Egypt's Everywoman Finds Her Place Is in the Presidential Palace

By Mayy El Sheikh and David D. Kirkpatrick, NY Times, June 27, 2012
CAIRO–Naglaa Ali Mahmoud wears an Islamic head covering that drapes down to her knees, did not attend college and never took her husband’s last name, because that is a Western convention that few Egyptians follow. She also refuses the title of first lady, in favor of simply Um Ahmed, a traditional nickname that identifies her as the mother of Ahmed, her eldest son.

Egypt has a new leader, Mohamed Morsi, the first president to hail from the Muslim Brotherhood. And it also has Ms. Mahmoud, 50, whose profile is so ordinary by contemporary Egyptian standards as to make her elevation extraordinary. Ms. Mahmoud could hardly be more different from her predecessors, Suzanne Mubarak and Jihan el-Sadat: aloof, half-British fashion plates with well-coiffed hair and advanced degrees.

With her image as a traditionalist everywoman, Ms. Mahmoud has come to symbolize the dividing line in the culture war that has made unity an elusive goal since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. For some, she represents the democratic change that the revolution promised. She is a woman in the presidential palace who looks and lives like their sisters and mothers.

But to some in the westernized elite, she stands for a backwardness and provincialism that they fear from the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I can’t call her a first lady under any circumstances,” complained Ahmed Salah, 29, a banker having coffee with his friends on the Nile island of Zamalek. “She can’t be an image for the ‘ladies’ of Egypt.”

Her image has become the subject of a rancorous debate on Web sites and in newspapers. 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.”

Noran Noaman, 21, an engineering student, said Ms. Mahmoud embarrassed her. “If you travel to New York or wherever, people would make fun of you and say: 'Your first lady wears the abaya, hahaha,’ ” she said. “Previous first ladies used to be elegant.”

Many others, though, said it was her critics who were out of step. “People like Suzanne Mubarak are the odd ones out–you don’t see them walking down the street,” said Mariam Morad, 20, a psychology student. “This is exactly what we need: change.”

Dalia Saber, 36, an engineering lecturer, said, “She looks like my mother, she looks like my husband’s mother, she probably looks like your mother and everybody else’s.”

For her, Mr. Morsi and Ms. Mahmoud were what the Arab Spring was all about: regular people in power.

“They’re people like us,” she said. “It is a strange relief to people. The people feel that there’s a change.”

Ms. Mahmoud, for her part, said she knew it would not be easy to be the wife of the first Islamist head of state, as she told the newspaper of the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old Islamist movement. If she tries to play an active role, she risks comparisons with Mrs. Mubarak, who was widely despised for her supposed influence behind the scenes. But if Ms. Mahmoud disappears, she said, “They will say that Mohamed Morsi is hiding his wife because this is how Islamists think.”

Ms. Mahmoud’s unexpected path to the presidential palace illustrates just how foreign her experience is to the culture of the old Egyptian elite–or perhaps how foreign that elite is to Egypt. Hers was a very typical beginning: She grew up in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Ain Shams, and was 17 and still in high school when she married her cousin, Mr. Morsi, who was 11 years older. He also had grown up poor, in the small village of El Adwa in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, but excelled in the engineering program at Cairo University.

Three days after their wedding, he left for Los Angeles, to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. She finished high school and studied English in Cairo. A year and a half after their wedding she joined her husband in Los Angeles, where she volunteered at the Muslim Student House, translating sermons for women interested in converting to Islam.

It was in Los Angeles that she and her husband were first invited to join the Muslim Brotherhood, an offer that would later define their lives.

The first two of their five children were born in Los Angeles and hold American citizenship. After Mr. Morsi completed his degree, Ms. Mahmoud initially did not want to leave Los Angeles, she said in an interview with a Brotherhood Web site. But Mr. Morsi wanted his children to grow up in Egypt.

After they returned, in 1985, Mr. Morsi taught engineering at Zagazig University near his hometown north of Cairo in the delta and began a climb through the Brotherhood’s ranks. Ms. Mahmoud, a homemaker, became an instructor in its parallel women’s auxiliary, teaching young girls about marriage.

Like many Egyptians, he traveled abroad to earn extra income, teaching engineering at a Libyan university from 1988 to 1992. He finally made enough money to leave their small rented flat and buy an apartment in Zagazig and make a down payment on a Mitsubishi Lancer sedan, family friends back in Sharqiya said.

The Brotherhood was an outlawed movement under Mr. Mubarak, and playing a role in its leadership was not always easy for Mr. Morsi or his family. “I don’t know if I will come back to see you,” he told her before he left for a protest in 2006. “The next time we meet could be in Tora Prison.”

He did not come home for about seven months, which he spent in detention, Ms. Mahmoud told the Brotherhood newspaper.

Among her sons, Ahmed was detained several times, Osama was detained and beaten during last year’s revolt, and Omar was also assaulted. (Like his father before him, Ahmed is working abroad to make money, as a urologist in Saudi Arabia.)

In 2000, Mr. Morsi was elected to Parliament, becoming the leader of the Brotherhood’s bloc of 17 lawmakers, but lost in the next election amid charges of widespread fraud by Mr. Mubarak’s governing party.

In Egypt’s patriarchal culture, and especially among Islamists, men seldom talk publicly of their wives, and mentioning them by name is almost a taboo. But Mr. Morsi is unusually appreciative of Ms. Mahmoud, even in public, sometimes saying in television interviews that marrying her was “the biggest personal achievement of my life.”

He sometimes helped her with chores, she told the magazine Nesf el Donia, and even cooked for her. “I like everything about him,” she said. “Our fights never lasted for more than a few minutes.”

She often appeared with her husband during the campaign, though she seldom spoke publicly. When a magazine journalist asked for a photograph, her answer was conditional. “Only if your photos make me look younger and a little thinner,” she said.

Ms. Mahmoud says she is not so sure about the palace: “All I want is to live in a simple place where I can perform my duties as a wife. A place like the presidential palace completely isolates you from the world people live in, and going too far hardens the heart.”

Charlie Hebdo: cover analysis part III

This is the third and last part of my series on Charlie Hebdo’s covers. Part I. Part II.

1. This is a cartoon of the wife of Egypt’s president, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, washing the dishes. The caption reads “Finally, a president’s wife who doesn’t tweet!” Naglaa Ali Mahmoud retorts “My hands are full!” Known for being a conservative Muslim, people responded variously to her: some have embraced her and appreciated the symbolism of her modest background and demeanour; others have criticized her for being an emblematic figure of conservative Islam. She has commented upon being called Egypt’s “first lady” and rejected the term, declaring that she preferred to be called Umm Ahmed (mother of Ahmed, who is her eldest son) and that if she really had to have a title, she’d rather be called “the first servant” of the people. She married her cousin at 17 years old and they’ve had five children. In this cartoon, CH is making fun of conservative ideas which often condone and encourage patriarchy. They are not mocking women (and I’m quite aggressive when it comes to making terrible jokes about women), or Muslim women as a whole. That “servant” aspect of her washing the dishes probably refers to her wish of being called the first servant of the people. Implicitly, the cartoon begs to ask: servant of the people or servant of men? What it actually denounces here is patriarchy and its oppressive conservative values. Edit : someone brought to my attention the fact that it was also an implicit reference to Valérie Trierweiler, François Hollande’s ex-partner, who twitted a lot, and that it could also also be an implicit criticism of how people would prefer a woman who would rather stay in the shadow of the president and not express herself too much.

2. A few years back, French politician Dominique Strauss Khan was involved in a scandal when he was accused of rape by an employee of the Sofitel hostel in New York. There were many rumours about his unbridled sex life and several women came forward to testify that he had either tried to rape them or had sexually assaulted them. His sister defended him by affirming that he was a “sweet man”. Karl Lagarfeld later commented that DSK was “a sweet man, as long as you’re not a woman”. On this cover, you can see that all of “DSK’s 600 000 mistresses testify”: “He’s very sweet!” There is here an intended gap between the serious crime he was accused of and the contrast provided by the funny idea that he may be a “sweet man”. It is implied that DSK being a “sweet man” bears little weight as a defence in favour of a man accused of raping a woman. You can be a “sweet man” in appearance, never raise your voice, be nice, and basically look like an angel, and still be a rapist, and this has everything to do with the fact that rapes are not committed primarily by violent, deranged men. For all the women they are “sweet” with, there can be others whom a man can coerce. Considering all the salacious rumours, CH has DSK’s rumoured “600 000 mistresses” defending him in the same ridiculous manner.

3. Dieudonné is a famous French humourist. In the last 10 years or so, he has started to become very vocal against Zionism, but instead of focusing on the politics of Isreal, Dieudonné has been mostly targeting Jews as a whole. He has notably become friends with negationists, people who deny the Holocaust ever happened. Among his negationist friends are the most public figures of them all, Alain Soral and Robert Faurisson. One of the most problematic aspects of his activism is that he frequently accuses France of commemorating the Holocaust more than slavery in violent ways (calling the commemoration a “memorial pornography” for example). France has a particular history with the Holocaust. The Vichy Regime yielded to collaborated with Nazi Germany and, in 1972, Robert Paxton, an American historian, revealed in his book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order that the French government had not participated to the deportation of Jews in utter submission, but much more willingly than we thought (as I already mentioned in the first part of this series). The legacy of this new historical perspective is a lot of shame and a constant battle from the French government against anti-Semitism. This is why the actual French government has been putting a lot of effort recently in trying to censor Dieudonné’s shows. It is not mere hypocrisy on the part of France regarding its conception of freedom of speech, or Islamophobia for not censoring in return Charlie Hebdo’s drawings on the prophet Mahomet or other Muslim characters. It is a much more complicated matter that demands we understand French history a minimum to identify the mechanics of today’s politics: our unique historical background during the Holocaust has introduced a certain bias in our defence of Jewish people and I believe that the state should not have intervened to censor Dieudonné, even if I don’t agree with his activist tactics. The controversy surrounding him has been going on for more than 10 years. He has systematically centered his speech on the “Zionist conspiracy” according to which Jews control the world, and a lot of the people who initially supported him decided to distance themselves from him. Among other things, he once declared he had ripped the pages mentioning the Holocaust in his children’s history books. There would be a lot to say about this man, but long story short, there are a lot of problematic aspects in his activism, which has sparked a lot of racial hatred between Jews and Muslims and if Charlie Hebdo is mocking him with this drawing, it is certainly not because he’s a black man. The thing shoved up his ass is a “quenelle”, typical French food whose term Dieudonné decided to use to describe his trademark gesture, but also an explicit sexual metaphor meant to symbolize him sodomizing his opponents (which he fully recognized). It is considered by some people to also be an inverted Nazi salute but the essence of the idea of the “quenelle” relies on a homophobic metaphor, which Charlie Hebdo uses here against its creator to mock him. We may find this tasteless and debatable, but the underlying matter is the denunciation of Dieudonné’s problematic position against Jews as a whole, which definitely deserves to be discussed critically.

4. In 2011, protests against Bachar al-Assad’s government in the context of the Arab Spring were violently repressed by the military. In this cartoon, the caption above reads “Bachar’s advice to Sarkozy”. You can see the two presidents on the phone, with Bachar al-Assad telling Sarkozy “Don’t let the Arabs fuck with you”. In the bubble, you can see Sarkozy holding papers reading “Referendum on the immigrants”. This cartoon not only criticizes Bacha al-Assad’s murderous military actions against his own people (you can see a tank crushing civilians in the background) but also the problematic immigrant politics in France.

5. This is a cartoon of former right-wing president Jacques Chirac handcuffed in a court room. In 1999, an investigation started regarding Chirac’s political abuses; among other things, he was accused of misappropriating money, for which he received a suspended sentence of two years in prison in 2011. In this cartoon, you can see him lamenting the falls of corrupt politicians at the time (Ben Ali abandoned his presidency and fled, Moubarak quit as well, and Kadhafi died): “I’m losing all those who can attest to my moral compass!” This is obviously a criticism of political corruption and abuse of power.

6. This cartoon features Kadhafi bathing in the blood he has spilled during his presidency. Reminder that in 2011, he declared: “I will fight till the last drop of blood” and promised a massacre to all his opponents. In the back is Michèle Alliot-Marie, French politician whose partner, politician Patrick Ollier, had a controversial friendship with Kadhafi. Out of embarrassment, she thus tried to remain in the background and did not really comment on the situation in Libya. This cartoon is a criticism of her lack of a firm stance on the subject. You can see her complying with Kadhafi as he asks her to “rub [his] back”.

7. In 2014, there was a reform on the benefits related to child-care: parents who had two children and earned more than 6,000 euros would have a 10 euros cut on these benefits. There was some backlash from both political wings, with the right denouncing “family bashing” (by the way, in the context of gay marriage, they also invented the term of “familyphobia”…). This cartoon depicts the girls and women abducted by Boko Haram, (“Boko Haram’s sexual slaves are angry” in the above caption) yelling: “Hands off our benefits!” By putting these words from the most privileged households who have the cheek to complain in the mouths of women who are sexually abused, getting pregnant and have no hope for any sort of government help, Charlie Hebdo denounces their ungrateful and ‘first world problems’ attitude. It’s the privileged people who are actually angry, for a stupid reason. This has nothing to do with criticizing the help poor Muslim/racialized/any minority women get since this reform was implemented to both save government money and “protect those that the economic crisis hits the hardest”, according to socialist politician Martin Pinville.

8. In the sticker, you can read “Islamophobia” to clarify the subject. This cartoon depicts Christian people being scared by Jesus praying to Islam beliefs (“Should we fear sweet baby Jesus?” asks the caption). This is a critical commentary on the irrational fear that people have of Islam, especially considering that many of them are scared to see it become the dominant religion and put an end to traditionally-Christian France. It notably falls in line with right-wing, journalist and essayist Eric Zemmour’s paranoid “theory of replacement” in which he warns people of the impending replacement of the white, Christian French population by Muslim Arabs and black people.

9. During the European elections, the nationalist party was elected by a 25% turn-out. In this cartoon, Marine Le Pen, leader of the party, is portrayed as Joan of Arc (a symbol representing the racist “saviour of the French” complex of the party), lighting up a stake to execute a black man with a sign reading “foreigner” on his chest. “What do 25% of the French want?” wonders the first caption. “A Joan of Arc sending people to the stake” reads the second one (with a joke on how Joan of Arc was executed in this way). This is a social commentary on how there are more and more people willing to vote for the nationalist party as a result of the economic crisis enmeshed with the social turmoil involving matters such as immigration and terrorism.

10. In 2009, a 9 year-old girl in Brazil was raped by her step-father and became pregnant with twins. The archbishop of Recife, with the agreement of the Vatican, excommunicated all the people involved in her abortion (which is permitted in Brazil in case of rape or if the mother’s life is endangered) including the girl’s mother and the medical personnel. He claimed that “to the Church, abortion is a more serious crime [than rape].” The caption says “9 years old, rape, abortion…” and “Excommunication!” angrily concludes the archbishop. An article inside the magazine ironically comments that “If they want their excommunication to be revoked, they will have to admit that the gas chambers never existed”, a reference to Richard Williamson, a negationist bishop whose excommunication had been just been revoked. A while later, he declared in an interview that he didn’t believe the gas chambers ever existed. Still, the Pope refused to reconsider his decision. This CH cover criticizes the twisted morals of the Church.