Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 March 2006
Issue No. 785
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Not strictly public

When does the personal become public? Dina Ezzat examines the nation's reaction to the engagement of Gamal Mubarak

Gamal; Khadija

"So what? Don't all people get married?"

"I saw the bride's picture in the paper. She's very beautiful."

"As if this a public matter. Why do we have to care who the son of the president is getting married to?"

"Of course. He's grooming himself to be president. That's why he's getting married."

"Oh! I haven't been following the news. Is Gamal Mubarak really getting married?"

"Gamal Mubarak is a well educated and very qualified man. He certainly has a prominent political future and he did himself a favour by getting engaged to a suitable, well-educated woman with a good social background."

These were some of the comments of Egyptian men and women of varied socio-economic and educational backgrounds in response to questions by Al-Ahram Weekly on the news of the engagement of Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of the president. Gamal, the assistant secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party, on Friday got engaged to Khadija El-Gammal, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo, where Gamal graduated from, and daughter of a top contractor in Egypt.

The engagement, held , on Friday, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, a favourite haunt of President Hosni Mubarak, was a strictly family and friends affair. There were no official photos released and no state officials invited to the afternoon reception except those in their personal capacity as friends of the family of the president.

The engagement of Gamal and Khadija, or Jimmy and Didja as they are dubbed among friends, put an end to what was unending speculation about the love life of Gamal Mubarak, often described as the most eligible bachelor in Egypt .

However, it started another guessing game -- silly by the accounts of several commentators -- about how the groom met the bride and whether or not the around 23-year-old Egyptian blonde was chosen by the handsome, rich and powerful 43-year-old possible next president of Egypt. Or whether she was hand-picked by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak who, in her capacity as a mother, had become impatient with Gamal's reluctance to pick a partner despite the many beautiful, rich, young and interested women.

More vain questions were asked: where did they get the ring from? Many suggested Chopard, a few mentioned Bvlgari while some indicated a family diamond for which an artistic monture was especially tailored by a Cartier designer a few weeks ago when news of a potential engagement started to circulate. Who tailored the dress? Every single top French designer was mentioned, with an accentuated reference on Valentino. Moreover, there were questions about the colour of the dress of the mothers, the catering company, the make-up artist and hair- stylist.

These were not just questions circulated in the higher and gossipy echelons of society but on the pages of several newspapers often critical of the political profile -- they call it inexplicable and provoking -- of Gamal Mubarak. The papers said Gamal's engagement was only another step on what they qualify as his way up the top civil servant post in Egypt: president of the republic. Unlike the low profile kept by Heidi Rasikh, the wife of Alaa Mubarak, the president's elder son, Khadija El-Gammal is a potential First Lady. She was presented as such and almost criticised because of it.

The papers sold well. Some newspaper vendors in downtown Cairo indicated rejoice over the engagement, only because of the increase in sales. Other papers, especially the national and some independent, refrained from delving too much into the issue. As Mustafa Bakri, editor of the independent weekly Al-Osbou indicated, this is a strictly private matter.

Many, though, did not see it as a personal matter. They argued that the son of the president and high- ranking figure in the ruling party is a public figure and his news is fodder both for the press and social gossip. Taking into consideration the on-and-off speculation over the political ambitions and plans of Gamal Mubarak, news of his engagement could not have been expected to be dealt with as a private matter.

"When [the president's] first son got married nobody knew about it until we saw a family picture. But Alaa [Mubarak] is not a public figure. Gamal [Mubarak] is certainly a public figure," commented a Cairo University female student.

For Mohamed El-Sayed Said, vice chairman of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Gamal Mubarak's engagement was primarily a personal matter and should have been dealt with as such.

"The family of the president did exactly the right thing. They announced the news in a very subtle way; a few simple lines, refrained from turning the matter into a public affair. It was the press, or rather some segments of the press, that turned a simple engagement into a political battle," El-Said said.

However, it was not just the press that did so. The attention accorded to the news of the engagement might have been a reaction to the unmistakable public interest that it generated, so much so that popular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote a short poem in criticism of Gamal Mubarak on the occasion. News of the engagement, reaction, jokes, criticism of Gamal and biography and photos of his fiancee were abundant on the Internet and among bloggers -- mostly not favourable by any account.

"This is true," acknowledged Said. However, he was quick to add that as such, this is a clear sign of "the level of deterioration of the political atmosphere in the country to the extent that the public is confused." This confusion, he said, was reflected in the debate over the engagement which was not particularly professional in terms of press coverage.

Said is convinced that it would have been better for the press and other critics of Gamal Mubarak's political performance to refrain from becoming obsessed with his engagement news. "There is no intellectual or political contestation there," Said argued.

According to Said, Gamal is marrying a woman with no political influence whatsoever. She comes from a family whose name was never associated with any abuse of public resources or nepotism. It is only natural, he added, that he marries someone rich because most people tend to marry within their own socio-economic circle. "What was he expected to do? Throw a party to find his Cinderella?"

Moreover, Said argued that by getting too engrossed with the engagement story, the political opposition does not necessarily do a favour for the cause of advocating reform and opposing succession to the presidency. "By personalising the political conflict we deviate from our main objective of political reform. There is a threshold that should not be crossed."

Meanwhile, for Egyptians, blue collar and intelligentsia alike, the cynical reaction in several quarters to the engagement carries a political significance that cannot be overlooked. Said sees this as part and parcel of the overall state of political agitation associated with the controversy over promised political reforms yet to materialise.

Political commentator and professor, Hassan Nafaa argued in his article "Poets and the President" in the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm on Sunday, that the words of poets, including those of Negm, are only an indication of the public mood. It is, Nafaa argued, an indication of concern over succession and impatience of the slow pace of political reforms.

On Tuesday, only three days after the ultra- private engagement, Osama El-Baz, the president's political advisor, stressed once more what many senior state officials from the president down have been saying: succession plans are not in the pipeline.

President Mubarak, El-Baz said in press statements, will continue to rule "as long as he is able and capable. But if he finds that there is another group of people, another person, willing to carry the torch, I have the feeling he would welcome it," El-Baz said.

El-Baz added, "It is not clear yet who can take over. Nobody can say, and definitely the president and his family are not thinking about succession. They don't think of Gamal taking over and he does not give himself more rights than other Egyptians."

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