Egypt's Mean Queen

By Hansen, Suzy | Newsweek, January 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Egypt's Mean Queen


Hansen, Suzy, Newsweek


Byline: Suzy Hansen

Former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak controlled Egypt behind the scenes, profiting from its misery. A year after the revolution, she still lives in luxury.

On one of the first days of the Egyptian revolution, Suzanne Mubarak, the president's wife, spoke to her friend Farkhonda Hassan by phone. Cairo's buildings were burning. The first lady, Hassan says, was "very, very calm." Suzanne did not believe a crisis was coming. She did not know the depth of the problem. She certainly did not see that the House of Mubarak was about to fall.

To spend time with a supporter of Suzanne Mubarak is to get the tiniest glimpse of what it must have been like to be the Egyptian first lady before the Arab Spring: arrogant, deluded, out of touch. The revolution, her friends say, took the 70-year-old by surprise. Especially in her later years, Suzanne observed Cairo's garbage-strewn streets through a gilded peephole. For her, walls were scrubbed, flowers planted, grass grown, Egyptians bribed to smile. If you were part of the royal convoy, Cairo was clean and Egyptians were happy.

"Why people turn so quickly from support to extreme criticism is very strange," says Hassan, who heads one of Suzanne's main charitable organizations, the National Council for Women.

It may be that the entire elite is out of touch. The Western press often recalls Suzanne with gentle ambivalence, as if her feminine credentials and nonprofit do-goodings offset her role in the dictatorial family business. A 1988 profile in The New York Times described her as "poised and articulate."

But Suzanne was hardly the willowy wife behind the evil giant. Her political power mushroomed as her husband's dissipated. "She wasn't associated with the regime," one feminist says. "She was the regime." For much of his reign, Hosni Mubarak was an unimpressive leader--a phantom pharaoh. In his last five years as president, he retreated to his vacation villa at Sharm al-Sheikh, increasingly spacy, hard of hearing, and dependent on his wife and sons. The first lady, or el hanem, as they called her, pushed the country to the brink.

"As Mubarak got older, indeed her influence and control became greater--and not in a good way," says one former U.S. official. "The U.S. had had multiple conversations with Mubarak encouraging him to move to a democratic form of government. It was clear that the person most opposed to that was not Mubarak himself, but Suzanne." Now, as violence spreads across Egypt and the military continues to brutally repress citizens, it's questionable whether fundamental change can truly come to a country so long led by a Mubarak's iron fist.

With her husband on trial for his life, Egypt's former first lady has all but vanished. She reportedly suffered a panic attack in May, after being detained and questioned over illegal acquisition of wealth. She was released quickly after forfeiting $3.4 million and a Cairo villa--though some estimates place the family wealth in the billions. She is in touch with few friends, and Newsweek's many efforts to reach her went unanswered.

Egyptians offer various explanations for the Mubarak psychosis that engulfed the country for three decades: absolute power corrupts; the Mubaraks believed Egypt would crumble without them; the couple simply didn't know how bad things were. A quick cab ride through Cairo's stark poverty and -ruined infrastructure suggests Egypt went largely ungoverned for years. What kind of woman wouldn't notice that she was justifiably despised by 80 million people?

"We never thought that things would turn out to be like this," says Hassan. "You know?"

Suzanne Thabet was born middle class in the Nile River town of Minya to an Egyptian father, a doctor, and a Welsh mother, a nurse. Later the family moved to Cairo's posh Heliopolis neighborhood; the young Suzanne swam on a team at the local Heliolido Club. A magazine article from 1956 said the 15-year-old loved detective stories and ballet, and wished to become an "air hostess" when she grew up. …

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