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Egypt's Women Face A Struggle No Matter Who Comes To Power

May 25, 2014
Originally published on May 25, 2014 1:05 pm

In 2012, Bothaina Kamel became the first woman to run for president in Egypt. She didn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot, but her candidacy became a powerful symbol.

It wasn't just because she is a woman, but also because she stands for the kind of social change many Egyptians hoped would come after the revolution that removed President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Kamel is a prominent television journalist in Egypt and hasn't been afraid to use that platform to criticize Egypt's political leadership. She's part of the reform movement that helped oust Mubarak — a movement than included many Egyptian women.

"Women took to the streets during that time — we have campaigned before — but we, as women, have never really had a moment of empowerment," she tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

"In general, men are entrenched in their power," Kamel says. "They aren't going to give it away on their own. We will have to grab it — it is up to us to take it from them."

That's a high-risk endeavor; Kamel was attacked in her car last year but rescued by passers-by who were beaten for their intervention. She blames the attack on the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological home of former President Mohammed Morsi, who was democratically elected in 2012 and then pushed out of power last year. She's been a harsh critic of the group, calling them a terrorist organization.

"I was attacked more for my views and activism than because I am a woman," she says.

Egyptians go to the polls this week to choose their next president. The clear front-runner is former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, but Kamel says his election won't help Egypt's women unless they act.

"He's a traditionalist," Kamel says. "You can tell that from the way he speaks about his mother and his wife. It seems that if he wins this election, it will be a struggle for us, that we will have to rally and amass people to continue campaigning for our rights."

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BOTHAINA KAMEL: If we want to be safe, we can stay home. But it's the price to be in the political life in the streets. And I thought that the Egyptian women, they accept the price.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That is the voice of Bothaina Kamel. In 2012, she became the first woman to run for president in Egypt. She didn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot, but her candidacy became a powerful symbol, not only because she is a woman, but also because she stands for the kind of social change many Egyptians hoped would come after the revolution that removed President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Kamel is a prominent television journalist in Egypt, and she hasn't been afraid to use that platform to criticize her country's political leadership. She reserves especially harsh sentiments for the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological home of former president Mohammed Morsi, who was democratically elected in 2012 and then pushed out of power last year.

We spoke with Bothaina Kamel about what tomorrow's elections mean for Egyptian women in particular. But we began by asking her about the risks she faces as a high-profile woman with strong political opinions and the events of one harrowing day last year.

Bothaina Kamel in translation is our Sunday conversation.

KAMEL: (Through translator) I was driving in Cairo when I was dragged out of my car by protesters during a demonstration by the Muslim Brotherhood. They shot at the glass of all the car windows. They threw rocks at me and grabbed me by my hair.

I was very lucky, though, because some people who were just walking by intervened and rescued me. They were beaten up instead of me, and that's why I'm still alive and talking to you today.

God saved me for some reason, perhaps so that I could continue working for women.

MARTIN: You say you were attacked by members of the Muslim Brotherhood or people affiliated with that organization. Was the reason for the attack, as you understand it, because of your politics? How much of the attack was because you are a public figure and you are a woman?

KAMEL: (Through translator) The reason they came at me is because I am Bothaina. It's because I am a public figure and because I have spoken out against the Muslim Brotherhood calling them a terrorist organization. I think I was attacked more for my views and activism than because I am a woman.

MARTIN: You were part of the reform movement that helped oust former president Hosni Mubarak. And there were many women who took part in those protests that we all saw in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. But few women have since entered public life. You are an exception. Why is that?

KAMEL: (Through translator) Women took to the streets during that time. We have campaigned before, but we, as women, have never really had a moment of empowerment. Of course, there have been quotas implemented, not in the parliament, but in other areas of government here. But in general, men are entrenched in their power. They aren't going to give it away on their own. We well have to grab it. It is up to us to take it from them.

During a time of risk and sacrifice like Tahrir Square, there wasn't that much concern for us women and our safety. But when it comes down to the real work, when it's time for campaigning and the election and so on, then they will say they fear for us. They will say no this will tire you. And this will be a burden. You better stay home, and we'll take charge.

MARTIN: The front runner in the upcoming presidential elections is Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is the former chief of the Egyptian military until he stepped down in March to run as president. Is he someone who is favorable to women's rights in Egypt? Do you see him as a reformer when comes to opening more doors for women?

KAMEL: (Through translator) He's a traditionalist. You can tell that from the way he speaks about his mother and his wife. It seems that if he wins this election, it will be a struggle for us. That we will have to rally and amass people to continue campaigning for our rights. Luckily, though, we have our new constitution, which will help us to continue to pressure Abdel Sisi after he is elected.

MARTIN: Do you think the constitution, as written today, is a good one, is one that technically affords women more freedom?

KAMEL: (Through translator) Our constitution is very strong. It stipulates that Egypt must follow international treaties, and it has articles prohibiting any discrimination against women including in the government.

MARTIN: Do you think you'll ever run for president again or another political office, and will your candidacy be treated seriously as something more than just a symbol?

KAMEL: (Through translator) When I first announced I was running for president in 2011, I wasn't taken seriously. But during the year I campaigned, I think I proved myself to Egypt.

During the presidency of Mohammed Morsi, there were some people who said it would be better if you were president now. They asked me don't you think you would have done a better job?

But regardless, I will run again, and I will continue running again unless a stronger female candidate emerges because women should always be a part of the race.

MARTIN: Bothaina Kamel is a celebrity TV journalist and aspiring politician in Egypt. Thank you so much for being with us, Bothaina.

KAMEL: Thank you, Rachel. And we will meet again when I will be the president of Egypt. The first woman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.