Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A Family Affair

Egyptian Postal Stamp (2003)

Arab “first ladies” have always had undue influence, but undoubtedly they all pale in comparison to Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak nee Thabet. Yes, the above is a real Egyptian postage stamp, of 2003 vintage, and as far as I know it’s still in circulation. So Suzanne Mubarak’s visage is not just on every “community garden” and “women’s empowerment initiative”, but on this highly symbolic national emblem. How did it come to this?

Shakhsanat al-Dawla. The personalization of state power. This is retired judge Tareq al-Bishri’s apt moniker for the end-result of 24 years of the Mubaraks’ rule. We’re talking about something qualitatively different here from personal rule à la Nasser, to take the most cited instance. We’re talking about the parceling out of portions of the state to members of Mubarak’s immediate family. The executive branch is now divided into three spheres of influence: Mubarak pere takes care of the “sovereign” ministries: defense, interior, foreign affairs, and the intelligence agencies, and the justice ministry is his turf as well. Mubarak fils holds sway in information (now headed by his buddy Anas al-Fiqqi, a former encyclopedia salesman), investment (headed by crony Mahmoud Mohieddine), foreign trade, industry, and the premiership. The female Mubarak is particularly influential in Culture and Education (booted minister Hussein Kamel Bahaeddine was a big acolyte), the National Women’s Council which she heads, and something called the National Council on Motherhood and Childhood.

This is not my theory, but widely acknowledged fact. Credit where credit is due: the writer who first warned of this in print is of course al-Quds al-Arabi’s Muhammad Abdel Hakam Diyab, the ever-vigilant, ever-worthwhile dispenser of political analysis and gossip in the paper’s weekend edition. When I first read about the stamp in one of his columns, it didn’t register. It did register when a friend sent me a letter with the offending item. Tactile proof. I stared at it for minutes and experienced what I can only describe as an Orwellian moment. The utterly abnormal and unthinkable is real. Welcome to Egyptian reality.

I’m tempted to write reams about the gall, the hubris, the intoxication with power, the inevitable day when the mighty shall fall. I’ll resist the temptation and save my ode to Greek drama for another time. Here I want to reflect on the unaccountable and illegitimate ubiquity of Suzanne Mubarak in Egyptian public life.

When I was small, I vaguely remember watching on “live” TV Suzanne Mubarak’s flamboyant predecessor, Jehane al-Sadat, “defending her thesis” at Cairo University on our grainy, black and white TV with the humongous channel knob. I remember some charity group she had called Gam’iyyat al-Wafa’ wa al-Amal (The Faith and Hope Association). I remember my parents and grandparents indignantly discussing her excessive public visibility and praising Taheyya Abdel Nasser for shunning the limelight and being a “respectable” president’s wife. I remember thinking that Jehane al-Sadat was fake and loud.

Decades later. A cold winter’s evening. I’m couch-ridden with a bad cold, drifting in and out of a hallucinatory sleep. I sit up and try to watch some television. On Channel One, I see a very elderly Egyptian woman in black tarha and gallabiyya, from Manshiyyet Nasser, led up a podium before clicking and whirring TV cameras. In a rehearsed speech that failed to dampen this woman’s natural warmth and enthusiasm, she heaped profuse thanks and praise on Suzanne Mubarak, who sat frostily in the front row flanked by her coiffed and bejeweled associates. The woman thanked Suzanne Mubarak for running water, electricity, I think maybe a children’s center or a school or something of the sort that had been constructed in the neighborhood. She was then led from the podium to shake hands with Suzanne Mubarak, who smiled superciliously and sat down. And an adorable little girl wearing her best clothes was trotted out for the same routine, except they made her sing a song for “Mama Suzanne.”

Perhaps if Sadat had lived, Jehane would have carved out a similar niche of impunity. But he didn’t, and she couldn’t. What we know is that Suzanne Mubarak makes Jehane al-Sadat look like a retiring woman. Apparently it is not enough that Suzanne Mubarak has amassed a stunning array of prerogatives and powers. Obscene spectacles like the above would have us believe that the bare minimum rights of citizenship are benevolent grants of the president’s wife. The right to read and have affordable books has been usurped as a Suzanne Mubarak idea. The right of girls to have a basic education has morphed into a Suzanne Mubarak insight. The old Egyptian tradition of public libraries has been turned into a Suzanne Mubarak invention. Public gardens are billed as Suzanne Mubarak bequests. UN and US efforts to combat violence against and “empower women” have been folded into a local narrative of Suzanne Mubarak’s feminist credentials. Defending street children has become a Suzanne Mubarak vanity project. The grade-school fact that war is bad for development (gasp!) is trumpeted as a Suzanne Mubarak finding. Tomorrow they’ll tell us Suzanne Mubarak discovered the low-carb diet and the dangers of smoking.

The debasement of the meaning of citizenship, the humiliation of poor Egyptians, the abuse of language—all are symptomatic of the rank abuse of power for 24 years. Let’s be clear: Suzanne Mubarak is also merely a symptom. I don’t share the hugely popular depiction of her as a Lady Macbeth manipulating a henpecked husband and a dimwitted son and carrying on the affairs of state by remote control. Suzanne Mubarak would have been an utterly unexceptional, easily forgotten quantity had she been married to a president who had an iota of understanding and respect for the powers of his office. Cherchez l’homme, pas la femme. We have a deep-seated tendency to ascribe all sorts of horrible motives to the scheming wife, but let’s not kid ourselves, the personalization of state power in Egypt is not your aunt’s household writ large. The domestic model of the control-freak wife does not do justice to an entire state structure divvied up into three spheres of influence.

Hosni Mubarak is responsible. Not Hosni Mubarak the person or the husband but Hosni Mubarak the president. He is responsible for an out-of-control “First Lady” who controls appointments and policies and is absolutely unaccountable to anyone but her own whims and the dictates of the foreigners she so desperately wants to please. He is responsible for an out-of-control police force that maims and kills citizens. He is responsible for arming Egyptian citizens with clubs to beat other Egyptian citizens who are demanding their rights. He is responsible for every Egyptian citizen who drowns in the Mediterranean trying to escape poverty and hopelessness at home. He is responsible for every Egyptian citizen who commits suicide to escape daily humiliation. He is responsible for the pilfering of state assets and disintegration of public services. He is responsible for the death of Sarando’s Nafisa al-Marakbi, 38, mother of four, at the hands of criminal police agents. He is responsible.

But president Hosni Mubarak is busy right now repairing his shot legitimacy with a clumsy media stunt obligingly emceed by the cloying, gag-inducing Emadeddine Adib (but he’s a “liberal”!) He’s busy recalling dubious martial glories in exceedingly boring, trivial detail. He’s testing out a new moniker: “the hero of the first airstrike”. He’s busy telling us how hard he works to feed and clothe us, his perpetual burden. He’s preoccupied with “remembering” how embarrassed he always felt when Sadat praised him. He’s patiently explaining that governance is an exceedingly difficult, nay esoteric craft that only those who have practiced it for 24 years are fit to tackle it for another 24. He’s busy telling the Egyptian people to spurn their 24 years of experience with his rule and substitute that with a gullible embrace of the fantastical and untrue.

And the pundits have got themselves in a perfect little tizzy, panting for more details, blathering about Mubarak’s “authority”, deciphering every little gesture, lapping up every “revelation,” doing their bit as perfect little extras in the cheap carnival. From their despicable behavior, you’d think a true leader was sharing his hard-won wisdom, not a nervous, unimaginative dolt at the end of his tether.