Using Laila ElBaradei as a Clear Smear

Egypt is gearing up for its presidential elections next year. As campaigns are off to a head start, so too is the mudslinging. The latest smear campaign is targeted at opposition leader and potential presidential candidate, Mohamed ElBaradei. However, instead of maligning ElBaradei himself, the smear campaign dishes out its unscrupulous attack on Laila ElBaradei, his daughter.

Image via France24.

The defamatory campaign, in which an anonymous Facebook page was created, featuring pictures of Laila wearing a swimsuit and attending a party where alcohol was served, has made headlines for the past week. The Facebook page, containing an album of 33 photos, was apparently taken from Laila’s personal Facebook profile, and was reposted on another Facebook page without her knowledge under the title “Secrets of ElBaradei family.” The pictures were also reprinted by some Egyptian newspapers, including a local independent daily Al-Youm Al-Sabei, which later deleted them from its website.

The anonymous party who posted the pictures had this to say:

“I’d like to introduce myself: I am a friend of Dr. Mohamed El Baradei’s daughter, Laila, and have known her for a long time. When I first heard that Dr. El Baradei may run in the presidential elections; I was shocked.  What shocked me the most was his unprecedented visits to the mosques, since I know that Dr. Mohammed and his family do not embrace any religion. This empowered me to speak-out and tell the truth.”

It is not quite clear who created the Facebook page, but ElBaradei is laying blame on President Mubarak’s regime. A spokesman for the President’s National Democratic Party condemned the pictures, calling them “character assassination,” and denying any government involvement.

This is obviously an attempt to discredit ElBaradei’s campaign in the eyes of thousands of conservative Muslim voters. As the “friend” of Mohamed ElBaradei implies, this tasteless campaign is meant to relay the message that Laila’s values are not consistent with Islam and thus her father’s values must be lacking, as well. In addition to the pictures, attention was called to Laila’s personal Facebook page, which lists her religion as “agnostic” rather than “Muslim.” Instead of discrediting ElBaradei by showing how he himself does not “embrace any religion,” the focus is put on his daughter to prove this point.

Besides the obvious violation of privacy, the smear campaign’s most telling point is that it puts the morals and character of ElBaradei’s daughter in question as a means to discredit ElBaradei himself, thereby reinforcing this idea that the honor of the family lies solely with the female members. In using Laila this way, Egyptian media and whoever is responsible for the Facebook fiasco give credibility to the notion that if a woman does something which is not in accordance with the prevailing cultural values, then her father’s honor is reduced.

Even the title of the album, “Secrets of ElBaradei family,” suggests in it this idea of hiding that which is private – Laila’s swimsuit-clad body and “un-Islamic values.” The fact that the album features only pictures of Laila suggests that it is the woman who is responsible for protecting the family honor by keeping its “secrets” hidden. I wonder if the anonymous party responsible for this smear campaign consulted Melody TV’s sexist campaign creators with this idea?

This campaign’s message is so eerily reminiscent of the way in which women are used as pawns, moved either to symbolize cultural values, or a resistance of such. When women are moved into the public sphere, they are expected to sustain key “Islamic values.” In this manner, women are transformed from autonomous and free moving agents to being regarded as mere symbols, thereby silencing them.

This message is a step backward for Egyptian women who have been slowly trying to empower themselves through media forms, such as radio, and through the judicial system, which has recently tried and punished Egyptian men found guilty of sexual harassment and molestation.

Sadly, there is no mention of the detriment this type of smear campaign causes Egyptian women. So far, the scandal has only been referenced by opponents in terms of the need for democracy. Even ElBaradei fails to see the meaning of this campaign for women’s rights in Egypt, saying only that this is an attempt to put down those who call for democracy (meaning himself).

It is ironic that the urgency of women’s rights issues in Egypt isn’t being addressed in this brutal battle for democracy.  For now, it seems clear that while Egyptian women are making strides towards empowerment, the overwhelming social and political discourse is still being controlled by those who are attempting to keep traditional notions of women intact.

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