A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 2, 2014

Intissar Amer (Madame al-Sisi): First Lady or Invisible Consort? The Many Styles of Egypt's First Ladies

The photo above shows a rare appearance of then-Field Marshal Sisi in public with his wife, Intissar Amer. It dispelled rumors that she wears he full veil, but indications so far re that she will keep a low public profile when she becomes Egypt's First Lady. During the Presidencies of Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak, when the title "First Lady" was applied as a semi-official title and the incumbents had a highly-visible public profile. made the President's wife a public figure on he world stage, but not all of Egypt's first ladies have been as high-profile  as Jehan Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak.

Under the monarchy, of  course, the queens had a high public profile. Fuad I's Queen, Nazli, and Farouq's Queens, Farida and, after their divorce, Nariman, were given the public roles due to royalty on the European model. Of Middle Eastern monarchies, Egypt and Jordan gave their queens high levels of publicity and  public role, unlike Morocco or the Arab Gulf monarchies. But there has been considerable variation since the fall of the monarchy. Omitting transitional and interim figures:

Muhammad Naguib's wife, ‘A'isha Muhammad Labib, who was at least his second wife, played no real public role and remains little known. Some references even give her the first name ‘Aziza.

Nasser and Tahia's Wedding
Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser's wife had a more public role, though not nearly as visible as her two successors. Tahia Kazem, also called Tahia ‘Abdel Nasser,was the daughter of an Iranian father and Egyptian-Iranian mother. She was frequently photographed with her husband and children but did not have the high profile public role of her two successors.

During Nasser's Presidency
Tahia, who died in 1990, wrote a memoir of her life with Nasser which was not intended for publication. It was finally published in 2011 in Arabic, and last year in English. She thus joined, belatedly, Jehan Sadat in publishing her memoirs.

Jehan Sadat
Anwar Sadat's wife, Jehan, became the first Egyptian First Lady to play a major role in public, and to achieve international fame.in her own right. Jehan Safwat Ra'ouf, better known as Jehan El Sadat, married Sadat in 1949, shortly after his divorce from his first wife, Iqbal Mahdi, by whom he had three daughters. Jehan was the teenaged daughter of an Egyptian doctor and his British wife. (Many Egyptians believe that her mother was actually Maltese, but public documents show her mother was from Sheffield, as she asserts in her memoir. Some suggest the Maltese rumor may have originated when the Free Officers did not want to seem linked to the British occupation.) During the Sadat years the term First Lady (al-Sayyida al-Ula) began to be regularly, if unofficially, used. After Sadat's assassination, Jehan worked to keep his legacy alive, in part through the Anwar Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland. where she is a senior fellow.

Suzanne Mubarak
Husni Mubarak's wife. Suzanne Thabet, officially known as Suzanne Mubarak, is, like her predecessor, the daughter of an Egyptian doctor and a British mother, in her case a Welsh nurse. Like her predecessor she had a high profile, founded or was patron of schools and charities, and is believed to have been a strong supporter that her younger son Gamal should succeed his father. She was reported to be writing her memoirs before the Revolution broke out, and after the revolution Rose al-Youssef published what it claimed were excerpts, but many believe these, such as other leaks purporting to be her husbands memoirs, are a hoax.The source is highly dubious, to be generous.

Muhammad Morsi's wife, Nagla' ‘Ali Mahmoud, was a striking departure from her two fashionable predecessors. She wore the hijab, flatly refused to be called First Lady (saying she preferred "Umm Ahmad"), but she did give occasional interviews and discuss her role.

Which brings us to Madame Sisi, Intissar Amer. Sisi has said that they met in secondary school and he married her on graduation from the Military Academy in 1977. She is said to dislike public appearances and has not pursued a career, preferring to raise her family. She does not dress as conservatively as rumors speculated, but modestly, at least based on that one photo, but from what is known of her she is likelier to follow the Tahia Nasser model than the Jehan Sadat or Suzanne Mubarak one.

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