No sooner had the dust settled following the departure of the Mubarak family from Al-`Uruba palace in Cairo, than rumors began to fly of Suzanne Mubarak’s last minute filling of suitcases with valuables before leaving for Sharm al-Shaykh, and of her deposed dictator husband’s reportedly blaming her (along with former heir apparent, Gamal) for his regime’s undoing. Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi Ben Ali was frequently pilloried for an addictive collection of sports cars, opulent palatial villas, and frequent extravagant designer shopping trips to Dubai, while in Jordan, Queen Rania al-`Abdallah has come under fire for a lavish 40th birthday party in the Wadi Rum desert.
In the Middle East and North Africa, as in other parts of the world, "first ladies," whether wives of presidents or monarchs — especially those who play an "activist" public role — are often the subject of direct and brutal criticism from their societies. While there is often ugly truth in these charges, what else might the images of corruption and interference they portray tell us? Is this merely sexism toward women in the public eye, examples of which abound around the world? Is it simply that it is "safer" to criticize the wife rather than the president or monarch himself? Or can something deeper about the society and the regime be read through the jokes, rumors and criticisms these powerful women elicit?
In some of the earliest Kifaya protests in Egypt during the 2000s, Suzanne Mubarak was often invoked as a way of attacking her husband. For example, protesters chanted then, "Ya Suzanne, Ya Suzanne libis Mubarak il-fustan" ("Hey Suzanne, Mubarak Put on a Dress.") At the same time, despite attempting to cultivate the persona of a leading woman interested in Egypt’s children and literacy, she instead became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Mubarak regime, from her public friendship with the controversial Culture Minister, Farouk Hosni, to her desire to tear down a hospital near Alexandria’s Corniche because she thought it to be an eyesore.
During the 18-day uprising that forced her husband from office, Suzanne was not a target of the protesters, but she was undeniably guilty by association. While we will likely never know with certainty what transpired in the palace before Mubarak’s final, failed address to the nation, it is unsurprising that Suzanne is popularly understood to have played a role. This is because Suzanne Mubarak is believed by many Egyptians to have been at the epicenter of Egypt’s main political fault-line since 2000. Her purported support for her younger son, Gamal, to become Egypt’s next president galvanized the country’s citizenry in ways little appreciated by many observers. Egyptians viewed the inheritance of power as embarrassing and Suzanne was seen as the hand behind the succession project.
According to this perception, the now-former president was often portrayed as opposed to the idea. Yet, palace intrigue and rumor always depicted Suzanne as using Hosni as the vassal to execute her dynastic plan. It matters little if this was actually the case or rather Gamal’s ambition. "Mama Suzanne" will be remembered in the annals of Egyptian history as the palace’s power hungry broker willing to sacrifice the dignity of Egyptians in favor of building a family dynasty. This in many ways is much more damning than had demonstrators vented their anger directly at her during the last protests of the Mubarak presidency.
In the case of Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi, it was perhaps her incarnation of the glaring hypocrisy of the regime — in which she was a key actor — in two areas in which it claimed special success: economic development and women’s rights. On the first, she used her position to her personal advantage and to that of her tribe for nearly two decades. She, as well as close members of her clan, have been accused of massively exploiting the Tunisian economy via shady or illegal acquisitions of public and private economic resources and assets (hotels chains, airline, radio stations, banks, private businesses, foreign direct investment & franchises, public land, etc.) In a country lauded by international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF as a model of economic reform, the president’s wife turned the development formula on its head, extorting billions in order to finance the acquisition of wealth for herself and her clan, to the detriment of the country’s economic welfare.
As for women’s rights, while aggressively striving to carve out a leading role among Arab first ladies by verbally championing women’s causes — an issue area in which Tunisia had long been a regional leader — she missed an historic opportunity to play a constructive leadership role for Tunisian women. Worse, although hailing from humble origins herself, she ignored the lonely struggle of the many hard-working women of Tunisia’s urban and rural disenfranchised neighborhoods, of the activist women fighting against human rights violations, and of the daring female whistleblowers who elected to expose the regime’s excesses and who were faced with intimidation and jail, or forced into exile. Instead she was deeply complicit in a regime characterized by corruption, banditry, and brutal repression of women as well as men.
In the case of Queen Rania of Jordan it is also obvious that there is far more at work than popular resentment of the glamorous, tweeting image that has attracted such acclaim in the West. For several years, some of the chants heard at soccer matches between Jordan’s two highest profile teams, al-Faisali (a symbol for Jordanians of East Bank origin) and al-Wihdat (a rallying point for Jordanians of Palestinian origin) have included calls for the king to divorce her: Rania is of Palestinian origin, and hence the slogans clearly indicate that among at least a part of the Jordanian population, the Palestinian roots of the queen are deeply resented. However, in the context of increasing political ferment in Jordan, as revolutions have unfolded in Egypt and Tunisia, the criticism of the queen has reached a new level. In an unprecedented move, in the first week in February, 36 members of Jordanian tribes signed a letter to King Abdallah II in which they directly charged Rania and members of her family with a range of financial misdealings.
While rumors of such corruption involving the queen and her clan are not new, the very public, and hence daring, publishing of them certainly is. It is indicative, not only of socio-economic crisis in Jordan, but also of many Transjordanians’ association of (excessive) wealth with the overwhelmingly Palestinian business class. In addition, however, the letter charged that the Queen had been responsible for securing Jordanian passports for 78,000 Palestinians between 2005 and 2010. This claim simply adds fuel to the ongoing controversy regarding the Jordanian policy which, according to Human Rights Watch (Jordan: Stateless Again, 2010), between 2004 and 2008 deprived more than 2,700 Jordanians of Palestinian origin of their Jordanian citizenship. In a political climate in which the long-standing tensions between the kingdom’s two communal groups have been increasing, owing in no small measure to the domestic political implications of the continuing failure to reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace, Rania has become a symbol of the threat and a target of the anger felt by those East Bankers who fear they are losing power, economically and demographically, to Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
Outside analysts would do well to watch carefully the content as well as the intensity of critiques aimed at the members of "first families." All three of these women symbolize not just power and extreme privilege, but serious ongoing struggles within their respective societies and even within the regimes themselves. The issues may be specific ones such as succession, the acquisition of the spoils of office or competition among factions in the regime. Or, they may be more general, such as increasing detachment of the authoritarian leadership from popular concerns regarding the economy or political and civil rights. In either case, among the general population these "first ladies" — especially high-profile ones — come to incarnate the ills and excesses of the corrupt regimes led by their husbands (regimes in which they, too, are deeply complicit). Far from merely crude sexism, and apart from the truths of excess and corruption they may well include, attacks leveled against them — whether in chants at rallies or popular rumors — should be examined as indications of deeper political, economic and social discontent.
Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor and Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Rym Kaki is a lecturer in international development at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California. Joshua Stacher is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kent State University.