Egypt president's wife: Don't call me first lady

Associated Press Modified: June 28, 2012 at 12:47 pm •  Published: June 28, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's new first lady Naglaa Ali Mahmoud and her predecessor Suzanne Mubarak have at least one thing in common: Both have seen their husbands and sons detained in Egyptian prisons.

The similarities appear to end there.

The deposed President Hosni Mubarak's wife was an elegant, sophisticated university graduate with a British mother. She was criticized for being elitist, vain, self-important, overbearing and oblivious to the plight of ordinary Egyptians.

By contrast, Islamist President-elect Mohammed Morsi's wife is a conservative, religious Muslim who wears a veil and did not attend college. Detractors consider her style to be emblematic of Egypt's steady march toward conservative Islam, while supporters proclaim that her modest demeanor and background embody the democratic spirit of the revolution.

Naglaa Ali Mahmoud has reportedly said she would prefer not to live in the Presidential Palace, and the couple has yet to move in. She also doesn't want to be called the first lady.

"I want to be called the president's wife," she told The Associated Press by telephone. "Who said that the president's wife is the first lady anyways?"

Instead, she said she prefers to be called Umm Ahmed, which means mother of Ahmed — her eldest son. It's a moniker that some secular Egyptian elites might disdain as patriarchal. Her defenders note that unlike the two first ladies before her, she has not taken on her husband's last name in public in a sign of self-assertion that also falls in line with Islamic tradition throughout Egypt.

If she must have a title, she says, she would not mind being called "the first servant" of the people.

Her style so far could not be a more marked change in tone from the Mubaraks, who presided over massive corruption that enriched an elite cadre of businessmen and ruling party leaders while half the country of 85 million people struggled in abject poverty.

Morsi and his sons, like many activists of the Muslim Brotherhood movement he belonged to, were imprisoned during the Mubarak regime's three decades in power. The old regime banned the Brotherhood and persecuted, jailed and tortured its members as political opponents.

But now, as an Egyptian expression goes, the pyramid has been turned on its head.

The differences between the first ladies are symbolic of the sea change in Egyptian politics. Morsi is the country's first freely elected president in modern history, the first civilian and Islamist to hold the office.

And the 84-year-old Mubarak is serving a life sentence in prison for failing to stop the killing of hundreds of protesters during the uprising. His two sons Alaa and Gamal were recently acquitted of corruption on a legal technicality, but remain in jail awaiting a new trial on charges of insider trading.

For the nearly three decades of Mubarak's rule, roads were paved and flowers were planted for Suzanne's arrivals — sometimes just temporarily while she briefly visited a university or a park — at the cost of thousands of dollars.

Umm Ahmed sought immediately to draw a clear distinction between herself and her predecessors — including former first lady Jehan Sadat, who, like Suzanne Mubarak, was also university-educated, impeccably dressed and coiffed and the daughter of a British mother.

But under the glare of her newfound fame, already the 50-year-old, bespectacled Umm Ahmed's style of dress is being picked apart. The way she wears the headscarf has been deemed by elites as the antithesis of elegance. In fact, there is already a war of words on social media over her conservative, modest style, which is shared by the vast majority of women in Egypt's impoverished villages and towns.

Her black abaya, or robe, is another mark of her mores. It is same one worn by many female followers of the Muslim Brotherhood.

She does not wear make-up or paint her nails in line with conservative Islamic tradition.

Some of her detractors are not opposed to her wearing a headscarf, but more with her choice of headscarves — long scarves in solid colors that drape past her shoulders and are seen as a sort of Muslim Brotherhood uniform.

"I don't have a problem with her hijab (Islamic headscarf). But I do have a problem that it is phosphoric green," blogger Mahmoud Salem, a secular liberal, told the AP. He believes her image sends a message that this is what Muslim girls should dress like and will alienate Christians and Muslims who do not cover their hair.

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