First Ladies and the (Re) Definition of the Authoritarian State in Egypt

By Mervat F. Hatem, Howard University

*This memo was prepared for the Women and gender in Middle East politics workshop, March 11, 2016.

In this short memo, I focus attention on how the institutionalization of the role of the first lady in Egypt explained its emergence as a “focal point of discontent” during the Egyptian uprising.Some commentators on this phenomenon have suggested that it be understood as a representation of the intersection of a form of public sexism used to critique the president and the corruption and hypocrisy of these powerful women.1 I wish to take these views one step further to argue that the position and role of the first lady provided insights into the specific social and political institutional histories of the authoritarian state and that the abandonment of that role and title did not signal an end of the authoritarian state’s deployment of gender and/or its agendas to serve its interest. It only set the stage for the rise of new forms of top down gender politics whose discussion is beyond the focus of this memo.

President and Mrs. Anwar Sadat were responsible for the import and public use of this concept and role in the Egyptian political arena in the late 1970s, ignoring the objections of their political advisors who pointed out that it lacked legal or constitutional rules.2 Both persisted seeing it as defining them as a modern couple different from president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his wife, Tahia Kazem Nasser, who was for most part publicly invisible.3 It also signified the closer alliance between Egypt and the United States in the 1970s. Mrs. Sadat’s embrace of the American concept served another purpose: pride in her Western ethnic roots as the daughter of an Egyptian father and a British mother. She shared this mixed heritage with Mrs. Mubarak and both used it to define themselves as modern/Western women with public roles to play separating them from the accelerated Islamization of Egyptian society that prioritized women’s family roles. As a result, the role of first lady became identified with yet another top down marker of ethnic, social and political difference/distance between those who were in power and the Egyptian majority.

As though to reinforce this view, President Sadat approved the use of the personal status laws that played an important role in the lives of Egyptian men and women and their families, to serve the social and political ambitions of the first lady. The 1979 law (allowing for some restrictions to polygamy and giving divorced mothers claims to the family home) was passed by a presidential decree ignoring the sitting parliament and any appearance of population input. When the High Constitutional Court struck down that law in 1985, five years after the assassination of President Sadat, it sought to discourage this use of personal status laws to satisfy the interests of first ladies and to underline the illegality of using presidential decrees to pass laws while parliament was in session. Only the second part of this political lesson was learned by the Mubaraks, who quickly pushed parliament to pass another personal status law that could be used by the first lady at the 1985 UN’s Women’s conference in Nairobi to showcase the progress made by Egyptian women under the new regime.4

The establishment of the National Council for Women (NCW), passed by presidential decree number 90 for 2000 “to propose policies and plans for the empowerment of women through a wide ranging mandate… to be chaired by Egypt’s First Lady, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak,” institutionalized the connection between the gender policies of the authoritarian state and the role of the first lady. It was supposed to serve as an independent national structure devoted to “women’s empowerment,” but its formal connection to the first lady indicated continued domination by the state. This repelled, but also offered, an active section of middle class women, a potential institutional opening for putting into effect their work on the change of the hopelessly outdated family and other (nationality) laws that discriminated against them. It invited another section of middle class, providing its members with jobs and methods of advancement in the state bureaucracy through the service of the first lady.

Even though the changes that NCW introduced to the personal status laws appropriated the work of many non-governmental organizations on these important concern, Mrs. Mubarak claimed credit for shepherding them through parliaments. According to her husband’s advisors, Mrs. Mubarak also developed an interest in a bigger political role i.e. setting the stage for her son’s succession of his father as president.9 Both of these engagements were not helped by her reputation as an arrogant and imperious woman. It explained why the Egyptian public gave her the title of al-hanem (the lady) and categorized the changed personal status laws with which she was identified as qawanin al-hanem denying her and them any social justification or importance.11 They included giving a woman the right to initiate khul’ (no fault) divorce against her husband in exchange for giving up any financial claims she may have (2000), allowing women to pass Egyptian citizenship to their children born with foreign nationals (2004), giving mothers longer custody of children until the age of 15 (2005) and the use of quotas in two consecutive elections to allow for the better political representation of women (2010).

During the first two years of the uprising, a loud campaign — led by some aggrieved divorced fathers and some Islamists — described the laws as un-Islamic and responsible for the disintegration of families. Feminist women and religious reformers (both men and women) associated with al-Azhar, who played a role in approving them, struck back — challenging these claims and explaining that the changes reflected the interests of children, not those of sparring spouses.12 This last coalition which the old regime utilized explained why and how these laws survived this campaign.

Most liberal and Islamist groups and women did not support NCW, whose primary loyalties lay with the Mubarak state. It was not surprising therefore that many called for either its radical restructuring to better represent and address the gender agendas of civil society organizations or its dissolution. The organization survived, however, with some of its rules of operation intact e.g. the state continued to appoint its members, who included men and women with 30 percent of the members changing every three years. Politically, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), that governed the first 18 months that followed the uprising, had tarnished its reputation through the use of so-called virginity checks against activist women, as well as the violence with which its soldiers treated women in the streets. This made the dissolution of NCW unwise.13 Similarly, the government of President Morsi was unwilling to move against the very critical NCW for fear that this would also confirm the partisan view that his Muslim Brotherhood was not sympathetic to women.

While the NCW survived, the formal role of the first lady did not. The public contempt with which Mrs. Mubarak was discussed compared with the respect generated by the publication of the memoirs of Mrs. Nasser, published in 2011. It contributed a different model of the role of a presidential spouse that was less controversial and had general public support. With a workaholic spouse, who was mostly absent, she described how she took complete responsibility for a family with five young children and juggled these responsibilities with the occasional public need to entertain the wives of visiting dignitaries.14 In that capacity, she played a role with which women of different classes and generations were familiar (i.e. primary caretakers of their families, especially children, adding to them whenever possible some public responsibilities).

Nagla Ali Mahmoud, President Mohammed Morsi’s wife, concurred with Nasser’s definition of the role of a presidential spouse denouncing the position of first lady. In foregrounding her role as a mother and wife, she highlighted it as offering an Islamic definition of the important roles of women in the family. To the horror of her critics at the NCW — led by Mervat al-Tellawy, the former ambassador and UN civil servant — she took pride in being identified as Umm Ahmed (the mother of Ahmed) and wearing a frumpy variant of the Islamic mode of dress of middle class women. Mrs. Morsi did not behave, however, as a passive or silent Muslim woman giving many interviews that offered views and opinions that reflected an activist Islamic sensibility shared by the many women members of the Muslim Brotherhood. She offered a contrast to the wife of the interim president Adly Mansour, the jurist who came to power following the July 3rd coup, and whose wife was both unknown and invisible. Finally, Intisar Amer (Mrs. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) shared Mrs. Morsi’s interest in the familial roles of wife and mother. She made a late public appearance following her husband’s election that was largely designed to dispute the public rumors that she wore the niqab. The variant of the Islamic mode of dress that she wore was different from that worn by Mrs. Morsi and could be characterized as middle class chic. It did not provoke the uproar that Mrs. Morsi caused and neither did her statement that she was only interested in being a wife and a mother.

The strong rejection of Mrs. Mubarak and the role of first lady removed an irritant in the relations between the rulers and ruled under the authoritarian state reminded the latter of the expanded encroachment of executive privilege into their lives through the change of personal status laws. It also reminded the public of the arbitrary rules that the presidency imposed on the functioning of other state institutions including the judiciary and the legislature. Finally, it underlined the emergence of some social consensus regarding the role of the president’s wife: she was to play the same roles that other women of different classes played in their families taking on some public responsibilities should the need arises.

Mervat F. Hatem is professor of political science at Howard University in Washington DC.


1 Laurie A. Brand, Rym Kaki and Joshua Stacher, “First Ladies as Focal Points for Discontent”, Foreign Policy (Februrary 16, 2011) (http: //

2 Mahmoud Fawzi, Jihan al-Sadat, al-Mar’at alati Hakamat Misr (Cairo: Matabi’ Rose al-Youssef al-Gadida, 1993), 102-106.

3 Jehan Sadat, A Woman of Egypt (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1987), pp. 256-59, chapter 10.

4 Mervat F. Hatem, “Egypt‟s Economic and Political Liberalization and the Decline of State Feminism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (May 1992).

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