x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Mohammed Morsi's wife 'is one of us'

The spouse of the country's first freely elected leader is 'a true Egyptian', dresses conservatively and rejects accolades.

Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, the wife of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.
Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, the wife of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.

CAIRO // 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 may end there, though.

Hosni Mubarak's wife was often criticised for being vain and strong-willed - propelling her son, Gamal, towards an inheritance of the presidency.

But the wife of the Muslim Brotherhood leader and Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, is modest, does not want to be called the first lady and rejects any accolades.

"I want to be called the president's wife," she said. "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. If she must have a title, she said, 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 corruption that enriched the elite while half the country's estimated 85 million people struggled in abject poverty.

For much of its history, the Brotherhood was persecuted by Mubarak and his predecessors. 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. Mr Morsi is the country's first freely elected president - and the first civilian and Islamist to hold the office.

Mubarak, 84, is in prison serving a life sentence for failing to stop the killing of hundreds of protesters during the uprising, while his two sons Alaa and one-time heir apparent Gamal remain in jail awaiting a trial on charges of insider trading.

Umm Ahmed has immediately drawn a clear distinction between herself and her predecessors, former first ladies Jehan Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak, both university-educated, impeccably dressed and the daughters of British mothers.

The 50-year-old, bespectacled Umm Ahmed has only a high school diploma.

Under the glare of her new-found political fame, her style of dress, which includes the abaya, is being picked apart. She does not wear make-up or paint her nails. 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 style.

Still there has been little fear expressed publicly that Egypt's first lady will be wearing a headscarf and that this could lead to the Islamitisation of the public sphere in Egypt.

Egyptians will be watching closely to see whether Umm Ahmed chooses to meet foreign dignitaries, attends conferences and other events with or without her husband, and changes her style for formal occasions. She may choose instead to get involved in local charity projects and avoid international travel and high-level diplomacy.

So far, Umm Ahmed has not completely shied away from the spotlight. She has given a handful of interviews to the media already and has met the families of protesters killed in the uprising and made appearances at campaign rallies for her husband.

As is common in the Arab world, Umm Ahmed married her cousin, Mr Morsi, at a young age - 17. In an interview with the state-owned Nos Al-Donia magazine geared towards women readers, she said her ring and dowry were "simple".

"What pulled me to him was a sense that he was a responsible man who will protect me," she said of Mr Morsi. Less than two years after she married Morsi, she joined him in Los Angeles, where he was studying for a doctorate in engineering.

Former Brotherhood legislator Azza Al Gharf, who has known Umm Ahmed for the past five years, said what makes her so different from Suzanne, is that "she is one of us".

"She is a true Egyptian woman. She is standing by her husband with all devotion," Mr Al Gharf said. "As the Muslim Brotherhood, we do not want another first lady for Egypt. We want a wife who stands by her husband, but who knows her limits."