Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 July - 3 August 2005
Issue No. 753
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (607)

Crowning moment

Farouk's coronation as king in July 1937 was supposed to be a time of celebration but in the period leading up to it, there were rumbles over its religious connotation. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk examines the ceremonial crisis

Click to view caption
On 30 July 1937 Al-Ahram produced a commemorative edition. The front page was emblazoned with two large pictures, the first of the king surrounded by palace officials, other members of the royal household and Prime Minister El-Nahhas; the second of the king in the company of the government ministers.

When, on 28 April 1936, King Fouad I departed for the hereafter, his sole son and heir apparent had not yet reached the legal age of majority: 18 reckoned in Islamic lunar years. A regency council was therefore appointed to act in his stead until he reached that age, which he would on 29 July 1937.

During this approximately 15-month interval, Egyptians were preoccupied by several crucial events. Foremost among these were the Anglo-Egyptian negotiations which resulted in the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, the first treaty in the history of bilateral relations between the two nations. There followed the talks that took place in the Swiss spa city Montreaux between Egypt and the countries that had long enjoyed the privileges and immunities of the Capitulations System. The talks resulted in another coup for Egypt. The Montreaux Convention set into motion a series of provisions whereby the Capitulations would be phased out over a period of 12 years.

In the midst of these developments, the young Farouq, surrounded by a huge retinue, took a tour of Europe, the declared purpose of which was to broaden his horizons and better equip him to ascend the throne of his ancestors. News of this journey appeared in the press from time to time, although it was Muhammad El-Tabie, a journalist in the royal retinue, who would bequeath a detailed account, which later appeared in his book From the secret annals of politicians and politics. In all events, as the day of Farouq's return to Egypt approached, preparations got under way for his coronation. Few would have expected these preparations to suddenly flare up into a crisis.

It was commonly believed that the cause of the crisis was Farouq's desire for a religious ceremony, a desire supported by his advisors, prime among them Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, but opposed by the Wafdist government of the time. The Wafd Party feared that in pursuing such a ceremony the palace hoped to lend a religious aura to its already formidable autocratic powers. The fear was fed by the not-so-distant memory of King Fouad's campaign to become caliph, which he initiated shortly after Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, abolished the seat of this spiritual/political position in Istanbul. The king abandoned this bid only after the appearance of Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq's Islam and the Principles of Rule, the controversy over which led to the collapse of the Ahmed Ziwar government and the exposure of the palace's designs.

The analogy between Farouq's desire for a religious coronation ceremony and his father's campaign to become caliph is not particularly strong. Circumstances in 1937 differed greatly from those that prevailed in 1924 at the time of Ataturk's abolition of the Caliphate.

For one, in 1924 there was no way Egyptians were going to approve increased powers for the king, certainly not after his attempts to undermine the recently ratified constitution of 1923. Not only had Fouad taken advantage of the assassination of the British Sirdar Sir Lee Stack in 1924 to dismiss the popularly elected Prime Minister Saad Zaghlul, he appointed in the latter's stead one of his toughest supporters whose fawning obedience to the king quickly became the object of national jest. Farouq had no such reputation. In addition, his youth and general good looks made it easy for palace officials to portray him to the Egyptian people as their hope for a brighter future.

A second difference was that not long before Farouq was due to be crowned, George V died and his son Edward VII ascended the British throne. Egyptians, like other peoples of the empire, followed the British coronation with their heavy religious overtones. Many were keen to emulate that splendid and sombre ritual, but not to the letter. Egypt was an Islamic country and its coronation ceremonies should reflect this.

That the subject had not been considered before was due to the fact that Farouq would be the first Egyptian king to ascend the throne since Egypt was granted formal independence in accordance with the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Until 1914, Muhammad Ali and his descendants were Ottoman viceroys appointed by firman issued by the Sultan in Istanbul. With the outbreak of World War I and the declaration of a British protectorate over Egypt, the power to appoint the Egyptian ruler shifted to London and was expressed in the form of a decree issued by the Foreign Office. Both Farouq's uncle, Hussein Kamel, and his father, Ahmed Fouad, rose to power this way. The Declaration of 28 February 1922 granting Egypt nominal independence changed nothing. Fouad was not crowned again; his title was simply changed from "sultan" to "king."

With the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, Egypt was now internationally recognised as a fully independent sovereign state. Many in Egypt were keen for a coronation ceremony that would simultaneously affirm their country's new status. As Al-Ahram wrote on 20 May 1937, "The entire nation wishes to express its love for and loyalty to Farouq and feels it propitious that His Majesty will assume the throne at the outset of this new era. The people will always pay homage to the great Muhammad Ali dynasty for the efforts it has exerted since its founding father to bring national independence and to secure for Egypt an eminent place under the sun. For this reason, the nation has been intensely eager for an appropriate coronation ceremony, a reaffirmation of the people's loyalty to His Majesty, support for his rule and jubilation at the internationally celebrated elevation of Egypt's status among nations of the East and West. We have no doubt that the government is aware of the feelings of the people towards their beloved king and that it will plan a ceremony for the forthcoming great event that is commensurate with the overwhelming enthusiasm for it."

In view of the foregoing, it was not odd that some would want a religious coronation ceremony such as that accorded to other monarchs of the world. And so it was that in Al-Ahram of 16 May 1937, there appeared a statement by chief regent, Prince Muhammad Ali, urging such a ceremony. He envisioned that following the king's pledge of allegiance to his people, to obey the laws of the nation and to work for the prosperity and happiness of the people, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar would step forward to present him with the sword of Muhammad Ali Pasha. Of prime importance, the prince added, was that "the celebration reflect Egypt's Islamic status."

The first response arrived in the form of a telegram from the scholars of Al-Azhar's College of Islamic Law. Published in Al-Ahram two days after Prince Muhammad Ali's statement, the telegram lauded the chief regent's proposal for "reminding the Muslim people of their most illustrious eras and reviving in them the spirit of true eternal happiness." The prince's office reported to Al-Ahram that it had received dozens of communications from individuals and organisations conveying the same sentiment.

The prince's recommendation also inspired an Al-Ahram reader, Ibrahim Galal, to contribute a lengthy study called "The customs observed in the coronations of the kings of Egypt." Serialised over two days, it appeared on the front page of the newspaper on Tuesday and Wednesday, 18 and 19 May 1937.

Galal chose to focus on the Mameluke era on the grounds that it was the most recent period in which Egypt enjoyed independence. When the Mamelukes were defeated by the Ottomans in 1505, the seat of rule shifted to Istanbul.

Galal relates that the coronation ceremonies of Mameluke sultans took place in the great hall of the Citadel, in which there was a marble throne shaped like the mimbar (pulpit) of a mosque. The princes, ulema, chief judges representing the four Sunni rites, the muftis and the Wali Al-Hisba (chief inspector) were all in attendance. The Abbasid Caliph, who had taken Egypt as his seat following the collapse of the caliphate in Baghdad, would enter and take a seat on the third step of the royal throne. He would wear a green robe and a black head cover with white spots. Then the sultan would leave his palace, enter the great hall as all present bowed to him, advance to the mimbar and seat himself on the first step. The caliph would then recite the Qur'anic verse opening with, "God ordains justice and benevolence," and command the sultan to be gentle with his subjects, establish just rule, promulgate Islamic practices and defend the religion. The sultan would then put on a black turban trimmed in white, a black robe embroidered with gold thread and wear his ceremonial sword. Thereupon, a senior court official would step forward with the oath of office addressed by the caliph to the sultan. After the chief secretary read out the pledge, the caliph would take the document, sign it and then pass it to the four Sunni judges to sign as witnesses to the investiture.

Following these formalities, a huge banquet was laid in the great hall with all types of sumptuous dishes laid on it. The sultan would sit at the head with his princes ranged to either side in accordance with rank. After partaking in a light meal, they would stand in order to allow other groups to take their turns in order of precedence. Once all had eaten, the Sultan would invest his princes with gowns richly embroidered in gold thread and precious stones, then mount a horse fitted with a gold and gem-encrusted saddle. All officials who were present at the ceremony would pass before him on foot, with the exception of the Caliph who would also be mounted. The Sultan would then proceed in a grand procession from the Citadel to Bab Al-Fattuh. Houses and stores along the road were festively decorated for the occasion, candles were lit, noted musicians would perform, women would ululate from their windows and the Jewish and Christian sects would join in the celebrations.

If Wafd Party leaders appeared a bit slow in responding to the announcement by Prince Muhammad Ali, that was because they were still abroad. They had just finished their task in Montreaux and were now meeting officials in Paris and London. In all events, when news reached him of developments back home, Mustafa El-Nahhas issued a statement on "His Majesty King Farouq's attainment of the age of majority and his assumption of the reins of rule." All that was required, the prime minister and Wafd Party chief stated, was for the king to pledge the constitutional oath before parliament, after which a reception would be held in the royal palace. In the opinion of the government, the ceremonial oath before parliament fulfills the function of the Islamic ritual of the pledge of allegiance. For in that ceremony, parliament -- "that elite body that represents the nation's political parties, institutions and classes" -- will perform its required duty.

Evidently the Wafd issued a form of caution to Sheikh Mustafa El-Maraghi whom it felt was the primary force behind the idea of a religious coronation ceremony. In a statement to Al-Ahram, El-Maraghi declared, "Rumours have been circulating to the effect that Al-Azhar is attempting to intervene in the matter of the coronation and that it seeks a ceremony conducted in a manner that departs from the provisions of the constitution. Such talk is a futile waste of time. Were the coronation a religious concern it would be correct to assume that Al-Azhar would play a role. But as it is not, clergymen who are addressing the subject cannot be regarded as speaking in an expert capacity. Al-Azhar, in its official capacity, has no opinion on this subject. Nor has it evinced a desire to air an opinion or was approached by anyone for this purpose."

Because Al-Ahram was the first to publish the statement of Prince Muhammad Ali, it too came under suspicion for promoting the idea of a religious ceremony. It therefore felt compelled to issue a statement denying the allegation which it described as "slanderous." It protested that the newspaper was doing no more than its job which, in this case, entailed reporting a proposal aired by a high official to hold a religious ceremony in a mosque on the occasion of His Majesty's attainment of the age of majority. "In our report, we noted that the author of this proposal was Prince Muhammad Ali, head of the regency council, and that he had conveyed this idea to His Excellency the Prime Minister." The newspaper went on to state that people may either support or reject the proposal but they can not deny its existence. "The existence of a proposal on a specific matter is one thing; whether or not it is in keeping with tradition is another matter entirely."

As though the matter were settled, the government began to prepare for the royal swearing in ceremony before parliament. Al-Ahram reports that massive redecoration works were under way in the parliament building. "The green of the Egyptian flag will be reflected in all the halls and chambers preparatory to the great historic day. The MPs seats are all being recovered in green; the other furniture, the wallpaper, carpets and curtains are being similarly renovated; the loge facing the prime minister's seat has been prepared for the Queen Mother and the royal princesses; and piping is being installed to furnish better ventilation than electric fans."

However, the wishes of the royal family would not go away. On 19 June, during a meeting in Alexandria between Prince Muhammad Ali and Prime Minister El-Nahhas, held so that the latter could inform the former of the results of the Montreaux convention, the head regent took the opportunity to reiterate the palace's proposal regarding the coronation. The prince argued that the constitution stated that Islam was the official religion of the state. "Duty therefore calls for a religious ceremony to invest His Majesty upon the royal throne. This ceremony should take place following the parliamentary ceremonies during which His Majesty will take the constitutional oath." Al-Ahram goes on to report, "His Highness mentioned that the sole purpose of the religious ceremony is to mark the advent of a new era presided over by a beloved king who had a religious upbringing and that no one could possibly take offence at this."

The prince went on to propose that the religious ceremony take place in a large mosque, such as Al-Rifa'i. It would be attended by senior government officials, foreign diplomats, the members of both houses of parliament, senior officials of the national and religious courts, and senior officials of Al-Azhar. The king would arrive in a grand procession. Once he took his place inside the mosque prayers would be recited and other appropriate religious rites observed.

Soon after, a non-Wafdist MP, Abdel-Razeq Wahba El-Qadi, asked the prime minister whether it was true that the cabinet had unanimously voted against holding a religious coronation ceremony and if so why. The MP objected that the decision was insensitive to the feelings of all Muslim peoples, especially Egyptian Muslims. He added that a religious ceremony would not only set a good precedent but also that it would also help His Majesty advance himself as a successor to the caliphate.

As it was summer and parliament was not in session, the government did not bother to respond to El-Qadi's question and proceeded with its own plans. Nevertheless, it did make one concession to the king, which was to allow the army to participate in the occasion. All armed forces with their commanders would assemble in Rasdkhana Square. A canon salute would signal the beginning of the royal procession to the square. Once the king had taken his place in the pavilions that would be set up for the occasion, the officers would take the following oath:

"I swear thrice by God, His Holy Books and His prophets and by my conscience and honour as an officer that I will be loyal and faithful to His Royal Majesty, King Farouq I of Egypt, and to his government. I will obey all his noble orders and all rightful orders issued to my commanders and execute these orders on land, on sea and in the air, in the Nile Valley and abroad. I will take his enemies as my enemies and keep peace with those who keep peace with him. I will remain steadfast in the defence of the rights of my country and cling to my sword unto death. May God bear witness to my oath."

Al-Ahram did not mention in its report that El-Nahhas wanted this oath to include a pledge of loyalty to the constitution. This the palace rejected outright. It naturally feared that the army would be turned against the king upon his first attempt to undermine the constitution, as his late father had done so often during his reign.

Coronation day, set for 29 July, was near. Farouq, it will be remembered, was still on his educational tour abroad. On 20 July, he set off from Marseilles on the SS Nile. He had been greeted on board by a company of the Egyptian Scouts who sang for him an anthem composed especially for the occasion. The king "expressed his great delight in meeting with them and several times asked to have his picture taken surrounded by the scouts," Al-Ahram relates.

While the SS Nile was homeward bound, the entire country was bustling with preparations for the upcoming celebrations. From the plethora of news items on the subject, it is evident that the bustle was not restricted to the towns through which Farouq would be passing on his way from the port in Alexandria to the capital. Indeed, it extended to contingents whose presence would be of political import.

Prime among these was the Sudanese. In Al-Ahram we read that the Royal Postal Authority was offering a 50 per cent discount on the fares of its ships running from Port Sudan and Souakin to Suez. Sudanese Rail, too, announced that it would be offering half-price tickets to passengers travelling to Egypt to attend the coronation. In addition, the Egyptian government persuaded the Sudanese government to declare coronation day an official holiday.

For its part, Al-Ahram came out with an editorial bearing the headline, "Farouq served as an ambassador for his country before taking the throne." Farouq had studied in England while still crown prince. During this period, the newspaper writes, "the British people had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with an ideal student who was respectful towards his instructors, patient and diligent, and inquisitive and eager to learn." In fact, according to many sources young Farouq acquired quite a reputation for being lackadaisical during his short period of study abroad. But Al-Ahram can be forgiven its hyperbole in view of the occasion.

The newspaper continues that during his second trip abroad, Farouq acquainted himself with various aspects of European life. More importantly, "his visits to Switzerland, France and England left a most favourable impression. His Majesty symbolised Egypt old and new through his intense interest in museums, antiquities and the arts, and in modern institutions, factories and academic institutes."

The momentous day came and went. The following day, Al-Ahram produced what by any standards can be regarded as a commemorative edition. The front page was emblazoned with two large pictures, the first of the king surrounded by palace officials, other members of the royal household and Prime Minister El-Nahhas; the second of the king in the company of the government ministers. The rest of the page was taken up by the newspaper's first hand coverage of the procession. One reporter relates, "As of 5.00 this morning everyone who hoped to get a view of the king began to stake out their places. By the time of the procession, balconies and rooftops of the houses and buildings overlooking the procession route were filled to brimming with men, women and children."

Al-Ahram stationed another reporter in parliament. He relates that when Farouq emerged from the royal antechamber at 8.55am he was greeted by thunderous applause. Before taking his seat, he saluted the Queen Mother, a gesture appreciated by all. There followed two speeches, the first by the prime minister and the second by the speaker of the upper chamber of parliament -- the senate -- both adhering to the customary formulas for such occasions. The king then rose to take the constitutional oath in which he vowed to respect the constitution and the laws of Egypt and to protect the independence and territorial integrity of the nation. The speaker of the senate then proclaimed three times, "Long live the king!" the salute of which was echoed by the audience amidst loud and continuous applause. Only one person departed from the script. National Party MP Abdel-Hamid Said took the opportunity to cry out, "Long live His Majesty, King of Egypt and Sudan!" Only some of the MPs took up the chant. Others remained silent, aware as they were of the problems this might cause with the British embassy.

Later in the evening, after the festivities had died down, the newly crowned king decided to tour the capital in his private automobile. Al-Ahram reports that when he reached Opera Square, some people recognised him and in their jubilation ran to try to catch up with him and collected around the car to give him their personal congratulations. The police had to be called in to disperse them. One suspects that Farouq looked back on this experience fondly when, 15 years later, the Egyptian people cursed him as he boarded the Mahrousa and set sail into exile. Such was the ill will he had reaped in the course of his rule.

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