The king's health
Given the tendency of governments to suppress news of a head of state's well-being, Al-Ahram had difficulty ascertaining the facts surrounding the health of King Fouad. But once it became official that the king was ill, many Egyptians, tired of his autocracy, secretly prayed that he die so that Prince Farouq could ascend the throne. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk examines the health of the king
Al-Ahram : Diwan of contemporary life (546)
On 7 October 1934, Al-Ahram readers opened their newspapers to page nine and came across a long and disconcerting commentary. It begins:
"Recent years have seen nothing like the spread of rumours over the past few weeks. Multiplying with increasing intensity, the rumours are flying in all directions. Abetting their circulation, spread and wildness is the ambiguity surrounding the actions of the cabinet. We have been reluctant until now to repeat anything that has been said, leaving the field to official circles to speak out and clarify matters that are being discussed behind closed doors. These circles have preferred to remain silent. But we can assure you that the famous maxim does not apply to such behaviour here -- silence in this instance is not golden, nor even silver."
Eventually, the author of the article abandons circumlocution and proceeds directly to the cause behind this wave of rumours. King Fouad's health was failing. "The first thing people heard from an official source was the statement released by the Royal Council on the day British High Commissioner Miles Lampson left Egypt on his annual leave. The statement announced that the health of His Royal Majesty had taken a turn for the worse. But since that time the people have received no medical update despite their concern for the health of their king and their eagerness for reassurance."
In the face of this "curious behaviour," the author continues, "some newspapers decided to report on the illness of His Majesty, on the engagement of a specialist from abroad and other such news. This has created the impression that His Majesty is still ill, all the more so because no minister, palace official or medical source has issued a statement to alleviate the people's concerns over the health of their king."
After relaying some of the above-mentioned newspaper accounts, many of which gave conflicting details, Al-Ahram called for an official statement. After all, it was deplorable that the people should read press reports on the arrival of a prominent physician from Rome to examine the patient and then be left in the dark by officials. The nation was thus "perplexed, anxious and helpless," left with no resort but to "pray that God grants their king health and vigour and safeguards him for the country."
The official cloak of secrecy surrounding King Fouad's health was very much in keeping with a long established tradition. Even today, the tendency of ruling circles around the world is to suppress all news of a head of state's failing health in view of its potential impact on national security. The tradition is, in part, a legacy of the feudal era when members of a noble's court feared that rivals would take advantage of their prince's failing health in order to seize his seat of power. Augmenting such dangers in those distant days was that there were no set rules or procedures governing the succession, a question, therefore, which was more often than not resolved by force and not always in favour of the kinsmen of the late feudal lord.
It is also the case that in such autocratic systems of governments, the person of the ruler was regarded as more than an ordinary human being by his subjects. His exalted, sometimes god-like status was etched into the natural order of things, as a result of which he could not fall ill like ordinary beings. Nor, for that matter, was he accountable to God in the same manner as normal mortals.
Given the concentration of power into a figure of such magnified proportions, his absence, even if only temporary, created a rift in the structures of power. Without the rationalised institutions for succession that characterise modern government, balance could only be restored through a struggle between the overt or covert centres of power that existed at the time of the ruler's decline or absence. Either that or key figures whom the ruler had used to bolster his power would attempt to fill the gap, although their hold was generally shaky because they lacked the necessary status or legitimacy conferred by blood.
If this episode of the Chronicle focuses on the secrecy surrounding the illness of King Fouad I in 1934, he was not the first Egyptian ruler in modern history to have had his failing health or even death covered up. Indeed, it is a virtual constant that Egyptians wake up to learn of the death of their ruler without having been prepared for the news, as was the case with the Khedives Tawfiq and Hussein Kamel, King Fouad and President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The exceptions were Abbas I and President Anwar El-Sadat, who were assassinated.
Perhaps the death of President Nasser on 28 September 1970 best illustrates the effect of this element of shock. Although there had been a faint indication of his failing health -- it was reported that he had gone for treatment to a Soviet health resort -- nothing had prepared Egyptians, indeed all Arab peoples, for the news of his death. Thus, the blow, when it struck, precipitated a massive outpouring of grief and alarm across the Arab world, unprecedented in Arab history.
In light of the foregoing, it is only natural that one would attempt to follow the news of "His Majesty's health" during the last quarter of 1934. Fortunately, from our present distance in time, not only are we better able to read between the lines of Al- Ahram and other contemporary Egyptian newspapers, but also we have at our disposal confidential British documents that have been made available to researchers in recent years.
Faced with pressure from the press, the Egyptian government, then headed by Abdel-Fattah Yehya, had little alternative but to disclose information on the condition of the king. It issued its first bulletin on the subject on 7 October -- the same day on which Al-Ahram and other newspapers had protested the official silence. The news was not encouraging.
The bulletin informed the public that the king's physicians had recently engaged some of Europe's most prominent medical experts. The noted Italian physician, Professor Fergoni, had advised the king "to cease all work so as to eliminate all obstacles to his natural recovery." Just as the Italian was taking off from Alexandria, where Fouad was convalescing in his palace at Muntazah, Professor Von Bergman arrived. A senior physician at a prestigious hospital in Berlin, Von Bergman was "one of the world's foremost experts in internal medicine and the author of a famous study on pulmonary diseases."
Three days later, palace officials at Muntazah released the results of the German physician's examination. His report, which was signed by officials responsible for the king's health and the king's personal physician, Dr Mohamed Shahin, was more detailed. It stated:
"Having examined His Majesty King Fouad I at Muntazah Palace on 10 and 11 October 1934, we submit the following report on the state of His Majesty's health:
"The medical examination yielded the same results as those described in the bulletin issued on 7 October. The cardiac condition that arose from the effects of influenza is still gradually improving. In spite of the presence of albumin in the urine, this is an old, chronic symptom and blood and urine analyses indicate that the bodily organs are functioning properly. Although we have deemed it necessary to urge His Majesty to take complete physical rest, we are unanimous in our opinion that His Majesty can continue to perform all the mental activities required by his lofty position as he has done in the past."
Beyond imparting the additional information that the king granted sizable remunerations to Von Bergman and Fergoni, LE1,000 and 50,000 lira respectively, official circles fell silent again for another three days. This did not prevent Al-Ahram from tapping its own resources, which led it to discover certain discrepancies between the counsels given by the two doctors. For example, whereas the Italian advised the king to restrict himself to a liquid diet, Von Bergman suggested square meals. In addition, the German physician recommended that the king relocate to Cairo, "where the climate is more suitable for his convalescence than the fluctuating and humid climate of Alexandria."
This recommendation threw palace officials into a panic. If Fouad approved the move, they would have to take a number of precautions to facilitate it. One suggestion was to construct a railway line linking the Cairo-Alexandria railway to Muntazah Palace, "in order to ensure all possible comfort for His Majesty and enable him to follow his physicians advice to avoid all undue physical exertion until, God willing, his recovery proceeds steadily and he is restored to full health and vigor as soon as possible." However, the newspaper added, "with the considerable improvement in His Majesty's health this may not be necessary, all the more so as His Majesty is accustomed to the automobile journey from the palace to the train station. Should this prove to be the case, the necessary precautions may entail no more than ensuring that the royal train makes no intermediary stops, contrary to custom, between Muntazah and Qubba palaces." Al-Ahram added the observation: "If this measure deprives His Majesty's subjects from the opportunity to behold his beloved countenance, they will be consoled by the knowledge that they will have made this sacrifice in the interests of His Majesty's comfort and well-being and that when they see him again he will be in the greatest cheer and health."
In counterpart to the drama and anxiety surrounding the king's health, Al-Ahram recounts a tale reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights. Its protagonist, Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, 40, lived in Shobra and worked as a porter in the Cairo train station. Known among his friends and fellow workers as "The Bek," "he has acquired a reputation for handing out medicines for the treatment of common ailments to the poor for free. With his pockets always filled with assorted drops and ointments, during his rounds of the platforms he will stop and tend to those who appeal for his help."
When Khalil heard about the king's illness, he sent a telegram to Dr Shahin, informing him that he had the perfect restorative for the king. He had made it himself from the pure extract of plants native to Egypt. "The porter paid for the telegram which cost nine piastres," Al-Ahram added as further illustration of the man's selflessness.
Surprisingly, palace officials took his proposal seriously. They summoned him to Abdeen Palace where he was introduced to the king's medical attendant to whom he displayed the medicine and explained its ingredients and applications. He was also summoned by the station inspector and the chief of the Railway Authority Police who, too, wanted to question him on the nature of his folk medicine.
Having caught wind of these developments, Al-Ahram dispatched a reporter to Shobra to interview this unusual porter. In answer to the reporter's inquiry regarding the composition of the potion, Khalil answered that that was an "occupational secret." However, he did confide that it was extracted from Egyptian plants and that he had inherited the formula and the formulas for other medicines from his father who had bequeathed to him a medical manuscript that he always consulted. Unfortunately, we are left in the air as to whether his formula was actually tried out on the king.
Instead, there followed a two-month period of silence, until 4 November, when officials released the first reassuring news on Fouad's health. The king had improved remarkably, palace sources stated. After taking his medicine in the morning, he takes the air in Muntazah park in a small motorised vehicle. "He returns to the palace at 12.30 and goes to his office where, while reclining on a chaise-lounge, he meets with the head of the Royal Cabinet and other palace officials. In the evenings, he resumes his medical treatment."
Even given the prospects of the king's recovery, the affairs of government could not continue as they had before. Such a long period of illness and convalescence would inevitably weaken the already beleaguered pro-palace cabinet of Abdel-Fattah Yehya. Certainly, there was a significant portion of Egyptians who, fed up with the Fouad's autocratic policies, secretly prayed for Azrael to hasten his departure to the afterworld so that Prince Farouq could ascend the throne and dispel the gloom. True, the "Prince of Upper Egypt" was only 14 at the time but they would have been willing to tolerate a regency council.
Not that anyone would have aired such forbidden thoughts. Quite the contrary, the higher up the royal ladder, the more unctuous were the displays of hand wringing. This was particularly evident among the members of the royal family whose frequent and urgent meetings were closely followed by Al-Ahram. One can imagine them surreptitiously eyeing each other and their minds whirring as they calculated the possibilities in light of a line of succession that had a barely adolescent youth (born in 1920) poised to step into the shoes of his geriatric father (Fouad, then 76, must have fathered Farouq at 52). If the chances were slim of leaping over the head of the fledgling prince, then surely they could be part of the regency council, the other princes and nobles must have thought.
Perhaps such images were flitting through Egyptians' minds as they opened their Al-Ahram of 14 October to read of the meeting of royal princes in the palace of Prince Mohamed Ali, the purpose of which was "to examine certain issues pertaining to the political situation." The newspaper added that there were subsequent "visits" of this nature to the palace in Manial and that a telegram had been sent to Prince Youssef Kamel urging him to return to Egypt.
Fouad, who had gotten wind of these meetings even in his sickbed, made his disapproval known, and within nine days of the first meeting, Prince Mohamed Ali issued a statement to the Egyptian Gazette denying that the meetings had ever taken place. "This was a purely personal and family matter," he said. "It is only natural that when the head of a large family falls ill, the rest of the family members gather to discuss matters. In all events, now that King Fouad has nearly recovered from his illness, there is no longer cause for such meetings, which certain newspapers distorted out of all proportion."
One newspaper, Al-Inzar, rose to the princes' defence. It was their right, under such circumstances, to have a say in the political situation, given the great debt Egypt owes to the royal family. After enumerating the services members of the royal household had performed for Egypt since the time of Mohamed Ali, Al-Inzar continued: "At the time of the national uprising, the princes of the royal house stood in the vanguard. They backed the movement with their names, their influence and their moneys, and they took honourable stances in defence of parliamentary life and the constitution." These were probably the last words that Fouad wanted to hear at the time.
While the king succeeded in nipping whatever his kin were planning in the bud, he could exercise no such restraint over the office of the British high commissioner who, in effect, succeeded in transforming "His Majesty's illness" into a turning point in Egyptian history.
Interestingly, Sir Miles Lampson, the British high commissioner was away on leave in London at the time. It was his charge d'affaires, Morris Peterson, having arrived in Cairo just as Lampson was leaving, who began to put into effect the Foreign Office's new policy on Egypt. London had decided to abandon the "hands-off" approach to Egyptian domestic affairs which it had followed for four years, and revert to its "unrefusable advice" approach. Now that the powerful Sidqi government had been toppled and its successor, the Yehya government, was proving unable to conceal the hand of the king through his right-hand man in the cabinet, Zaki Ibrashi, and now that the Wafd Party had regained much of its former strength, it was time to show a firm front again. Political passions were seething and the British knew that if things came to a head they would be a prime target.
The Yehya government became the first victim of Britain's new policy. Here, we turn to British Foreign Office files of the time. The most immediate of London's concerns at the time Peterson arrived in the Egyptian capital was the possibility of Fouad's death. The charge d'affaires was instructed that in such an event he was to arrange for squadrons of the British garrison to march in the funeral procession, to serve as a reminder of the British presence in the country. We also learn that Peterson had brought up the subject of the regency with Yehya, advising him that there should be only a single regent and that that should be Prince Mohamed Ali. Yehya was perturbed, Peterson relates, and responded that he could not possibly raise the subject with the king, especially in light of the updates on the king's health which were considerably optimistic.
However, the British were determined to take more active stances on a number of issues that would herald the end of the royalist era. The first regarded the appointment of the head of the royal cabinet, a position that had remained vacant for nearly three years, giving such figures as Ibrashi the opening to wield increasing powers in the king's name. Fouad did not delay long in complying with this "advice." On 28 October, he announced the appointment of Ahmed Ziyur to the position, a selection that the British also found quite satisfactory. That same day, Peterson wired his superiors, informing them of his intention to ask the king to dismiss Ibrashi Pasha, a move, he was certain, that would be enthusiastically greeted by the Egyptian public.
As long as they were determined to meddle in Egyptian affairs, the British decided that it was time to pressure Yehya into dismissing two of his more notorious cabinet members. These were Minister of Agriculture Ali El-Manzilawi and Ibrahim Fahmi Karim whose names had become too closely linked to cases of corruption and shady financial dealings and who were also known to have helped Ibrashi in his attempts to control the government. On 2 November, after a short meeting with the British representative in Cairo, the king caved into this demand, but if he thought that would save the Yehya government he was mistaken.
On that same day, the newly appointed head of the Royal Cabinet asked Peterson whether the resignation of Manzilawi and Karim had settled matters, only to be taken aback when Peterson informed him that the government itself should resign. And indeed, less than two weeks later, this demand was met as well. On 14 November, a new government was formed under Prime Minister Tawfiq Nasim, meeting the approval of both the Wafd Party and the British.
The first action of the Nasim government was to rescind the Constitution of 1930 which had accorded the king sweeping powers, and to dissolve the parliament that had been formed under the constitution. With these actions, the autocratic system that had prevailed for the previous four years met its demise. Undoubtedly, Fouad's physical weakness brought on by his lengthy illness was a major reason why the British could impose their will so quickly on the Egyptian king -- at least this time.