|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 February 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Happy birthday, Your MajestyKing Farouk's birthday celebrations in 1952 were unusually subdued. Amina Elbendary reads through the pages of Al-Ahram to gauge the popular mood in that fateful year
It seems almost preposterous to attempt to write history from newspapers, more so if one happens to work in the print media. And yet one can't quite escape the presumption that newspapers echo something of our lives and days, even if subversively so.
So a reading from the pages of Al-Ahram 50 years ago glaringly shows that while King Farouk celebrated his 32nd birthday on 11 February 1952, his subjects and country were in shambles. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is just how absent Farouk appeared to be from the political scene, even in matters of protocol and ceremonial.
Al-Ahram's front pages of 22 January and 11 February 1952 reveal the political chaos that surrounded the last royal celebrations
The king and his affairs were quite divorced from the day to day affairs of government and society. He makes only sporadic appearances on the front pages of Al-Ahram. These come at the birth of his only son and heir apparent, Ahmed Fouad, on 16 January, as well as the seemingly endless banquets held in the child's honour. And these photo captions were run side by side with news stories of popular resistance to the presence of British troops at the Canal Zone Base. On the front page of 22 January, for example, the newspaper's banner reads "A tough battle between British forces and nationals in which fighter planes take part for the first time; The English attack Farouk's mosque in Ismailia, occupy it and attack the court house and the prosecutor's offices tampering with case files" while on the same page is a photo of his majesty at a lunch banquet held at Abdin Palace in honour of the heir apparent. In the photo the king is, expectedly, in the centre with Ali Maher Pasha to his right and Hussein Serri Pasha to his left.
As part of the celebrations of Ahmed Fouad's birth, LE30,000 were donated to the families of "martyrs and the injured at the Canal" in obvious reference to the fida'iyyin. These charitable acts also included feeding 100,000 poor people, LE10 donated to every baby born on the same day as the Prince of the Sa'id (Upper Egypt) -- Ahmed Fouad's title, the same his father held before assuming the throne -- and exempting students who couldn't afford university fees from paying that year.
But the stories making news were the battles being fought by the resistance movement against British forces in the Suez Canal region. There were daily reports from Suez and Ismailia, daily reports of the funerals back in their hometowns of those who had been killed, and of unrest at Fouad I university where classes had to be suspended. In fact demonstrations had spread to secondary schools in Cairo and many classes were suspended there too. Unrest was spreading through the country, boiling over as the number of casualties increased and culminating in the Cairo Fires on 26 January in the wake of which a complicated and top-secret investigation was begun and a curfew was imposed on the city.
Farouk is almost absent from the political chaos that precedes and follows the Cairo Fires. He issues the decree declaring martial law and appointing Prime Minister El-Nahhas Pasha as military governor. But it is El-Nahhas who gives a speech to the people, hoping to instil calm and stability (if not law and order) and not the king. And it is only on 5 February that Hafez Afifi Pasha head of the Royal Diwan, met -- on behalf of the king -- with representatives of the department stores burnt down during the fires, extending the king's condolences and assuring them that order and stability have been restored.
On 28 January Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha's government was relieved from office by royal decree and Ali Maher Pasha was asked to form a new cabinet. He kept the foreign affairs and military portfolios to himself and was declared military governor. Martial law was announced -- with parliamentary approval.
As the domestic news agenda developed inflation became a central concern. On 3 February Al-Ahram announced that the recent increase in the price of sugar would be abolished and large quantities imported to avoid a black market developing. Also making front-page headlines was the dismissal of Sheikh Ibrahim Hamroush on 10 February from his position as the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar and the appointment of Sheikh Abdel-Meguid Selim to the position instead. The change in post was intended to be accompanied by major reforms of the religious institution.
Newspapers were not allowed to publish news of the Cairo fires and the ensuing investigation, a ban that remained in force for two weeks. It is, then, only on 12 February that images of the destruction wreaked on Cairo's city centre started appearing in the press.
On the international front stories making news included the meetings between Churchill and Truman and the fate of Egypt's struggle to evacuate all British forces from its lands -- an issue that was up for discussion among the world leaders of the day. Indeed "negotiations" (then referring to Anglo-Egyptian evacuation talks) were the overriding national concern 50 years ago. Also making news was the Tunisian national movement's struggle for independence from the French. Britain's King George VI passed away and news of his funeral and of the coronation of his daughter Elizabeth II also made headlines and inspired articles on Britain's dwindling power and prestige in the post-World War II world.
Celebrations of the king's 32nd birthday were intended to be subdued. Public parties were cancelled and celebrations limited to customary acts of charity. The king ordered that all funds set aside for his birthday celebrations be donated to those suffering as a result of the "latest accidents." He also donated LE45,000 to renovate mosques. Yet the day remained a national holiday, cannons were fired, flags flown at all public buildings and ministers, officials and dignitaries visited Abdin palace to wish the king a happy birthday. The curfew -- in place since the Fires -- was to be instituted at midnight (not before) in celebration. And, Al-Ahram also announced, the royal family held a private party for the king.
Did his majesty have any idea this would be his last birthday as king of Egypt? Did he and his entourage have any inkling this birthday party was part of the quiet before the storm?
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