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Naglaa Ali Mahmoud attends a rally during a campaign rally for her husband, then presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo May 12. She is now Egypt’s first lady, though she prefers the term ‘first servant.’
Naglaa Ali Mahmoud attends a rally during a campaign rally for her husband, then presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo May 12. She is now Egypt’s first lady, though she prefers the term ‘first servant.’ (Ahmad Hammad/Associated Press)

Morsi’s wife prefers ‘first servant’ to first lady

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 appear to end there.

The wife of deposed president Hosni Mubarak was an elegant, sophisticated university graduate with a British mother. She was criticized for being elitist, vain, self-important, overbearing and oblivious to the plight of ordinary Egyptians.

By contrast, the wife of Islamist president-elect Mohamed Morsi is a religious Muslim who wears a veil and did not attend college. Detractors consider her style to be emblematic of Egypt’s steady march toward conservative Islam, while supporters proclaim that her modest demeanour and background embody the democratic spirit of the revolution.

Mrs. Mahmoud has reportedly said she would prefer not to live in the presidential palace, and the couple has yet to move in. She also doesn’t want to be called the first lady.

“I want to be called the president’s wife,” she told Associated Press by telephone. “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. It’s a moniker that some secular Egyptian elites might disdain as patriarchal. Her defenders note that unlike the two first ladies before her, she has not taken on her husband’s last name in public in a sign of self-assertion that also falls in line with Islamic tradition throughout Egypt.

If she must have a title, she says, 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 massive corruption that enriched an elite cadre of businessmen and ruling party leaders while half the country of 85 million people struggled in abject poverty.

For the nearly three decades of Mr. Mubarak’s rule, roads were paved and flowers were planted for Mrs. Mubarak’s arrivals – sometimes just temporarily while she briefly visited a university or a park – at the cost of thousands of dollars.

Umm Ahmed sought immediately to draw a clear distinction between herself and her predecessors – including former first lady Jehan Sadat, who, like Mrs. Mubarak, was also university-educated, impeccably dressed and coiffed and the daughter of a British mother.

But under the glare of her new-found fame, already the 50-year-old, bespectacled Umm Ahmed’s style of dress is being picked apart. There is already a war of words on social media over her conservative, modest style, which is shared by the vast majority of women in Egypt’s impoverished villages and towns.

Some of her detractors are not opposed to her wearing a head scarf, but more with her choice of head scarves – long scarves in solid colours that drape past her shoulders and are seen as a sort of Muslim Brotherhood uniform.

“At the end of the day, the first lady is diplomatically representing Egypt,” blogger Mahmoud Salem, a secular liberal, said. “We did not choose to make her a public persona. [The Muslim Brotherhood] made her a public persona” who will be scrutinized.

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.

So far, Umm Ahmed has not completely shied away from the spotlight, as wives of rulers do in more conservative Islamic societies such as Saudi Arabia. She has given a handful of interviews to the media, has met with the families of protesters killed in the uprising and made appearances at campaign rallies for her husband.

Former Brotherhood legislator Azza al-Gharf, who has known Umm Ahmed for the past five years, said the new first lady would sit among the crowds during her husband’s campaign rallies, nearly unnoticed and refusing special seating.

Ms. al-Gharf said what makes Umm Ahmed so different from her predecessor, Mrs. Mubarak, is that “she is one of us” and has suffered the problems of many Egyptians.