During the last few weeks, much has been said about dictators in the Arab world, but not as much about their wives. All of them have been living, and still do, next to their husbands, and playing a role similar to that of some European dictators' wives of the past, such as Elena Ceausescu, who, under her husband's regime, became a major Romanian political figure and, to prop up her image, even pretended to have made new scientific discoveries.
The wave of protests that shook the Middle East has put under the spotlight some first ladies of the region, many of whom, until recently, competed in who was the most elegant and the most socially engaged. Now, however, some of them have been forced to flee (taking with them tons of gold); others continue to live their golden lives, although with the fear that street protests might topple their husbands' regimes.
Bashar Al-Assad's wife, Asma, in Syria has been recently been crowned with a controversial article in Vogue magazine as an outstanding "glamorous, young and chic" woman. Notwithstanding her trendy status, she never showed any uneasiness about being the wife of a dictator who succeeded his father power in 2000, and is responsible for the torture and death of countless political opponents.
In Qatar, the beautiful Emir's wife, Sheikha Moza, is travelling throughout the Middle East and to New York to speak about democracy and reforms, when her own country does not even have an elected Parliament.
After the fall of the 23 year old Tunisian regime of Ben Ali, the international media have spoken at length about the former rais's wife, Leila Trabelsi, who started as a hairdresser, and eventually reached stardom as "Carthage's Regent". While many of her countrymen do not have the means even to buy the daily bread, she bought a coat at Dior's in 2000 for 30.000 Euros and had the bill sent to the Tunisian Embassy in Paris as if it was her office.
Losing the title of First Lady just after Leila, was the Pharaoh's wife, Suzanne Mubarak. She has always tried to portray herself as an intellectual and socially engaged woman; she studied with Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim, an eminent Egyptian sociologist, and an opponent to the regime. Even though she did not hold any official position, Suzanne Mubarak headed various "charitable" organization;. however, no public figure could become part of this sector without her consent. According to the French magazine Paris Match, Mrs. Mubarak received annually from the Egyptian for her activities US $5 billion, part of which – as reported by the French weekly – went directly into her personal bank account.
Egyptians contend that Suzanne Mubarak's campaigns were only meant to give her good publicity, particularly in the West, where she was widely celebrated. The most prominent Egyptian activist for Women's Rights, Nawal Saadawi, a medical doctor and a political dissident, said that Suzanne Mubarak, just like other dictators' wives, suffers from the same complex as her husband: she would like be the leader. According to Saadawi, Mrs. Mubarak killed the feminist movement in order to lead it, thereby impeding any possible progress for women's rights. During the uprising of Tahrir Square, she was often compared to Queen Marie Antoinette of France for her lavish lifestyle and for failing to be in touch with the reality of her country.
In the meanwhile, on YouTube, can be found a parody of a phone call from Leila Trabelsi in Saudi Arabia to Suzanne Mubarak: "We are one family," says Leila. "Take your stuff and come over here. But, before leaving, don't forget to stop at your bank; you will need some cash to save your bottom.".
Abdelmajid Mahmoud, the Egyptian General Public Prosecutor, must have taken this call seriously: he decided to forbid the Mubarak family to leave the country, froze their real estate assets, their bank accounts and their stocks. However, this satiric invitation of Lelila's may come handy for other first ladies in the Middle East, who may soon have to face the revolt of their chauffeurs and servants.