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With Hosni Mubarak out of power, Egypt's longtime dissident is enjoying her heyday.
CAIRO, Egypt — Click. Clack. Click. Laugh.
“She’s coming,” her assistant whispered. “You always know by the sound.”
Within minutes a pair of four-inch black heels clattered in, carrying TV star Gamila Ismail, one of Egypt’s more glamorous political personalities. With her came a blast of perfume, a blonde waif-like assistant, and an armful of happily blinking communication devices.
“Life is good today,” she said, all bright-eyed and magenta-lipped despite it being four in the morning and having been on camera for over an hour. “It’s good.”
Ismail ranks among a small, battle-weary cadre of Egyptian oppositionists whose decades-long fight against the authorities helped bring about the historic overthrow of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak by popular protest last year. To people like her, a hardened political activist, the ex-wife of long-suffering opposition leader Ayman Nour and a twice-failed parliamentary candidate, dictator-free Egypt has descended like a cloud of pixie dust.
“I really have the greatest admiration for this lady.”~Hisham Kassem, journalist
When crowds of hundreds of thousands swarmed Tahrir Square last year, Ismail couldn’t believe her eyes. To her they appeared almost fantastical, “as if the ground was producing human beings, marchers, protesters,” she said.
In the months that followed, Ismail, like Egypt, has begun to reinvent herself. She left her husband, who ran for president in 2005 until he was arrested on charges widely seen as politically motivated. She moved out of their fancy houseboat on the Nile River. She pulled out of the party she co-founded with her ex to join a new coalition led by political heavyweight Mohamed ElBaradei. She also got a new job hosting the popular talk show “Reconsideration,” where she holds court with political analysts against a gigantic Lucky Charms-green backdrop.
Having just finished the show, which concerned socialist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi — whose surprising showing in the election’s first round nearly saw him a dark horse in the upcoming run-off vote — Ismail admitted that many Egyptian voters are attracted to candidates tied to the former regime.
“But this is our battle, as revolutionaries,” she said. The opposition, she argued, needs to focus on “understanding [these] people,” referring to those afraid to leave the political comfort zone represented by the former regime figures or familiar political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood.
“This is a very strong, a very powerful moment” in Egypt, she said.
Ismail is savvy. She continually scrolls her Twitter feed, stroking her iPad with the regularity of someone petting a beloved lap-dog. A shrewd word here, a quick flip of brunette bang there, she held her own against a swarm of advisors before going on set.
“I really have the greatest admiration for this lady,” prominent Egyptian journalist Hisham Kassem said of Ismail. She’s “one of the sharpest politicians I have ever met,” he said, adding, “she has always been the backbone of Ayman Nour, politically.” Kassem was closely involved in reporting the case against Nour, who was jailed from 2005 to 2009.
But “she is very unorganized,” said Kassem, whose friendship with Ismail goes back eight years. “She drives me crazy with that,” saying it’s the reason her 2011 parliamentary bid failed, which is too bad because “her performance would have been so impressive it would have made it easier for Egyptians to vote for women.”
Even so, “Gamila has a place in Egyptian politics,” Kassem insisted, describing her as one of the “cleanest” people he knew. “Gamila” — whose name means “beautiful” in Arabic — “is someone you can always trust,” he said. “That’s rare in politics.”
Ismail doesn’t let her political punditry obscure her long view. “Having a president after the revolution will be like one paragraph in Egypt’s history, but the revolution is many pages before and many pages after,” she said.
She describes herself as a “revolutionary who succeeded in changing the lives of the coming generations,” a direct reference to her prominent activist son Nour Ayman Nour.
A year after his father was arrested, Nour and his brother played a heavy metal show outside Cairo, while their mother was, as usual, at a political protest. Within hours, Ismail, who is also a documentary filmmaker like her mother, proudly arrived to shoot her sons’ gig.
“I won’t forget that, because it will constantly remind me of the effort my mother put in balancing our ‘crazy’ political life with a normal life where, you know, kids can have hobbies and music and things,” Nour said.
For her part, Ismail said she has learned from her son. “This is also one of the big benefits of the revolution,” she said, “…you discover how courageous and how strong the younger generation is.”
It can go both ways. Some positions taken by older dissidents like Ismail are followed closely by young activists. And the alliances and factions being formed by older dissidents behind the scenes in Egypt today are likely to figure prominently in the country’s next presidential election.
ElBaradei, for example, decided not to run for election in order to focus on building up a political party, while the country’s only female presidential candidate, Bothaina Kamel, has not ruled out another run. Meanwhile, older leadership figures in established opposition groups like the April 6 Movement are also repositioning themselves.
Ismail is now known as one of Egypt’s few rising female political voice, a distinction that sees her wrestling with the best approach to women’s rights.
“I think the revolution really served women because it gave us the opportunity, maybe, to show how strong we are, how even physically strong we are,” she said, describing her female compatriots as helping “liberate Egypt, to liberate Egyptian society, to liberate Egyptians, women and men, although we failed in maybe liberating ourselves, as women.”
“But we did this for the whole country, and this is something that we should be really respected for. Then later, maybe, we can turn back and create this awareness for the society and tell them how important also our rights are as women,” she said.
“Telling people how they should respect women, and creating this awareness – I think this is the most difficult battle,” she said. “I think it’s more difficult than getting rid of Mubarak! I think it’s more difficult, today, than getting rid of the military rule.”
Respect for women will come when Egyptian society is “persuaded of women,” she said, again flipping her bangs and flashing a smile. She’s working on that. Larger-than-life cutouts of her already flank the television studio walls. But for Ismail, the fight for women’s rights is part of a larger battle for freedom in Egypt that has already brought “a new life.”
Before events in Tahrir Square, the regime was “living under your skin,” she said, referring to years of round-the-clock state surveillance that reportedly targeted Egyptians openly working against the regime. “It’s attacking you everywhere, it’s killing your hope, it’s attacking your horizon, it’s making you suffocate.”
“You know, spending maybe six or seven years having the light off, every time you have a shower.”
Finally, she can wash up in the light. Revolutionaries like her hope the same will one apply to Egypt, where corruption in political life has a long and dirty history.