Arab dictators' wives club

I find the way that Suha Arafat has emerged suddenly as a potential rival in the Palestinian leadership struggle rather amusing -- if you ignore that it's yet another slap in the face of the Palestinian people's quest for for dignity and decent leadership:

In a one-minute telephone call to the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera, she set off a political storm Monday, accusing her husband's top aides of conspiring to replace the 75-year-old leader in a behind-the-scenes power grab.


The 41-year-old Mrs. Arafat, who until now remained largely outside the political scene, said top officials aimed to "bury" her husband "alive." A Christian convert to Islam, she ended the phone call with "God is Great" — often used as a Muslim war cry.


While the idea of Suha Arafat really being a contender in the leadership struggle is proposterous (and the AP and other press outlets should know better than to propagate this notion) it made me think of the roles that Arab dictator's wives have had from country to country. In Palestine's case, she had played a negligible role apart from serving as a conduit for Arafat's stash taken from PA funds.

But if we turn to Egypt, Suzanne Mubarak plays in important role in the country, with some people even saying that she has a lot of influence on domestic politics (particularly health and education), the composition of the cabinet, and that she may even be behind the rise of her son Gamal as a possible heir. I don't know how much credence to give all this, but it is certainly true that she is a woman of great influence. Try to set up a NGO that deals with women, literacy, children, or education, and you'll probably be made an offer you can't refuse and be absorbed by "Mama Suzanne" and her National Council for Women, at which point virtually every activity you undertake will be subject to constant bureaucratic hassle and the whims of the first lady. While her endorsements do bring advantages, they can often also constrain the activities of a NGO (which will have to vet everything with her people to make sure they don't embarrass her). In other words, it's a poisoned chalice.

In Tunisia, Leila Ben Ali owns a variety of businesses that her position had, of course, no influence in creating. For instance, she owns the country's near-monopoly ISP, which has milked the emerging internet market while complying with the state's need to have what is probably the most invasive monitoring of the internet in the region.

Saddam Hussein's wife Sadija (who was also his first cousin) was the symbol of feminism in her country, as well as the leading public figure promoting education. Can't say she set that good of an example with her two boys, though. According to a widespread rumor reproduced in Said Aburish's biography of Saddam and elsewhere, Uday Hussein went to great extent to protect his mother's honor:

In 1998, Uday killed Hanna Jajo, Saddam's most trusted food-taster and procurer of women. Jajo had acted as the go-between for Saddam and Samira, who became his second wife and the mother of now-teenage Ali. (Saddam remained married to Sajida, despite at least two other known marriages.) It was reported that Uday, said to be closer to his mother than to his father, arranged a party for Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian president, on the banks of the Tigris in downtown Baghdad. Across the river, on the Island of Pigs, Jajo was also entertaining. He and his rather rowdy bunch were shooting salvos in the air. Uday crossed the Tigris and asked Jajo to stop. Some time later Jajo fired again. Uday returned and clubbed Jajo to death.

According to Aburish, Saddam was furious at Uday not only because Jajo was a "trusted" procurer of women and food-taster, but also because Jajo's father was his cook, which provided an added precaution against being poisoned since the father would not have wanted to poison his own son.

Come to think of it, it seems that infamous Arab leaders' wives tend to come mostly from republics, not monarchies. Whenever there is some kind of regional meeting (usually on women's issues or some pageantry event) I kind of wonder what these women talk about, how much rivalry there is between them (are they all jealous of the young and beautiful Queen Rania of Jordan, or perhaps King Muhammad VI's wife?) and so on. Does anyone have good gossip on Arab first ladies?
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.