05.20.11

Egypt's First Woman President?

The talk-show host has rattled religious conservatives, the state-owned media and now the army, too. Ursula Lindsey interviews Buthayna Kamel, Cairo’s most outspoken woman.

When Buthayna Kamel announced she would be the first woman to run for president of Egypt, it was a challenge to religious conservatism and social expectations here—to the widespread belief that women aren’t meant to wield high authority. Now, for good measure, she’s decided to take on Egypt’s state-owned media and its ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces too.

Last week, Kamel was on a talk show on Egyptian State TV when she began criticizing the actions of the council. The director of State TV himself called to order the program interrupted. The flustered TV presenter announced that the show was being pulled off the air and told viewers, “I may not see you again.” Now Kamel is charged with the crime of “insulting the army.”

“I respect the Egyptian army,” says Kamel. “But we all have the right to criticize the policy of the military council. They are in a political position. Democracy tells us we must be transparent, we must hold accountable the politicians. That’s what I did. Criticizing doesn’t mean insulting.”

Egypt’s first female presidential candidate has a warm, engaging manner and the talent for interacting with the public you might expect from a TV-personality-turned-activist: In the lobby of the hotel where we meet, she discusses politics attentively with several members of the wait staff.

She is passionate about her politics, wearing her beliefs, quite literally, on her sleeve. She sports a cross-and-crescent necklace (to signify solidarity between Muslims and Christians—Kamal herself is Muslim), a Make Poverty History bracelet and a pin that reads “Egyptians Against Corruption.”

She, like women across the country, was an enthusiastic participant in the January 25 Revolution.

“Women are always at the front of revolutions,” she says. “But then men want to take all the results.”

But, she insists, “I’m not just women’s candidate. I am a candidate for all of Egypt.” She is running for “the peasants, the workers, the women, the handicapped, the Copts, the Nubians, the Bedouin”—all of whom are marginalized, all of whom have been denied their rights. To change women’s status requires changing all of Egyptian society, she says, learning to “accept others and accept criticism.”

“He told me: ‘You know what would make Egypt better? A woman president. Because women worry about the future.’”

Kamel has a long history of raising uncomfortable subjects and rattling the authorities. In the 1990s, she hosted a late-night radio show, Night Confessions, in which callers discussed their social and sexual problems frankly. The show became a hit among young people. In 1996, it was suspended, on the advice of a committee of religious scholars and government officials, for “damaging Egypt’s reputation,” because it featured young people discussing “sinful relations.”

In recent years, Kamel Hosted Please Understand Me, a late-night TV show in which she was joined by a psychologist or other specialists and together they take calls from viewers. Kamel focused on subjects such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, even—after arguing with management—abortion. The show was canceled by its Saudi-owned satellite channel in February.

Kamel had already been dismissed from her job as a State TV news broadcaster – now, she’s no longer welcome there even as a guest.

Kamel was also one of the creators of the activist group Shayfeen.com (”We See You”). Back in 2005, when President Mubarak announced the country’s first multi-candidate elections, Kamel and two other women formed the group to be an on-the-ground monitor of the supposedly democratic process (which turned out to largely be a sham, and got Mubarak handily re-elected). She is also a member of Kifaya, the activist group that first called for an end to the Mubarak regime.

The idea of running for office dates back to a casual conversation, several years ago, with an old man outside a polling station. “He told me: You know what would make Egypt better? A woman president. Because women worry about the future.”

That turned out to be true. Last month, Kamel decided to run partly out of concern over the emergence, post-revolution, of Islamic fundamentalism. “I saw that society could go back to something even worse than under Mubarak,” she says.

Kamal, 49, describes herself as a social democrat and will run as an independent in the presidential elections scheduled for the end of this year.

Women are active participants in Egyptian society, but they rarely occupy top leadership positions. At the moment there are a handful of female judges; one female minister; and no female governors. Many here believe that men are better suited to leadership positions, and that Islam itself proscribes women from holding authority over men.

But Kamel says the people she’s met campaigning—in a village in Southern Egypt and in the Sinai Peninsula, among other places—have accepted her. “Until now I haven’t faced any rejection from the people because I’m a woman,” she says.

“Everywhere I go, I ask people…what are your demands? I’m trying to know what Egyptians want,” she says. What she hears will inform her platform as a candidate. Her aim is to be a model and to “raise the ceiling of people’s expectations,” she says. “Even if I don’t win, even if my electoral program isn’t implemented right now, those demands will be out there.”

Ursula Lindsey is a Cairo-based reporter and writer.