CAIRO — When an inauguration ceremony this weekend propels an Islamist into an Egyptian presidential palace long inhabited by secular military men, it will promote alongside him another improbable figure: a first lady who wears a conservative veil and spectacles, not jewels and makeup.
“She looks like a peasant,” Umm Ibrahim, 56, said approvingly, as she hawked pita bread in a working-class Cairo neighborhood Tuesday. “She is like us. We’re the same.”
That is not how everyone here views Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi’s wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud — who, for the record, has publicly eschewed the title “first lady.” After decades of Western-looking presidential spouses, Mahmoud’s pious Muslim style and modest education have drawn scorn as well as support. Some fear that she portends a more dogmatic era in which the Muslim Brotherhood will roll back rights for women or force them to wear full-length abayas or face-covering niqabs.
“People say, get the abayas ready,” said Alia Youssef, 17, who was strolling Tuesday in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, her head covered with a scarf. “I’m not ready for that.”
The debate has made Mahmoud one more symbol of the deep divisions within this generally religiously conservative society, much of which cheered autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s downfall as the comeuppance of out-of-touch secular leaders. Those rifts have grown more stark as Islamists rise, and liberal and leftist activists lament that the country is not heading in the direction they envisioned during the popular revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year.
“It’s not the attire. It’s what she represents,” said Omar Shoeb, 28, a former television producer, who engaged last week in a raucous Twitter debate — one he characterized as “elite squabbling” — about Mahmoud. “I dream of a very progressive Egypt. . . . A year and a half after the revolution, we’re going back 100 years.”
Others have worried about the image Mahmoud will project on the world stage. A column in the al-Shorouk newspaper suggested that while Morsi should shake hands with female dignitaries, his wife should stay behind the scenes to avoid scrutiny. Last week, a Web site that chronicles Cairo’s social scene posted a photo of Mahmoud captioned: “Is this the woman you want to represent Egypt?” The post was later removed.
But many forcefully defend Mahmoud for one key reason: In her khimar — a head covering that falls over the shoulders and past the waist — she could blend into an Egyptian crowd far more easily than her predecessors.
Even amid debates over the future of women’s rights here, veils, which are worn by most Egyptian women, rank low as an issue. Sexual abuse, education and female circumcision are bigger problems, as is creating government bodies that deal seriously with women’s issues, said Ragia Omran, a prominent lawyer and pro-democracy activist.
“We need to revamp all these institutions,” Omran said. As for the veil, she said, “as long as nobody’s imposing it on anyone, we have more important things to discuss.”
Mahmoud has something else going for her on the Egyptian street: She is the antithesis of former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, who was half-Welsh, sported pantsuits and a halo of dark hair, and championed dozens of causes. But she also came to be viewed as a backroom kingmaker, and she has faced accusations of corruption.
“She looks like a respectable woman,” taxi driver Girgis Ayoub, 29, said of Mahmoud. “With the way she looks, it’s impossible she will do what Hosni’s wife did.”
Mahmoud has kept a low profile, and in the few interviews she has granted Egyptian journalists, she has indicated that she would like it to stay that way. She has said that she prefers a traditional title: Umm Ahmed, or mother of Ahmed, her first-born son.
In an interview with a state-affiliated magazine last month, she told the story of her 1979 marriage to Morsi, who is her cousin. She was 18; he was more than a decade older. Days later, he went to California for doctoral studies in engineering. She joined him after finishing high school a year later, and she said she worked as a translator for American converts to Islam.
The couple had five children, two of whom were born in the United States. Mahmoud spoke stoically of the periods during which her husband, whom she called “Dr. Morsi,” was imprisoned by the Mubarak government for his involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned and systematically suppressed.
“I felt calm despite thinking of him as the backbone to the house,” she said.
Mahmoud also hinted at some support for shedding traditional gender roles. The president-elect, she noted, learned to cook chicken in the United States, and he helps clear the dinner table. She said she thinks that there should be clubs where girls can learn swimming and horseback riding, and that they should not necessarily marry as young as she did.
“Thirty years ago, society accepted a college professor having a wife who did not finish her education,” she said. “Girls today must participate with their husbands in keeping the house afloat by working. They must be educated well.”
But Mahmoud suggested that if she takes up a cause, her focus would be the struggles of ordinary Egyptians.
“She cannot single-handedly defend women,” said Omaima Kamel, who was the women’s affairs spokeswoman for the Morsi campaign.
In Zamalek, Youssef and her mother, Heba Elkholy, said they were reserving judgment about Morsi and Mahmoud.
“We had the example of the previous president and his wife, who were looking very respectable,” said Elkholy, 44. “And they ruined the country.”
Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.