There really is no other way to put it. More than anything today, Egyptians of all political stripes, whether devastated or delighted, are experiencing the surrealist sense of a parallel universe. In that universe, the all-powerful and ineluctable Pharaoh of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, is a prisoner in a hospital somewhere, and a bearded, shabby, obscure Islamist called Mohamed Morsi, a veteran of Mubarak’s prisons, is shown around the presidential palace by the same presidential guard that would never have allowed him within a mile of Mubarak’s person. Less than eighteen months ago, such a scenario would have been too far-fetched even for a movie spoof.
When Mubarak, his wife or his son made a public appearance, it was the culmination of careful coordination and preparation intended as much to preserve the aura of grandeur of the First Family as to shield its members from friction with the public. Especially when you are preparing for the succession to your son, you cultivate the unapproachable mystique of royalty.
By contrast, today in his first public appearance in Tahrir as President-elect, Morsi concluded a passionate, theatrical speech by flinging off his jacket, waving aside his guards, and wading into the crowd of thousands, making a show of relishing his ‘bain de foule’, or bathing in the crowd, as the French say.
Suzanne Mubarak, and Jihan Sadat before her, fully embraced the publicity and power of her role as ‘First Lady.’ In the eyes of the world, where rumors of their greed and ambition rarely penetrated, the two attractive women were reassuringly Westernized; their elegance and polish did credit to Egypt in state visits and international women’s conferences. They shared much: both were half-British, on the distaff side; both married young, to officers of more modest backgrounds; both continued their education later in life and earned advanced degrees while their husbands were in power. Both espoused the typical causes of child welfare, education, and in Suzanne Mubarak’s case, the arts.
Mohamed Morsi’s wife Naglaa Mahmoud comes from a different world. She is not an Egyptian Everywoman, as the New York Times wrote recently; she is an Islamist Everywoman, and many Egyptian women would deny that she represents them. She is not just ‘veiled’, as so many Egyptian women are, with a headscarf; she wears a ‘tarha’ or prayer veil, that sweeps down to her knees. Unlike Turkish President Gul’s wife, who makes every attempt to look attractive and stylish in spite of her headscarf, wearing six-inch ankle boots to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, Morsi’s wife, by contrast, seems to make every effort to look as severe and dowdy as possible.
Although she accompanied her husband to the United States, where he studied engineering while she gave birth to two of their sons, she herself holds no college degree. Naglaa Mahmoud keeps her maiden name, not as a sign of independence from her husband, but rather in adherence to the convention of Muslim societies, where a woman never takes her husband’s name. In fact, ‘Suzanne Mubarak’ and ‘Jihan Sadat’ never existed outside of media parlance; legally, they kept their maiden names, as evidenced by the court charges, after the revolution, against ‘Suzanne Sabet’, the maiden name of Mrs. Mubarak.
As nervous observers in Egypt today try to decode style for substance, President-Elect Morsi and his wife will come under the closest scrutiny. How will Morsi, a virtually unknown back-up candidate brought in at the last minute by the Muslim Brotherhood to contest the presidential elections, deal with the pressures of office? But Egypt has a history of dark horses, once dismissed as lightweights- Sadat was derided as Nasser’s yes-man and Mubarak as an accidental president- who, finding themselves elevated to the position of president, prove to have the tenacity and cunning to not only hang on to power but to sustain their rule for decades. Morsi might prove to be just such an accidental president, confounding expectations. Whether that is a prospect to be dreaded or welcomed depends on where you stand in a divided Egypt today.