The Middle East Channel

First Ladies as focal points for discontent

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.

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

News Brief: Waves of protests spread across the region

Wave of protests spread across the region
Bahrain: Despite a rare apology by the King of Bahrain for the deaths of two demonstrators, protests against the government continue into their third day. Demonstrators are occupying a square in Manama, the country's capital, demanding political reforms and human rights. By Tuesday night, protesters began mimicking the 18-day protests in Egypt that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Demonstrators set up tents and sleeping bags and began passing out food, water and tea."They are well organized and say that they will make Manama's Pearl Roundabout Bahrain's version of Egypt's Tahrir Square," said an Al Jazeera correspondent in Bahrain.

Libya: Hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police in the eastern city of Benghazi in Libya, a country that has been under tight control by leader Muammar Gaddafi for more than 40 years. Angry over the arrest of a human rights campaigner, protesters demanded his release. Quryna newspaper, based in Benghazi, quoted the director of a local hospital as saying that 38 people were injured in the clashes, most of whom are members of security forces. Libyan activists have reportedly been using social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter to organize protesters, and are calling for a major demonstration for today.

Iran: Fresh clashes have sparked in Tehran during the funeral of a student killed in protests on Monday, though both government opponents and supporters claim the student as one of their supporters. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed recent unrest in Iran, while members of the Iranian Parliament are demanding that the two most prominent leaders of the opposition -- Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi -- be executed. Meanwhile, President Obama praised protesters in Iran. "My hope and expectation is that we're going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government, understanding that America cannot ultimately dictate what happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt," he said.

Yemen: Yemen has sent 2,000 policemen into the capital in attempts to disperse Yemenis protesting against the president who has ruled for 32 years. As demonstrations enter their sixth day in Sanaa, the capital, policemen blocked thousands of students at Sanaa University from joining protests elsewhere in the city. Demonstrators are demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and protesting against Yemen's poverty, unemployment and corruption. "Years of trying to keep the Yemeni people in ignorance and poverty have failed," said protester Jameel Awad, a 28-year-old taxi driver. "Tunisia and Egypt have shown us that nothing is impossible. The youth see that this is their time to claim the future...and we will not let the opportunity pass."

Daily Snapshot

Anti-regime protesters gather near Sanaa University on February 16, 2011, on the fifth day of consecutive protests against the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (MOHAMMAD HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images.

Arguments & Analysis
Egypt, Tunisia...and Iran (Shibley Telahmi, The National Interest)
"Of course, the aim of American policies toward Iran, Cuba, or North Korea may not be at their core to bring democratization, but other strategic priorities that have to do with changing those governments' foreign policy behavior (which in the case of Iran is its nuclear program and support for groups that the United States identifies as terrorist organizations). But that just makes the point: the pursuit of strategic priorities as the United States has defined them for decades has had the consequence of slowing the natural indigenous drive for reform in the Middle East. With a changed regional environment and newly realized public empowerment in the Middle East, the real challenge is not simply to react to crises-and there will be many to come-but to rethink the way we define and pursue our interests in the region."

'Revolution and counter-revolution in the Egyptian media' (Ursula Lindsey, MERIP)
"Only time will tell how serious the army's commitment is to a democratic transition. The pace and extent of reform will also depend on the skills and determination of the protest movement, and its ability to form a coherent political front. Whatever additional concessions the protesters and their leadership are able to extract, somewhere near the top of the list should be a full accounting for the disinformation campaign and the coordinated attacks on journalists. They should also demand the appointment of a trustworthy reformist to head the Ministry of Information or the gradual dismantling of that ministry altogether, the curtailment of the government's arbitrary power to shut down Egyptians' means of communication and an end to state control over all terrestrial TV transmissions. Egypt cannot move toward democracy without guarantees that its citizens will have access to free, accurate information." 

'U.S. for U.N. on Israeli settlements' (M.J. Rosenberg, al-Jazeera English)
The author lays out the case for why the U.S. should not veto a U.N. security council resolution calling Israeli settlements illegal. Even though it will likely veto or at best abstain, the argument should be simple: "...a US decision to support the condemnation of settlements would send a clear message to the Arab and Muslim world that we understand what is happening in the Middle East and that we share at least some of its peoples' concerns.The settlement issue should be an easy one for the United States. Our official policy is the same as that of the Arab world. We oppose settlements. We consider them illegal.  We have repeatedly demanded that the Israelis stop expanding them (although the Israeli government repeatedly ignores us). The administration feels so strongly about settlements that it recently offered Israel an extra $3.5bn in US aid to freeze settlements for 90 days. It is impossible, then, for the United States to pretend that we do not agree with the resolution (especially when its language was carefully drafted to comport with the administration's official position)."