SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt—When a stunning young blonde turned up this week at a conference of world leaders in this sun-drenched Egyptian resort town, all talk of nuclear rights and democratic reform momentarily was replaced by a single question: Is that her?
The United States is home to Brangelina. Britain worships Posh and Becks. And now Egypt has Jimmy and Diga, the nicknames that friends have given Gamal Mubarak, the 42-year-old son and possible successor of Egypt's president, and his striking new fiancee, Khadiga el-Gammal, 24.
The couple's public debut at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, a conference that drew top government officials from around the world, instantly set tongues wagging and Web logs blazing as Egyptians debated every tiny detail of the mystery woman whom some already refer to as the future first lady.
"No doubt this further sinks this blog's reputation to tabloid level, but we have to ask: what is she wearing?" wrote Issandr el-Amrani on his Cairo-based political blog Arabist.net, where a snapshot of the happy couple at the conference accompanied photos of police brutality and the portrait of a jailed reform activist.
In a country whose first ladies have included Cleopatra, a Hungarian countess and the Turkish granddaughter of the last Ottoman sultan, it's only natural that Egyptians clamored for a glimpse of el-Gammal, the daughter of a wealthy Cairo construction magnate.
But interest in her and her fiance, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is more than gossip. Although Gamal Mubarak has denied that he'll follow his father into the presidency, analysts say few other contenders have the political clout to mount an effective campaign.
The ruling National Democratic Party has pitched Gamal Mubarak as a familiar name and face who says all the right things about revamping his father's staid system. He recently was named a deputy secretary general of the party, and this month he made a secret visit to Washington, where he met with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
El-Gammal contributes much to his chances of success, analysts say. She adds a glamorous new face to the authoritarian regime and lends a seriousness to the younger Mubarak's reputation. Some note that she shares the name of the Prophet Muhammad's first wife and wonder if an effort to appease Egypt's vast Islamist movement factored into the match.
Her appearance here immediately drew comparisons to Jordan's Queen Rania, the stylish, smart and outspoken monarch's wife who has redefined the role of an Arab first lady and who spoke during the conference's closing ceremonies. A black-clad el-Gammal sat in the audience, whispering to her fiance.
"He's preparing her for the business and international community, taking away her shock and fear," said Maged Ali, who covered the event for an Egyptian newspaper. "She looks like a simple girl, dreamy and laughing, so delicate and elegant, in the style of Queen Rania."
The government refused to release any details about the bride-to-be, but this much is known: She was born in 1982, attended exclusive private schools and graduated last year from the American University in Cairo. The engagement party took place May 3, attended only by close relatives under heavy security measures.
Classmates told Knight Ridder other tidbits that couldn't be immediately verified: that the president's son first spotted his future wife at an upscale Asian restaurant, that she enjoys soccer and volleyball, that classmates sometimes mistook her shy demeanor for snobbishness, that she doesn't care about the nearly 20-year age gap between her and her betrothed.
Gasps and murmurs rippled through the conference when her image first appeared on a Jumbotron as her future father-in-law delivered the opening address. Later, she breezed through throngs of dark-suited politicians in a modest blue-and-white pantsuit and lace cardigan. She flashed smiles to well-wishers, gracefully declined interviews and never strayed from her fiance's side.
"She's very pretty and he's very handsome as well," said Warda al-Husseini, an Egyptian journalist at the conference. "We were all very curious to see who Gamal is finally marrying. May God bless them and make their marriage fulfilling."
(El-Naggar is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): EGYPT-FIANCEE
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