Egypt’s Everywoman Finds Her Place Is in the Presidential Palace (NY) TIMES) By MAYY EL SHEIKH and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK CAIRO, EGYPT 06/28/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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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
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
“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
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
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. “I always say that the Brothers don’t blindfold anyone,” she
told the group’s newspaper. “From the beginning they told us about
the situation and what was asked of us, and they told us that the
path is long and full of dangers.”
She said the Brotherhood recruiters told Mr. Morsi to be sure his
wife approved of the decision before joining, telling him, “We care
about the stability of the family more than having one more member.”
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. “Men are designed to lead and women to
follow,” the group’s curriculums explain.
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.
Now, Egyptians began to marvel and laugh at the thought of a small-
town homemaker in the presidential palace. “Um Ahmed called Um
Gamal,” some jokes begin, referring to Mrs. Mubarak by the name of
her son Gamal.
Ms. Mahmoud, though, 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.”
(Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 06/28/12)
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