Saturday, 15 February 2014


I understand Field Marshall el-Sissi has a wife. I don’t know anyone who has met her, and I cant find any photographs of her. Several google searches have revealed very little. Elshaab on-line says her name is Nihad Nour.  Reuters say she wears the niqab, while others say she wears the hijab. One report says she is a best mate to Suzanne Mubarak, who introduced her to el-Sissi, and another says she comes from a wealthy family - and that a brother, Tareq, owns TV channels, night clubs, businesses and had links with Tamarod.  It really should be a case of who cares?  But when it comes to a prospective president's wife, people do, and it matters.

“If el-Sissi runs for president, I wont  vote for him, purely because we will never see his wife,” says my friend Karim, a lawyer. “I want Egypt to be seen  as a modern state, with an active, visible First Lady, like  Queen Rania of Jordan. We need to show we are living in  the 21st century.”

Another friend, Yasmina, says, “Forget First Ladies', I want a female president,” but  knows,  with a sigh, that at this stage of the gender game,  it’s not even worth bitching about.

Karim might have to wait a while for a sexy, smart highly visible First Lady who juggles her own life, with that of being a head of state’s missus. Egypt has become a deeply conservative society, and the only thing that matters  is that el-Sissi   has a wife.  A visible, working wife, might lose him votes from his more conservative backers . In Egypt , most women  give up their jobs once they are married, (if they have one) and hunker down to have babies, put on weight and get bored out of their atrophying brains - much like  UK’s valium popping housewives of the fifties.

Mrs Nagla Ali Mahmoud, 51, is the wife of deposed ex-president Morsy. As his wife, her duty was to provide a prime example for  her fellow Muslim Brotherhood sisters.  Covered in what looks like a large duster  that reveals only her face,  Mrs. Mahmoud, from a poor village background, is so ordinary by contemporary Egyptian standards as to make her elevation extraordinary. Mrs. Mahmoud could hardly be more different from her predecessors, Suzanne Mubarak and Jihan el-Sadat, both glamourous, half-British  and highly educated.

During the time of her husband’s presidency, Mrs Morsi preferred to be known as Umm Ahmed (Mother of Ahmed, her eldest son), and devoted herself  to looking after her husband and children behind palace doors.  She was a woman  who looked and lived like most people’s sisters and mothers and for many, made a refreshing change from the up-front, glamorous Suzanne Mubarak, with whom they could not identify.  But to the westernized elite, she stood  for a backwardness and  a provincialism which it saw as typical of the Muslim Brotherhood. A column in the newspaper, El Fagr asked incredulously: “How could she receive world leaders and still adhere to her traditional Islamic standards of modesty? “Don’t look at her. Don’t shake hands with her,” the paper suggested, calling it a “comic scenario.”

 She was reported as saying that if she tried to play an active role, she risked comparisons with Mrs. Mubarak, who was widely despised for her supposed influence behind the scenes. But if Mrs. Morsi is invisible, she said, “They will say that Mohamed Morsi is hiding his wife because this is how Islamists think.”

Given  Egypt’s patriarchal culture - men seldom talk publicly of their wives, and mentioning them by name is a taboo for Islamists – it is unlikely Morsi’s missus would ever have been shoved onto the podium beside him, whether she liked it or not.  She only became visible when her husband was forced to stand down and was marched off  to prison. Like a tragic heroine in a Greek play, she  stepped out of her  confinement to plead for the release of  her husband from his.

As a small girl I can remember  watching Jehan Sadat on the television, with her husband President Anwar Sadat. She beamed intelligence, and of course, was very beautiful. Today , she is known internationally as  a lecturer, educator and social activist promoting international peace and women's  education. She contributed  to the image of Egypt and the Arab world in her own unique way. In the 70’s while the world’s media obsessed over Mrs Sadat’s wardrobe, her hair etc., she got on with  playing a key role in reforming Egypt's civil rights laws. Often called ‘Jehan’s Laws’ the new statutes  granted women a variety of new rights, including those to alimony and custody of children in the event of divorce. I remember her as a breath of fresh air blowing through  Middle Eastern politics. She was evidence of a secular liberalism that flourished for a while in Egypt  but like, Islamism, never took root in mainstream politics.

Queen Rania of Jordan has followed on in this tradition, and  focused on education and health, community empowerment, and cross cultural and inter faith dialogue. She is genuinely loved and respected by Jordanians, and represents a society that is seen as progressive and outward looking, partly because of her dynamic visibility.

Egypt desperately needs its own Queen Rania, or another Jehan (with or without hijab) if it is to take its standing in the world and develop social activism for educational and health reforms that will benefit everyone. First Ladies have access to a network of powerful elite, funding, sponsorship, business networks, expertise that can benefit their countries.  

First Ladies can also be bitches from hell, endorsing their husbands' butchery. Take Asma al-Assad, stylish wife of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad.A former investment banker, she has stood by her husband enjoying the fruits of his  billion dollar fortune  rifled from the country.  Between them they are a dynamic duo of destruction. Her mega spending sprees and recently posted instagram pictures of her charity work are a heartless endorsement of her beloved's razing of the country  and the murder of  its children with chemical weapons.  

With no sighting so far  of Nihad Nour, and barely a mention of her in the media, el-Sissi is going to have to bring his missus out of the closet soon, or tongues will start to wag. Last year, Egyptians  politely ignored pictures  in which he appeared to enjoy being drooled over by a clutch of actresses at the October 6 celebrations. I wondered if Nahid Nour  was watching it all on the television, and what the hell did she feel about it? Nobody seemed interested enough to talk about it, even though her  connections have  played an important role in her husband's stellar rise.  Do Egyptians really not want to know who might become the power behind the throne and a cheerleader of goodness knows what is to come?

The  election of el-Sissi as president, will  be a misguided response to the security and stability Egypt is gasping for, and will reinforce the  message of the Muslim Brotherhood that the military purports to despise -  that  Egyptian women must be neither seen nor heard.


No comments:

Post a Comment