Connect to share and comment
Bothaina Kamel, Egypt's first female presidential hopeful.
told my colleague in the newsroom that the official news will be the most important.” But she soon found the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power in Mubarak’s wake, to be a barrier to, rather than proponent of, freely reported news.
Opposition seems to run in Kamel’s family – she comes from a long line of revolutionary women. Her grandmother was amongst those who rose up against the British in the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and her mother continued to pursue her education after having kids, a practice highly unusual in Egypt at that time.
Born in 1962 in Cairo and raised in what she calls “a traditional Egyptian family,” Kamel attended a French all-girls school in Egypt. Though her father tried to limit her interaction with boys, her mother decided to take Kamel to a public cultural center when she was a young girl. It was here that Kamel first saw across the divisions of Egyptian society.
“It was very impressive in my life,” Kamel said, “to learn art and at the same time to have friendship with boys … from all the categories of the society … I began to know my society and to have friendship with all kinds of kids my age from this center.”
Her ability to see across barriers has only grown with time. Raised Muslim, she supports anti-sectarian stances, and is often seen wearing both the crescent of Islam and the Christian cross around her neck – though this liberal worldview did not come without consequences.
“I remember my father was against me all the time,” Kamel said. Even little things, like crossing her legs, brought trouble. “[My father] told me I’m not polite,” Kamel said. “I think I am a free soul. But I suffered because he criticized me always in public and it was very not easy, [it was] very hard. And in my pre-adolescence I took the decision, I will stop contact with him, I will isolate myself from the family, because it hurt me to [have my father] criticize me.”
Free-spiritedness continues to run in the family; Kamel’s daughter, currently in her final year at American University of Cairo, has never been shy to challenge her mother. “She’s against me all the time,” she said of her daughter, laughing. “[My daughter said,] ‘I can’t be a member of your campaign just because I am your daughter.’”
To Kamel, this is the sign of a job well done. “I think it’s very healthy to be independent,” she said.
And Kamel is nothing if not independent. To watch her navigate a press conference or a crowd is to see an individual who knows what direction she needs to move, and when. She is decisive.
Journalism was not where Kamel always pictured herself, rather something she fell into, “by coincidence, par hazard.” A self-described “shy girl,” Kamel never thought herself to be a “to be a media person at all…just I try always to know the truth,” she said.
Her legacy is testament to this; from 1992 to 1998, she was the presenter of a call-in radio show, “Eterafat al Layali” or “Nighttime Confessions,” in which people called to share their stories on air. Kamel used the show to expose the lesser-known side of Egypt, to broach otherwise off-limit topics, such as AIDS, troubled family relations, and sex, which eventually got the show booted from the air when there were complaints that it contradicted the traditional values of Egypt.
While some in Egypt dismiss her as better known to the international news than to her own people, for many of the Egyptians that she has reached the impact has been significant.
Noha Gamal, a young, female university student, sees Kamel as a pioneer and example for women across Egypt. “I think that Bothaina has all the qualities [for a presidential candidate],” Gamal said. “She’s actually a hope for many women who want to try to do something like [run] for higher positions, for positions that we say are only for males or only for guys. I think it’s a new way, a new path to pave the way for women to [also have] positions in leading … I think that Bothaina is a role model for every girl who is hoping to be like that.”
Kamel’s own role models are a regular ‘who’s who’ of greats, a quick rattling-off of Mother Teresa, the Prophet Mohammad, and Jesus Christ as her top three, with Nelson Mandela and Gandhi following shortly thereafter. “But I haven’t [role] models [in] politicians,” Kamel said.
It is unclear whether Kamel herself will ever become a significant political player in a country where male politicians dominate; when asked if she will run for office the next time around, she turns to a friend to ask what he thinks. He shrugs, nods. She jokingly grimaces, but then smiles in a way that might imply it is not entirely off the table.
Kamel is not stepping out of the limelight just yet. While she says she prefers to maintain a “low profile,” she remains determined to connect to and communicate with a wider audience, “through Twitter, through [the media].” Most importantly, Kamel said, “[Egyptians] must create our independent media.”
She has also remained active in the political scene; Kamel recently joined the National Coalition for Change, the political party of leading reform politician, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, even though she believes that people who would have voted for her likely turned to the secular, socialist-leaning Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.
On the precipice of these presidential elections, Kamel recognizes how definitive this time is in Egypt. No matter who wins, she says, “we’re writing our own history.”