiors at the radio station. I had people talking about AIDS [their] infections and the generational challenges in families-- like people would call in and say “I hate my dad”—and patriarchy and the hierarchies in relationships between parents and kids. [The show was] a part of a social revolution. I was accused of talking about sexual matters. I couldn’t talk about homosexual relations. The issues I could not discuss on air I wrote about in an independent journal. At first I had to give away a lot of editorial control and then the show was taken off air. After that I got an offer to host a talk show called ‘Please Understand Me’ that was on cable and the audience was largely from the Gulf. I talked about everything that I possibly could.
AM: How has your experience as a talk show host prepared you to hold public office?
BK: In journalism in general, you are always communicating with people. Even before Eterafat El Layali I did a show called ‘The Egypt we don’t know’ – it was an anthropological program that explored social issues like on Urfi marriage – festivals for sheikhs – the traditional belt that Bedouin have to women wear. I studied the diversity of culture, traditions and ways of life and in the later shows, people’s problems – I spent my whole life on this kind of work.
In 2005, I decided to make the change from media personality to political figure when I joined Shaifinkoon -- a citizen watchdog organization -- Shaifkinnkoon is about citizen control- we monitored parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005. In 2006, Shaifinkum put pressure on Mubarak’s government for an independent judiciary. That same year, I decided to stop reading the news bulletin for state television because of the untruths I was told to report.
AM: In your estimation, what are the most important social and economic problems facing Egypt today?
BK: The most important social problem is inequality. The Nubians are treated as second-class citizens. The Bedouins, especially those in Sinai, are regularly subjected to fellow Egyptians accusing them of working for Israel and foreign agents. The Copts don’t have rights to worship and practice their faith. The poor have no rights and all of the laws and taxes in this country are designed in the interest of the rich. Social justice means equal opportunities. The main issue is you have a big part of the Egyptian society- since I announced my candidacy I’ve gone around country and met people all over Egypt with no sewage or light – they do not live a human existence. People living like animals. It’s a painful thing. I’ve been to places where there are no schools or hospitals. If it were not for civil society organizations and development projects like water projects these people would have nothing.
AM: Should your run for presidency succeed, what would you hope to achieve as Egypt’s first female leader?
BK: Economic solutions are not all – without freedom to form political parties, free press, and dignity for all Egyptians, we have nothing. We need to reinvest in education and health and a focus on rights.
What is the state of women’s rights in Egypt right now?
What happened with women in the revolution is amazing. We were serious participants – even in the face of rubber bullets, gas and death. But in Egypt we have a big problem: the military that’s taken over power [since Mubarak’s ouster].
Liberals and Copts think that Islamists are the threat to women. No. From the day the SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) took over, SCAF is against women and isolates the rights of women. From the day they decided to make a constitutional committee and no women were [included].
Along with being military rulers, they a part of Mubarak’s regime and are killing the revolution – the counter-revolution. So part of that is to kill the front liners and Egyptian women were on the frontline. When men and boys see how brave women were, it made them perform better. Competition is a beautiful thing.
Then [the military and police] started dragging women and humiliating then started so that fathers and husbands won’t let their wives and daughters go down. What has happened to women has happened to all cadres of the revolution. Also women are making unified fronts. We’re seeing unprecedented marches led by girls that are not even revolutionaries but are going out in solidarity with their sisters. The violations of rights that we’ve been subjected to serve as the primary motivation for the women mobilizing to defend their rights.
AM: Do you agree with the sentiment that women’s rights were better protected and promoted under Mubarak?
BK: SCAF’s only role is to kill the revolution. So how does it kill the dream?
Make you regret that you ever thought to revolt.
All they want to do is bring back Mubarak’s regime and kill the revolution and all the dreams of social justice like women demanding rights. They want to make it insecure for women. They want economic catastrophe. They don’t want solutions and want to make people uncomfortable. They want to scare Copts about the revolution because it has brought Islamists to power and tell women that their rights will be rolled back, but I believe that what we have started is irreversible and we have to go on with our way. Even if I am elected president the revolution is ongoing.
AM: You once said that “if there hadn't been a revolution, I would never have run in the presidential elections". Can you expand on that?
BK: Before the revolution there were constraints that made it impossible for me or anyone to be president. Before the revolution I was against Mubarak’s regime, but the revolution broke the fear barrier and I can make more sacrifices and work toward the dream that was born in each person that we can embrace our rights.
It costs 1 million Egyptian pounds to register as a candidate for the Egyptian presidency. Its horrible and classist because a poor person can’t run for presidency – this was put in place to weed people out. I plan to challenge this policy. Firstly, it was important that the media documents that my candidacy is a reality and now I have to complete the necessary paperwork to do it.
AM: Do you think the funding and media coverage of your campaign have been negatively affected because you are a woman?
BK: The media maintains the same masculine mentality. They don’t want to acknowledge my candidacy. I was at BBC Arabic back in October and the radio host called me a political activist and wouldn’t say that I am a presidential candidate.
AM: What is your role in this revolution?
BK: I’m always thinking about revolutionary demands and have supported all the revolutionary movements and revolutionary activities and I’ve participated in many vigils.
AM: Are you a feminist symbol?
BK: In college I joined a group called “New woman” and then I became a political activist. And we did a survey and people said because I am woman that entails my agenda to be a feminist agenda. But I am a champion of minorities and women are a part of that.
AM: I know you campaign in Tahrir. Would you say Tahrir Square is a female-friendly space?
BK: Yes. It is. It’s the security and intelligence services that allow the Baltagiya (thugs) entry in order to make it unsafe for people.
AM: What do you want Egyptian women and girls –all women and girls—to take from your historic candidacy?
BK: That it’s not enough for me to talk about the injustice done to women. I have to act. It’s not right for me to talk about women as victims. We have power. In history we see that the people who have rights demanded them.By Areej Noor, Aslan Media Women’s Editor