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My first lady doesn’t wear a tiara

Since the presidential elections in Egypt a few weeks ago, the new first lady's choice of headdress has been a constant topic of debate. Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, the wife of president-elect Mohamed Morsi, wears a long, conservative hijab that covers her head and torso. This has opened the door to endless commentary. Some have taken this as inspiration to discuss what her official function should be. Others relentlessly mock her dress (seen as conservative and low-class). Still others indulge in purely islamophobic ruminations about whether a hijabi woman is fit to represent Egypt at international affairs.

That most Egyptian women wear hijab doesn't seem to factor into those comments. The mockery flared again last week, as charming photos of Mexico's new young presidential couple, Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife, telenovela star Angélica Rivera, were juxtaposed with those of Egypt's new first family -- and not in favor of the latter.

The most egregious comparison I have seen was sent to me in an email. It included an image titled "From This, to That. No Comment," and which juxtaposed a rather lousy photograph of Naglaa Ali with one of the late Queen Farida, first wife of Egypt's last ruling monarch, King Farouk.

This week, Egyptians are marking the 60th anniversary of the military coup on July 23, 1952, that deposed King Farouk. Nostalgia for Royalist Egypt appears to be at a peak. But this longing for an Egypt governed by a foreign dynasty that acted as puppet rulers for the British colonial occupiers is puzzling -- especially coming from people who never lived under the Egyptian kingdom.

In the royal era, social polarization reached unprecedented levels: History books refer to the "half-percenters," the 0.5 percent of the population who were said to control 99.5 percent of the wealth. Farouk was a glutton whose appetite was surpassed only by his appetite for women. So this isn't just nostalgia -- it's an uninformed rejection of the present.

This rejection, targeting not the political ideas of the new president (with which I personally vehemently disagree) but his wife's choice of headgear, fails to conceal both islamophobic and classist discourses. That Naglaa Ali wears the veil may not be as much a problem as is the "style" in she wears it -- a style that, let's say, would not be seen in the upper-middle classes in Egypt.

To her credit, Ms. Ali appears well aware of the challenges regarding her public role. If she creates a large public presence, she will be readily compared to Suzanne Mubarak; if she doesn't, that will be blamed on her and her husband's religious beliefs.

A few weeks into her new function, however, she has made herself conspicuous by her absence from President Morsi's local and international public appearances. Morsi traveled to Saudi Arabia for an umra (a minor pilgrimage) and a meeting with King Abdullah, but she was not in the photographs.

This may not mean much. After all, Mubarak did most of his foreign travel without his wife. She had her own schedule, both domestically and internationally. In effect, then, if the main concern of Ms. Ali's detractors is Egypt's image abroad, her behavior so far should allayed their anxieties. Ms. Ali's own preferences will keep her away from the public eye.

But the fact remains that Ms. Ali's persona represents Egyptian women more than did her half-Welsh predecessor, Suzanne Mubarak, or the latter's half-English predecessor, Jehan El-Sadat, and assuredly more than the tiara-wearing former Queen. If you want to judge her, judge her based on her performance in this new assignment -- not on her sartorial choices. Pseudo-liberals should know better.

Mohamed El Dahshan also blogs at eldahshan.com, and you can follow him twitter.com/eldahshan. 

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Democracy Lab

Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, July 20, 2012

Three Princeton researchers (Morgan Greene, Jonathan Friedman, and Richard Bennet) tell the story of how post-Yugoslavia Kosovo (with some help from the international community) managed to pull off a remarkable feat of state-building.

Endy Bayuni explains why Indonesians disagree about the start of Ramadan, and what it says about the country's climate of religious toleration.

Min Zin writes on the contradictions of U.S. sanctions policy towards Burma.

In an interview with Paul Starobin, Middle East scholar Joshua Stacher makes the case that the military still hasn't lost power in Egypt.

Robert Looney offers advice to Mexico's newly elected president on boosting economic growth.

Francisco Toro tells the tale of an unsung hero who uncovers the details of a massive oil scandal in Venezuela.

Christian Caryl explores why Middle Eastern dictators like to use criminal gangs as weapons against their opponents.

Juan Nagel scrutinizes the Venezuelan paradox of high growth and low productivity.

Next, this week's recommended reads:

In a must-read essay in Journal of Democracy, Olivier Roy argues that the events of the Arab Spring amount to a profound transformation of the Middle East.

In a new report, the Rand Corporation draws lessons from past experiences of democratization that should shape the West's response to the recent upheavals in the Arab world.

Human Rights Watch documents the concentration of power in Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez and tracks the deterioration of human rights.

Writing for The New York Review of Books, Yasmine El Rashidi vividly renders the atmosphere of a changing Egypt where everything somehow remains the same.

Democracy Digest sees signs of major change in the offing for Cuba. (The photo above shows Cuban opposition bloggers participating in a conference last month in Havana.)

Armin Rosen, writing in World Affairs, explains why the continuing uprising in Sudan could portend major change for Africa.

Rosemarie Clouston of Georgetown University, responding to Democracy Lab's recent article on women in parliament, argues that greater female participation in government brings benefits for democracy. OpenDemocracy.net launches "Stories You Weren't Meant to Hear," a fascinating new narrative journalism project that chronicles the struggles of women in the North Caucasus.

Reporters Without Borders reports on the detention of a Malaysian cartoonist and its implications for freedom of the press.

Yigal Schleifer of Eurasianet explores the possibility that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan might "pull a Putin" and switch to the presidency.

The Moscow Times criticizes the Russian government's harsh rhetoric against Western-funded NGOs -- and now media outlets as well.

Sam Gregory from WITNESS examines the decision by YouTube to introduce blurring technology that aims to protect those exposing human rights abuses.

And finally, 50 years after Algeria achieved its independence, Algerians who fought on behalf of the French tell PRI's The World about their experience of betrayal at the hands of the former colonial power.

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/GettyImages