In December 2010 French First Lady Carla Bruni sat down to lunch under the gold chandeliers of the Élysée Palace with Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian leader Bashar.
As they sat demurely with their husbands at a butterfly-print tablecloth dominated by a pastel flower arrangement, a photographer was ushered in to grab a picture for French celebrity magazines. After all, this was a communion of fashion’s high priestesses: a former Italian supermodel turned folk-singer entertaining a Chanel-loving, London-raised, former banker and conveniently Westernised Middle Eastern first lady.
French Elle had recently voted Asma “the most stylish woman in world politics”, Paris Match called her “an eastern Diana”, a “ray of light in a country full of shadow zones”.
Only days after the lunch, a desperate Tunisian vegetable seller would set himself alight, sparking the first revolution of the Arab Spring.
Even as the Sarkozys’ butlers served the Assads freshly squeezed juice in crystal glasses from silver platters, there was unease among some diplomats about the French president schmoozing the ruler of an oppressive dictatorship known for torture, brutality and political prisoners.
But Nicolas Sarkozy, an expert on the importance of photogenic wives in politics, saw Asma as his insurance policy. “When we explained that this was the worst kind of tyrant, Sarkozy would say: ‘Bashar protects Christians and, with a wife as modern as his, he can’t be completely bad’,” the former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner later confided to journalists.
Now, after 11 months of bloody repression of the pro-democracy uprising in Syria, with thousands dead and tens of thousands of refugees spilled over Syria’s borders, Asma’s careful public-relations strategy as the gentle British-born face of the regime has crumbled. When she appeared smiling and immaculately dressed on February 26 alongside her husband to vote in a referendum on a new Constitution, it only deepened opposition accusations that she has become a modern-day Marie Antoinette.
The row over a shockingly fawning, lengthy puff piece in Vogue last year describing Asma’s Louboutin shoes and charity work, as well as a recent appearance at a rally hugging her children in support of her husband and an email to the London Times explaining her backing of him, has reopened the debate about the role of dictators’ wives in the Arab Spring.
“Every revolution has its Lady Macbeth,” said one Middle East expert in Paris.
The dictators’ wives are all very different, united by the varying degrees of hatred they inspired, eye-watering fortunes, expensive wardrobes and often a so-called state-sanctioned “feminism” or, like Asma, charity work as a public distraction from the brutal realities of the regime.
Leila Trabelsi, the politically ambitious wife of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was easily the most detested; a monstrous symbol of nepotism and corruption, whose embezzlement of state wealth made Imelda Marcos’s nearly 3 000 pair of shoes seem trifling. Trabelsi sparked the sense of injustice that flamed the revolution, keeping a mafia-style hold on the nation’s economy, siphoning off riches to her and her husband’s family, who were thought to control between 30% and 40% of the economy, running everything from customs to car dealers, supermarket chains and banana imports.
She and her relatives are accused of ordering people from their homes if they wanted their land, confiscating their businesses if they thought they could profit from them. Trabelsi took archaeological artefacts to decorate her palace rooms, while her daughter and son-in-law flew in ice cream from St Tropez for dinner parties.
Described as the woman who sparked the Arab Spring, Trabelsi, who liked to be called “Madame La Presidente”, inspired dread in the public imagination. A book by her butler recently described how she would ritually sacrifice chameleons supposedly to cast spells over her husband, and how she punished one cook by plunging his hands into boiling oil.
From exile in Saudi Arabia with her husband Ben Ali, the couple are seeking to appeal their sentencing in absentia last year to 35 years in jail, accused of theft and unlawful possession of large sums of foreign currency, jewellery, archaeological artefacts, drugs and weapons — the first of several cases against them.
After they fled, $27-million in cash and jewels, guns and 2kg of drugs were found at one of their lavish palaces outside Tunis.
Meanwhile, Suzanne, the half-Welsh wife of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, benefited from a fortune of billions in a country where about 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. She is now being investigated alongside her husband on allegations of crimes against the state and has relinquished disputed assets worth nearly $4-million.
Before the Egyptian revolution whole newspaper pages were “allocated” to cover Suzanne’s “charitable engagements” and “actions” for women. But as with Trabelsi, this was a façade. The Tunisian first lady headed several official women’s rights bodies, awarding herself prizes for feminism, while grassroots feminist democracy campaigners saw their members regularly beaten in the street by the regime’s police and political prisoners were raped in torture cells.
Similarly, Suzanne would jet off to meet Arab leaders’ wives to talk about women’s issues while independent women in Egypt were being heavily repressed.
Suzanne (71), whose father was a doctor and mother a nurse from Pontypridd, married Mubarak when she was 17 and he was a 30-year-old army officer.
One account described her lying weeping on the palace floor, refusing to leave during the uprising. She influenced government appointments and was believed to have been clinging to power by pushing for her son to take over from his father.
In Libya Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was perhaps more famous for his Ukrainian nurse and female bodyguards than his wife. But Safia Farkash, his second wife, a nurse when she met him, was still vastly wealthy, a symbol of public money siphoned off into the family’s pockets. His daughter Aisha, once described as the Claudia Schiffer of the region, a lawyer and a member of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s defence team, was held up by her father as a model of modern women’s rights.
Safia and Aisha fled over the Algerian border during the uprising.
Mostly low-profile, Safia nonetheless occasionally attempted, particularly for the Western media, to play the role of a simple wife and mother, humanising her husband. In the 1980s she told the American press she was someone who was afraid of even a “dead chicken”, saying of Gaddafi: “If I thought he was a terrorist, I would not stay with him and have children with him. He is a human being.”
But the Western media’s apparent thirst for a new, younger generation of glossy magazine-style, modern, educated Middle Eastern first ladies along the line of Jordan’s Queen Rania (ranked the third most beautiful woman in the world by Harpers and Queen in 2005) seemed to have been sated by the arrival of Asma in 2000.
“Curiously, the Assads before the revolution were seen as a modern young couple,” says Karim Bitar of Paris’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations. Then a new “cold, calculating” face emerged.
Asma was born in London to Syrian parents, a private surgeon and a diplomat, and raised in west London, going to a Church of England primary school and a smart private secondary before taking a degree in computer science at King’s College London and a banking job for JP Morgan. She was a childhood friend of the Assads, 10 years younger than Bashar, who had come to London to study as an eye surgeon. She was also a Sunni Muslim whose father hailed from Homs, unlike Bashar’s minority Alawite clan. All this could be used, by a skilled PR team, as the soft face of a would-be reformist regime.
“Who would choose Harvard over love?” Asma told one interviewer when asked if she had hesitated about leaving her banking career and an MBA to become first lady of Syria. She said she would use her professional financial experience and “a critical judgment, being able to work under enormous pressure” in her new role, running non-governmental organisations.
In Damascus she and her husband liked to be seen dining out, driving themselves around; a carefully constructed image of a carefree young couple who preferred the luxury of a vast apartment to the luxury of a palace.
In a 2009 CNN interview Asma condemned Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip as “barbaric” and “as a mother and a human being” demanded its end. “This is the 21st century. Where in the world could this happen? Unfortunately it is happening,” she said in her measured, almost mechanical voice, with its clipped London tones. Those words have come back to haunt her.
The pinnacle of Asma’s international media charm offensive was a gushing piece in last year’s American Vogue, a month after the Syrian uprising began and was met with a crackdown. The article has now mysteriously disappeared from the magazine’s website. Described as a “rose in the desert”, “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”, Asma, dressed in jeans, heels and a T-shirt with “Happiness” emblazoned on the back, describes how her home, a triplex apartment, is run “on wildly democratic principles” — seemingly far from the brutal one-party state oppression going on outside.
Looking at her three children, she says: “We all vote on what we want and where.” Pointing to the dining room chandelier, which is constructed from cut-out comic books, she says: “They outvoted us three to two on that.”
Against a backdrop of Christian Louboutin heels, designer bags, private jets, and SUVs, Asma tells Vogue her “central mission” is “to change the mindset of six-million Syrians under 18”, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship”. Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists were being rounded up and tortured.
Driving themselves around in a city seemingly permeated by secret police, she describes the joys of not having an imposing presence of bodyguards, delighting in how Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, while being driven to dinner by the Assads, marvelled at their apparent lack of security guards.
After the Vogue interview, as the regime’s bloody crackdown continued, Asma went quiet. Out of the blue, her office emailed a statement to the Times last month after it ran an article asking: “What does Assad’s wife, an intelligent, educated woman raised in liberal Britain and seemingly dedicated to good works, think of the evils being perpetrated daily across Syria […]? Is Asma Assad (36) indifferent to the suffering being inflicted on her fellow Sunnis by her husband’s Alawite henchmen — or appalled? Has Syria’s Princess Diana become its Marie-Antoinette?”
Her office’s statement said: “The president is the president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role.” It added: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with and rural development, as well as supporting the president as needed. These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.”
Jane Kinninmont, senior researcher on the Middle East at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said the leaders’ wives in the Arab Spring were of clear “symbolic importance”, though Asma was different from Trabelsi, who had been a key source of unrest.
“In Syria the resistance is very focused on the regime,” said Kinninmont. “In the past Bashar’s wife was something of an asset for him: young, charming, international, helpful to soften his image. Now that has fallen away.
“Vogue last March was a terrible error of judgment. The timing was particularly bad but it was part of a wider trend for quite fluffy portraits of dictators’ wives as glamorous woman, saying ‘look how good our charity work is’. Glamorous, well-educated, well-dressed: the Western media still falls for this pseudo aristocratic clap-trap. It’s all part of trying to give a pretty face to a regime.”
Kinninmont said the email from Asma’s office was “far too late” and came across as ridiculous. “Saying how she spent time comforting the families of victims of violence just seemed out of touch.”
In almost all Arab countries it was illegal to criticise the head of state, she said, adding that, though sometimes people might dislike the wives personally, it could also be a substitute for criticising the rulers.
But Kinninmont also blamed the Western media for creating a bubble of glamorous first lady figures. Asma, at the start of her photogenic role as first lady, tried to keep a distance. Asked by NBC in 2007 about her role as leader’s wife, she said in her icy, careful tone: “That’s what I do, it’s not who I am. At the end of the day, I’m the same person as I was before I married the president and I’ll be the same person hopefully going forward.” —