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Bothaina Kamel, Egypt's first female presidential hopeful.
CAIRO, Egypt — The room at TEDx Tanta is dark, packed, waiting. The announcer singsongs the name of Bothaina Kamel and as the crowd erupts, she steps from her front-row seat onto the carpeted stage with a flourish. Her gauzy, zebra-striped tunic is from India and her shoes from Kenya; her nails are manicured but without polish.
“We have to dream,” Kamel tells the audience, a broad smile across her face.
She lives by her word – a dreamer at the highest level, Kamel now claims the title of the first female to ever throw her hat into the ring for an Egyptian presidential election. Though her campaign gathered momentum – as well as a fair amount of attention from the international media – she failed to obtain the requisite 30,000 signatures by April 8 to make the ballot for this week's election.
Admittedly, this was no surprise. To all, Kamel’s supporters included, her candidacy never stood a chance – but that wasn’t the point. It was rather that she was stepping into the race at all, that she was challenging a widely held belief in Egypt that women have no place in politics. That she was starting a conversation.
“I love the Egyptian people very much and I know they suffered for a lot and they deserve freedom and dignity,” Kamel said.
“I think it’s very healthy to be independent.”~Bothaina Kamel
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Her recent TEDx talk is one in a long string of public appearances that she has made since stepping out of her former post as news anchor and into the political sphere last year. From conferences at the Press Syndicate to a steady string of interviews with the media, Kamel has kept herself well in the public eye. In recent years, she has done so on her own terms.
Such was clear in 2005 when she chose to remove herself as an anchor on the state television news rather than continue to read what Kamel calls “their lies” – the state-generated news. “It wasn’t easy,” Kamel said, “because I like to work and appear through the TV… to talk and discuss and explain, communicate with people.” But she knew she couldn’t keep on with the show. “I found myself in a critical moment, situation. I told myself if I continue in this way, I will lose myself.”
The same year she, along with two other women, co-founded a watchdog group called, “Shayfeen” or “We Are Watching You,” to monitor the 2005 Egyptian presidential elections. Her connection to and love for the Egyptian people is palpable, a constant declaration that is nearly always on Kamel’s lips – and business cards, which read, “Egypt is my agenda.”
As she flips through old family photos that eventually lead to images of her navigating through Tahrir Square during last year’s political uprisings, light bounces off the large brass pendant around her neck. It reads in Arabic, “down with military rule.”
Throughout the 18 days of protests that led to the ouster of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, as well as in the restive months that have followed, Kamel has been at the front lines of protests – chanting alongside other demonstrators, wearing a gas mask, holding signs – with one particularly iconic image showing her standing on a balcony above a sea of protesters swarming downtown Cairo below.
She recalls entering a liberated Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011, after what is now known as the “Battle of the Camel,” in which Tahrir revolutionaries successfully fought off pro-Mubarak supporters that attacked protesters on horses and camels. She remembers re-entering the square, “chanting, ‘Hold your head up high, you are Egyptian,’ under the Egyptian flag – [that] was a great moment.”
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When asked if the revolution changed her path or direction, Kamel replied, laughing, “That’s life! Life, it changes. That’s natural.”
After Mubarak stepped down, she had hoped to return to newscasting. “I was naïve,” Kamel said. “I said I must come back to the Egyptian official TV and try to [push for] change … I