Egypt's First Ladies: Two Sides of the Same Coin?
Egyptians remember two women who were given the title First Lady who both wielded a great deal of power that affected the political scene in their respective times. Both also left power unexpectedly. While Jihan Raaouf, known as Jihan Sadat, left the presidential palace after her husband Answar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Suzanne Thabet, known as Suzanne Mubarak, was ousted with her husband Hosni Mubarak after massive protests that turned into a revolution in 2011.
Both Jihan and Suzanne came from the upper class and married army officers of a humble background, who kept occupying higher positions till they became presidents and at that point each of them started playing a major role in the Egyptian political scene.
Jihan Sadat had a strong personality, was very smart and her main priority was helping out her husband in his duties as president, said Mansour Hassan, Minister of Information during Sadat’s time.
“The most important thing she did was observing public opinion in order to know how people felt towards her husband’s rule,” he told Al Arabiya.
She would, Mansour added, convey what she heard, especially views of the opposition, to her husband, but he did not count on her feedback that much.
“He basically depended on official reports which he found more accurate than what he viewed as the personal impressions of his wife.”
However, he added, Jihan used to interfere a lot in order to improve her husband’s relations with politicians or journalists’ with which he had disagreements.
“Her upbringing and her diplomatic skills helped her a lot in giving a good impression about her husband in front of foreign visitors.”
Jihan Sadat, Mansour pointed out, was not interested in wealth or power as many claim.
“She came from an upper-middle class family and when she married Sadat she did not have any ambition beyond giving him support and she had done that long before he became president.”
According to Mansour, Jihan also did a lot of charity work and particularly focused on providing care for war veterans and martyrs’ families as well as the handicapped.
For Ammar Ali Hassan, expert on political sociology, the difference between Jihan and Suzanne lies in the difference between the effects each had on her husband.
“Sadat was not fully influenced by his wife like Mubarak was,” he told Al Arabiya. “While Jihan looked like she was very powerful, she did not interfere in the politics of Egypt as much as Suzanne did.”
Ammar attributed this difference between them to the time each president spent in power.
“Sadat’s time did not exceed 10 years and that is why Jihan did not get enough chance to be very powerful even though she is known to have tried.”
On the other hand, Hassan added, Suzanne interfered in the decision-making process all the time and managed to make Mubarak follow her instructions.
“She played a major role in choosing ministers and at a time there was a group of ministers called ‘the ministers of Suzanne’ because she chose them.”
For Hassan, Suzanne’s strength was partly because she was much richer and more educated than her husband.
“She also had a stronger personality.”
Hassan added that Suzanne had always been jealous of Jihan to whom she came second during Sadat’s rule.
“This created in her a strong desire to be more powerful than Jihan was and more prominent as first lady.”
One of Suzanne’s problems, Hassan noted, was that she pretended to care for the poor and actually wrote her Masters thesis about them, yet she did not practice what she preached.
“She despised the poor and encouraged the unfair distribution of wealth. Low-income Egyptians were never on her agenda.”
This, Hassan said, was more obvious starting 1999 when her main focus was bequeathing power to her son.
American writer Christopher Dickey argued that the real problem of Suzanne Mubarak and the entire family was not financial corruption but rather vanity.
“Despite the uprising of millions of people in Egypt’s streets, despite their ringing condemnations of secret-police tactics and torture, the Mubarak family remained convinced that everything the president had done was for the country’s own good,” he wrote in an article entitled “The Tragedy of Mubarak” and published on February 13, 2011, two days after Mubarak stepped down.
This vanity, Dickey explained, was made obvious when Suzanne told one of her confidantes that they have done their best, when Mubarak insisted on not leaving the country, and when their two sons made sure to appear extremely composed during their trial.
Dickey added that Suzanne played a major role in her husband’s tragedy through her attempt to chart her family’s future in a way that keeps them in power.
“Suzanne guided the fortunes of her children and grandchildren, looking to establish a political dynasty that might endure for generations.”
Barbara Ibrahim, from the Civic Engagement Center at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and wife of sociology professor Saad al-Din Ibrahim who supervised Suzanne’s Masters thesis at AUC, said that Suzanne was 10 times smarter than her husband.
“She’s got nuance, she’s got sophistication,” Dickey quotes her as saying.
Dickey explained that Suzanne was more open to the outside world unlike her husband who confined himself to the palace and his closed group of senior aids and army officers.
For late Egyptian writer Anis Mansour, Suzanne Mubarak’s real problem was her obsession with grooming her son Gamal to succeed his father.
“She wanted to be like Barbara Bush, the wife of a president then the mother of a president,” he said in an interview after the January 25 Revolution.
Mansour likened Suzanne Mubarak to the black spider widow.
“The black spider widow kills the male spider after mating then offers its body to the baby spiders after the eggs hatch.”
By Mustafa Suleiman
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