Legacy of a former first lady

On Wednesday, Minya announced its Suzanne Mubarak Square would no longer bear the former first lady’s moniker. While the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya’s executive board is still brainstorming to find an appropriate name for the pivotal square–“Martyrs of the 25 January Revolution” is the leading proposal thus far–the symbolic renaming is a double jab at the former first lady. The move not only comes from her own home governorate, but also foreshadows a massive erasing of her name from many facades across the country.

So what will remain of Suzanne Mubarak’s legacy in Egypt and what baggage, both emotional and professional, has she left her country with?

Mubarak’s name remained largely unmentioned during the 18-day uprising against her husband, with the exception of random slanderous graffiti on some of Cairo’s downtown buildings and protesters occasional chants “Hukumat Suzy Ra’assa” (the government of Suzanne is a belly dancer) or “Ya Suzanne, teach Mubarak how to leave”. Even these chants were usually accompanied by smiles of sympathetic mockery.  

“I think there is a part of respect, but not only that,” said Maya Morsi, coordinator of UN Women in Egypt. “The demonstrators knew very well that she was not the one in charge, not the person capable of accessing their pressing requests.”

After a slight hesitation, Morsi adds, “As a woman, she is considered a second-class citizen.”

Mustafa Kamel El-Sayyed, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said that the demonstrators’ respectful attitude toward the ex-first lady reflects the “fine character” of Egyptian people.

“Of course, the fact that her political role was not visible contributed to this pacifism on her behalf,” he said. Stressing the word “visible,” El-Sayyed said that her political influence was much more important than she was ready to admit.

It was not uncommon for the First Lady to hold meetings attended by ministers, or to be accompanied by some of them during official visits or trips. “She blurred the border between her public role and her political investment,” he explained.

Mubarak has been on the board of many of the charities in Egypt for the past 30 years. She founded and chaired the “Integrated Care Society”, which specializes in building school libraries, and the National Council for Women.

“This National Council for Women did nothing to empower women, even though it was its primary role,” said El-Sayyed, noting that the council did not offer its help to sponsor non-National Democratic Party female candidates for the 2010 parliamentary elections, and that it remained silent after women activists were sexually harassed by thugs in a demonstration on 25 May 2005.

“All feminist movements in Egypt have suffered from having Suzanne Mubarak as a spokesperson. And the National Council for Women did a terrible job,” said Mozn Hassan, director of Nazra for Feminist Studies.

Morsi does not share this point of view. According to her, the National Council for Women should continue to exist, “because it is an important platform between the various NGOs and the policy makers.”

Aladdin Elassar, award-winning author and lecturer, who was nominated as a candidate for the presidential elections in 2005, alleged to Al-Masry Al-Youm from the US that “it is plausible that Suzanne Mubarak embezzled some of the estimated $5 billion the charities received on a yearly basis.”

Elassar, who wrote the book “The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age”, explains that the main frustration of Egyptian people was nourished by the impression that “the family was treating the country and the people as their property.”

The writer also said that Egyptians were increasingly conscious of the first lady’s role in shaping the future of their country.

“She played an important role behind the scenes running the government,” he said. “She knew that (President) Mubarak in the last years was almost out of the picture, and she groomed her son Gamal to be Egypt’s next president.”

Elassar’s remarks largely echo speculations among many of Egypt’s political and cultural circles that believe Suzanne Mubarak intervened in the selection of cabinet members, especially in the fields of culture, media, health and women.

In many countries it is common for first ladies to take an active political role and advise her husband.       

But even Mubarak’s connection to her husband’s regime may not mean her reputation will be forever tarnished.  

Morsi believes Mubarak will be remembered for “her work with children and women, and for representing human rights values.”

El-Sayyed also pointed out positive aspects of Mubarak’s commitment to women and children, especially the programs she developed to facilitate literacy among children. “The initiative she spearheaded which re-published landmark books of Egyptian history and made them accessible for a very low prices forces respect,” he said.

Whether the many schools, public places and libraries which bear her name will follow Minya’s lead and try to “erase” the first lady remains to be seen.

For Elassar, “these institutions should be audited and returned to the people who initially founded them.” As for her legacy, Elassar said that “people will try to forget this family and avoid mentioning the Mubarak name.”

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