01.29.11 12:24 PM ET
Keeping Up With the Mubaraks
The dictator’s wife is not who you’d expect.
Suzanne Mubarak —who reportedly fled to London from Cairo this week as husband Hosni, the country’s embattled president, struggled to keep his government from toppling in the midst of violent protests—is a half-Welsh heiress who loves fur, hangs with French First Lady Carla Bruni and sits on the board of the Arabian version of Sesame Street.
For decades she has been the silent, tweed-wearing force behind a Mubarak dynasty that began with Hosni’s 1981 swearing in and looked likely to continue with high-flying ex-banker son Gamal, until public backlash came to a fiery head last week.
"The majority of Egyptians over the last 15 years have grown very familiar with the family—they’re highly visible. Mubarak tried to present them as a dignified family in eyes of Egyptians—that they are to be loved and respected,” said Adel Iskandar, professor of Arab media at Georgetown University.
It’s a bit Beaver Cleaver—“that he's the father of the nation, the wife a maternal figure who embraces women and children—all of this an attempt to present her as someone very warm and nurturing."
But in December, a WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo attested to an almost Manchurian hold on her son—“her power and influence, many argue, are keys to Gamal's viability,” it said. “Sources tell us that she has kept Mubarak pere from naming a Vice President.” ( Mubarak appointed a vice president on Saturday.)
Gamal became a known entity once he was appointed to the National Democratic Party.
According to Iskandar, “he suddenly became a major figure without the credentials.”
Over the last half-decade, the public has grown increasingly weary of how Mubarak’s younger son has been presented—front-page newspaper coverage, sponsorship of youth empowerment initiatives—almost overnight and without media criticism.
“It became very clear in the last five years that he was being groomed to be a major figure politically in his own right—not just the son of the president. In that capacity he was very distant from [everyday] Egyptians,” he said. “And he became very ceremonial, traveling to D.C. to meet with state leaders. The Egyptian public was like, ‘who is this guy? This all happened behind our backs.’”
(Egyptians are adamantly opposed to hereditary rule, and have been since the 1952 coup that overthrew King Farouk.) “Gamal's image was suddenly being looked at under a microscope,” Iskandar said. “He looked like an impending reality."
The 47-year-old former heir apparent favors Euro-style designer suits, cardigans and wrap-around designer sunglasses. He attends national team soccer matches and occasionally takes the field, including an exhibition match with Egypt’s El-Sokour team as part of the Football International Masters Cup in 2007.
"Here was this man living with utmost wealth and everybody knew it, and he was surrounding himself with moguls, the biggest conglomerates in Egypt," he said. "The Egyptians are very modest people culturally—it didn't rub them right.”
Meanwhile, "the Egyptian media portrayed him as a man of the people, as an attempt to salvage his image from that of a palace-wandering future heir to someone you could have tea with."
Like his 69-year-old mother, Gamal studied at the American University in Cairo. Whereas she pursued a masters in education (ironically writing a thesis on social action research in urban Egypt), he went into finance, becoming a London-based Bank of America executive before leaving to found Medinvest Associates Ltd., a private equity fund manager.
By 2000, he had returned home to Cairo to heed duty’s call and speculation (now all but dashed) that he would take over for his father had become, in the words of the Arab Studies Journal, “increasingly intense.”
Gamal’s Queen of the Nile is honey-tressed wife Khadija el-Gamal, whom he married in 2007 in private blowout ceremony in the upscale Red Sea resort playland of Sharm-el-Sheikh, where the Mubaraks own a home.
Like most of what the family does, it seemed out of touch to a public facing poverty, illiteracy, and a soaring unemployment rate.
The twentysomething socialite daughter of Egyptian construction magnate Mahmoud el-Gamal is as famous for her designer duds as she is for (reported) bad plastic surgery that left her with Jocelyn Wildenstein-style lips and surprised-brows.
Fluent in English, she works for her father, who owns one of Egypt’s largest construction companies and vast property holdings.
A gossip-page staple who’s been spotted sweating it out at the Gezira Sporting Club—the watering hole for Cairo’s elite—she is the antithesis of the staid, Hillary-esque Suzanne, who famously wore a conservative white suit while sitting with a bright-purple-clad Bruni at a 2008 Paris Bastille Day parade.
Khadija is perhaps meant to be a signal to the Egyptian people that if Gamal were to be named president, it wouldn’t be all business as usual.
So far they’re not buying it.
Gamal continued to surround himself with the elite aristocracy, many of them technocrats with close ties to the Royal Bank, IMF and other financial institutions.
The “other” Mubarak son is Alaa, the often-overlooked older of the two. After his business practices were questioned, he largely disappeared from public view and keeps a low profile.
"There were rumors and jokes that his massive businesses, questionable dealings, and financial holdings meant that he owned much of country,” Iskandar said. “Egyptians like to ridicule, so there's lots of satire spoken between people about just how much of a thief he was."
There was a small outpouring of support in 2009 after Alaa lost his preteen son Mohammud to illness—one of few public displays of affection for the Mubaraks. The family’s image is difficult for Egyptians to accept.
“The largest segment of the [88 million] population is youth under 25, so there are those who have lived their entire life under the Mubarak regime and cannot imagine life without them," Iskandar said.
This week, "they've basically disowned this family and are saying 'that's it, we're done with you.' And that's been building up for a very long time."
Karen Leigh is a reporter and anchor for the Hindustan Times, based in New Delhi. She has written for Time, Bloomberg, the New York Sun, the Cambodia Daily, Entertainment Weekly and Women's Wear Daily.