Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (615)
The making of a king
Faruq was destined to be a king, but his father King Fuad I died few months before he was 18, the age at which he could assume his constitutional powers. To fill the time gap, a five-month European tour was organised. Yunan Labib Rizk takes us on the trip which helped mold the future monarch
When King Fuad I died on 27 April 1936, his son and successor Prince Faruq had just turned 16 (he was born on 11 February 1920). Both Wafd Party leaders and British authorities in Cairo felt it in their interests to shorten the period until he turned 18, the constitutionally stipulated minimum age for a king. Their means towards this end was to reckon his age on the basis of the lunar instead of the solar calendar, thereby reducing the interval from about 22 months to precisely 15 months and 14 days.
Although this may have struck Egyptians as odd at the time, in fact the precedent had been set much earlier. Until the era of the Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) the viceregal throne fell to the eldest living descendant of Muhammad Ali. Ismail, however, succeeded in securing an Ottoman firman restricting succession to the eldest son of the occupant of the throne. Therefore, when he was deposed, his son Tawfiq (1952-92) assumed the throne. Yet, when the Khedive Tawfiq died at an early age his son, Abbas Helmi II (1874-1944) was just short of 18. The British Consul-General Lord Cromer, the effective ruler of the country at the time, discovered a way around the problem. He consulted with Al-Azhar officials who readily agreed to calculate Abbas' age on the basis of the lunar calendar, thereby enabling his immediate succession.
Until this point, the succession to the Egyptian throne had to be authorised by a firman issued by the Ottoman sultan. Upon the outbreak of World War I the British not only deposed Abbas Helmi II but also ignored Ottoman rights of suzerainty and appointed his successor themselves. He was the eldest living prince of the Muhammad Ali dynasty, Abbas Helmi's uncle Hussein Kamel, to whom the British, moreover, accorded the title "sultan." Hussein Kamel did not live much longer, and when he died his son Prince Kemaleddin refused to assume the throne. The British therefore offered it to his brother Ahmed Fuad who was only too glad to accept. In 1917, Fuad became Egypt's second sultan and then when Egypt was granted nominal independence in 1922 he was crowned king. During that year, too, the sultan turned king drew up a law of succession designating his eldest son, Faruq, as his successor. Faruq was only two years old at the time.
Although King Fuad was destined to live 15 years longer, he took an important precaution, thereby setting another precedent in the history of the Muhammad Ali dynasty. This was to name three persons who would act as regents in the event that he died before his son reached the age of majority. Fuad's foresight proved fortuitous for that eventuality did in fact come to pass. Although there were a couple of hitches regarding the appointment of the regents, there was no question that Faruq was the next king. The question that did remain was what to do with the young man until he reached the age at which he could assume his constitutional powers.
After considerable deliberation and consultations all concerned settled upon the idea that the young king spend at least some of the approximately 16 months left until he reached 18 in Europe and in Britain in particular. After all, he had interrupted his education in order to return to Egypt upon the sudden death of his father and it was only fitting that he return in order to resume the studies that would provide him with at least the minimum know-how to rule his country.
Foremost among the "all concerned" was British ambassador to Egypt Sir Miles Lampson whose opinion it was that the longer the "boy," as he referred to the king in his communications with London, stayed in England the more sympathetic he would be to British policy towards Egypt. Lampson also felt that Faruq would stand a better chance of imbibing British culture if he were steeped in a British environment. Certainly all efforts of Mr Edward Ford, the Eton schoolmaster that had been brought over to Egypt to instruct the young king, failed to accomplish this end. Faruq had been woefully negligent of his studies.
The Wafd Party government was another concerned party. At the time the idea of a royal educational excursion came up, the government was busy taking the first steps to implement the provisions of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which entailed among other things, laying the groundwork for negotiations to end the capitulations system. The last thing it wanted was for palace officials to take advantage of the sympathy and popularity the young king enjoyed in the wake of his father's death with the intent of undermining the Wafdist government's work. It, therefore, heartily welcomed Faruq's temporary removal to Europe.
A third concerned party was, of course, the regency council, headed by Prince Muhammad Ali (1876-1955), the younger brother of Abbas Helmi II. Although the regency council initially voiced concern over the wisdom of sending their young charge abroad, its resistance did not last long. After all, the council could wield its powers on behalf of the king more extensively if he wasn't physically present to observe it.
It was thus one of those rare moments of concord between the Wafd, Abdin Palace and the British that dispatched the still juvenile monarch on a European tour that would encompass Switzerland, France and Britain. The British ship bearing the royal personage set sail from Port Said on 26 February 1937. On board were 30 members of the royal court to keep him company and supervise him. They included the queen mother, several princesses and the king's mentor Ahmed Hassanein. The ship returned to Alexandria on 24 July 1937. The five-month tour occasioned numerous writings, among which are assorted documents which were later filed in British government archives, memoirs by journalists who accompanied the royal entourage, such as Muhammad El-Tabie's Secrets of Politics and Politicians, and biographical studies on Faruq, chief among which is Latifa Salem's large and impressive Faruq from Birth to Death, published in Cairo this year by Dar El-Shorouq.
As informative as all these writings are, they missed something that had not escaped the daily press that covered the royal excursion. As the voyage commenced, so too did that business that Egyptians have excelled in throughout their long history: the making of despotic monarchs. Although the academic works on the life and character of Faruq agree that he derived very little educational benefit from the trip, what was written about him in the press at the time was bound to turn the head of that 16-year-old youth. Indeed, the propaganda had built around him such an aura of magnificence that we can safely say that by the time he returned to Egypt he had been molded into yet another of that long procession of god-like rulers that Egyptians have known throughout their history.
It is interesting to observe this process first-hand through Al-Ahram, which if more dispassionate than its contemporaries nevertheless had little choice but to board the train of adulation.
On 21 February 1937 Al-Ahram 's correspondent in Port Said sped off the following report: "In response to the plea of the inhabitants of the popular quarter in this city, His Majesty the King, may God grant him a long life, has graciously condescended to honour this quarter and pass with his fortunate retinue through Saad Zaghlul and Princess Eugenie Streets. The entire city is in a frenzy of activity as it decks itself out. Especially splendid are the decorations with which the Islamic Philanthropic Society has ornamented the facades of its two schools, the displays that have been erected in front of the Labour Federation Centre and the decorations which adorn the path along which the royal procession will proceed."
Meanwhile, the royal train set off from Qubba Palace at 2.45pm on Saturday 27 February. As an added security measure, a military train had departed in advance to ascertain the safety of the route. Before departing, the king delivered a brief statement in which he said that he planned to visit various European countries for the benefit of his education which had been interrupted by the death of his father.
All along the way from Cairo to Port Said, villages vied with one another to pay tribute and demonstrate their loyalty to their new king. In Minia Al-Qamh, the Abaza family had solicited palace authorities to permit the royal train to stop briefly in their village so that the king could partake in refreshments offered in a large, magnificently ornamented tent they had erected in the train station. The municipality, railway authority and other government agencies in Zaqaziq festooned their city with a variety of decorative displays. "Of particular note are those that were created by the eminent Abdel-Rahman Radwan Bek on his cotton ginnery, his school and his other properties facing the train station," Al-Ahram added. All of Port Said, as we mentioned, was abloom. The Al-Ahram correspondent there gave particular mention to the decorations that adorned the home of Member of Parliament Ali Lahita. Lahita had also decked out a large launch which was to escort the ship bearing His Majesty as it set out to sea. "The launch will have on board the famous Fanagili troupe whose ensemble of folk drums and wind instruments will provide delightful musical entertainment. The Lahita family has also decorated their other boats which are docked in the port as a declaration of their dedication and loyalty to our king."
It is not difficult to imagine the splendid send-off accorded to the SS Viceroy of India as it wended its way out to the open sea, on 28 February 193 with it precious royal cargo, not to mention representatives of the Egyptian press, including, of course, the correspondent of Al-Ahram who covered the progress of the royal European tour.
AL-AHRAM, like the rest of the Egyptian press, stressed the importance of this event. "Faruq has only five months until he attains legal age," it wrote. "He felt it important that he take advantage of this period to acquire cultural edification from an environment in which order prevails absolutely and in which the conditions of material progress and social advancement have attained the clearest and most elevated manifestations." The newspaper adds that the king had taken this decision less than a year after having ascended the to the throne, during which period he had "studied the life of his people, visited their urban and rural dwellings and familiarised himself with their sources of strength and weakness and their demands and aspirations."
On board the Viceroy of India, the Al-Ahram correspondent kept Egyptians up to date on the minutest details of the king's movements. Typical of the reports he transmitted home via the wireless is the following: "His Majesty the King emerged from his cabin suite at 7.00am and proceeded up to the deck where he partook of some brief exercise. His Majesty appears in the finest health after having a comfortable night's sleep."
After 72 hours, the British liner arrived in Marseille. In celebration of the arrival, the ship's orchestra struck up the Egyptian and British national anthems, after which there was a hearty round of applause for the king, "whose sporting simplicity and smiling countenance delighted the passengers."
On the wharf, the Egyptian consul-general to France was waiting to receive the king. Along with him were other members of the consulate and about 100 Egyptian students who were then attached to various French universities. After one of the students delivered a welcome speech on behalf of his peers, they all broke out in the salute, "Long live the King of Egypt and Sudan." Faruq thanked them for their kind sentiments. The students greeted the brief speech with an enthusiastic round of applause and cheers.
From the French Mediterranean port the royal entourage proceeded to San Moritz. One suspects no small degree of exaggeration in the Al-Ahram correspondent's report that "along the way the people welcomed the Egyptian king with a warmth reminiscent of the ardor that greets His Majesty wherever he goes in Egypt."
As detailed as the correspondent's coverage was, there were bound to be idle moments when there was nothing to report. In such cases, Al-Ahram turned to the reports in the European press, especially those that contributed to manufacturing the king's new image. According to a British newspaper, the young Egyptian king already showed signs of his intellectual and political acumen. It added, "His Majesty can be expected to play a fundamental role in the affairs of his country when he becomes his own master. He shares with his father a keen spirit of intellectual curiosity." And from the Paris Soir, Al-Ahram relayed the observation that the Egyptian people showed a degree of devotion to their new king rarely accorded to any of his predecessors. "He won the hearts of all from the moment he assumed the throne." Le Journal de Geneve similarly remarked, "From the moment the young king sat on the throne he won the affection of all classes of the Egyptian people."
Part of the business of creating a legend entailed recounting some simple and sometimes amusing anecdotes from the trip. Al-Ahram reports, for example, that Faruq and his sisters were making good progress in learning how to ice skate and that he declared he would make a skating rink in Cairo the following winter. Elsewhere it relates that a dock worker in Marseille was so impressed by the warm display in honour of the king's arrival that he shouted, "I'm a communist. But even so, long live the king of Egypt!" It was well known that Faruq, as young as he was, loved to drive. This passion was indulged during the trip from Geneva to Bern, when the young king was taken up to the front of the train and given command of the engine. One cannot help but wonder whether it was the engineer himself who voluntarily ceded his place to the Egyptian king or whether permission had been handed down from the Swiss railway authorities.
In Bern, the educational portion of the trip began. The king conducted tours of the museums of history and natural history, the Swiss cavalry barracks and a five-storey underground garage, a miraculous feat of engineering, from the Egyptian perspective at least. In Zurich, he visited the famous polytechnic and a textile factory that spun Egyptian cotton.
It was then back through France to Calais, then across the Channel to Dover and from there to London's Victoria Station. An Al-Ahram correspondent was on hand, of course, to cover the king's arrival in the British capital. He relates that a large host of Egyptians, sporting tarboushes and formal dress, were present on the platform, as were many prominent British officials who had previously been posted to Egypt. The British Foreign Office Secretary, Anthony Eden, dispatched a deputy, having been prevented by circumstances from appearing personally.
Eton, the famous public school of the British aristocracy founded in 1440, was Faruq's first destination. According to the Evening Standard the Egyptian king had been especially keen on this visit because his tutor for the past year had been a graduate from that college. Next on the programme was Cambridge where he was greeted by the Egyptians studying in that ancient university. The following day he was taken to Stratford-upon-Avon where he had the opportunity to watch a Shakespearean play. Then it was off to Birmingham where he visited a small arms factory and an automobile workshop. In the former establishment, the Al-Ahram correspondent attached to the retinue could not pass up the opportunity to pay tribute to the king's familiarity with arms and his marksmanship. Faruq had spent some 20 minutes examining the guns and then asked whether he could have a go. "The person in charge fetched a rifle and handed it to the king who fired at the target and hit the bull's eye. The queen mother watched on approvingly."
In Paris, in addition to meeting with various French officials and touring the city's numerous museums, the king took the opportunity to participate in Friday prayers in a mosque in the French capital. Just in case the message had not reached the Egyptian people in print, Al-Ahram featured a large photograph of the Faruq at worship in its edition of 24 June 1937. The primary contours of the image were now in place. The king was not only a fun-loving energetic youth with a keen and inquisitive mind; he was also a pious one. It now remained to fill in the contours of the legend and give its features clarity, a process that began with Faruq's return to Egypt.
IF THE KING'S SUBJECTS had been prepped for his return by the nearly continuous coverage of his excursion, further arrangements were needed to make his homecoming reception as exultant as possible. It was no coincidence that the chosen date was as close as conveniently possible to the date he would assume his constitutional powers. To augment the public fervor, it was decided that he should arrive on an Egyptian liner. He may have set off to Marseille on the Viceroy of India but his homeward bound trip would be aboard The Nile, which was seen off from the French port by a large assembly of Egyptian students abroad.
Alexandria, in the meantime, was in a bustle of "great preparations," as Al-Ahram put it. The city teemed with incomers from all parts of the country, "their hearts fluttering with joy at the prospect of beholding the countenance of their beloved king. Lights glitter throughout the city and hotels are packed with people eager to participate in the occasion. The Faruq and Fawziya patrol boats have set out to sea, where they will remain in order to meet the ship bearing His Majesty as soon as it enters Egyptian territorial waters." The newspaper also reported that the Egyptian air force had readied 12 planes for the reception. These would fly out and circle over the ship, "then after performing this salute, they will fly back and circle over Ras El-Tin Palace and then continue to fly over the city as the royal cavalcade passes through the streets of Alexandria on the way to the train station, after which they will soar back and forth in the air over the royal train until it reaches Qubba Palace."
On 26 July 1937 the Al-Ahram blazoned on its front page, "Egypt greets its beloved King Faruq I -- a splendid national celebration and a continuous popular demonstration of affection on land, in the sea and in the air." Below the banner headline were numerous photographs: His Majesty arriving at Ras El-Tin Palace, leaving from the Alexandria train station, being welcomed back to Cairo by Egyptian political leaders, foremost among whom was Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas, his arrival at Qubba Palace in the company of his sisters, Princess Fawziya and Princess Faiza.
Inside the same edition, Al-Ahram covered the royal procession from the port in Alexandria to the train station. The streets were lined with the members of various scouting organisations. The display was not as innocent as it appeared. Among them were ranks of the so-called "Blue Shirts," the Wafd Party's short-lived paramilitary organisation, as though to remind the public that there were other forces to be reckoned with apart from the king.
The newspaper proceeded to follow the king's procession by rail from Alexandria to Cairo. The people of Kafr Al-Dawar had decked out their train station with a splendid array of flags and banners and cheered the royal carriages as they passed. In Damanhour, the train station platform brimmed with local notables and dignitaries. The train station in Etay Al-Baroud was packed with thousands of people from that town as well from the neighbouring towns and villages of Shobrakhit, Kom Hamada, Al-Dalingat, Al-Mahmoudiya and Desouq. Kafr Al-Zayat train station was festooned with cheerful decorations. In Tanta, the station was abloom with flowers and banners; a colourful reception tent had been set up and laid with luxurious carpets; and students, scouts and workers from all occupations lined the tracks and waved their flags, struck up their music in jubilation over the oncoming train. Benha, too, staged a similar reception, and in Tokh, the crowds cheered to the long life of the king as the train passed through the station, after which Bedouin horsemen raced alongside the train from the villa of Hamed Mahmoud, member of the Egyptian Delegation (Wafd) of Sad zaghloul and leader of Qalyubiya, to the village of Al-Sananiya.
In the two editions that preceded these festivities, Al-Ahram featured two in-depth analyses of Faruq's European excursion. In that appearing on 24 July, the newspaper addressed the question, "What benefit His Majesty derived from this tour and how this benefits Egypt." Its response, in a word, was, "His Majesty left us yesterday as a young man. He has returned today a fully grown man." In explanation of this remarkable spurt of maturity, the article held that the five months that Faruq had spent abroad were equivalent to two or three years study at home. "The fact is that a person has to relearn what he reads in books through practical application of this knowledge in life." The article concludes that now, as he was on the verge of assuming his constitutional powers, King Faruq had grown to "full awareness of his person and his status, after having evinced a keen inquisitiveness, an acuity of thought, a sharpness of mind and a precision of self-expression that won him the greatest admiration and proved the great impact this trip had on his development at this young age."
The article of the following day, entitled, "The return of the king," notes how strongly attached Egypt had been to its kings since the dawn of antiquity. The Egyptian throne had always been "a barrier against adversity and a refuge in times of hardship." The commentator continues, "Egypt has been unceasingly loyal to its kings. In the mutual love between the monarch and his subjects there is an inviolable charter, a covenant that has safeguarded our nation's glory and dominion and allowed its beacon to shine across the globe... It is the good fortune of this nation that Faruq will assume the throne at this most providential time when Egypt has come into its own again, after succeeding in restoring the reins of its fate into the hands of its people and easing from its back the burden of the foreign capitulations system."
It is not difficult to imagine the impact such grandiloquent adulation would have on that young man who had barely turned 17 in accordance with the solar calendar and who was only a couple of days away from 18 by lunar reckoning. The heady power he must have felt would lead him into a collision course with the Wafd Party. If he lost the first round, which centred on his desire for a religious coronation ceremony, he won the second in which he used the Blue Shirts scandal as leverage to topple the Nahhas government. He had only been in power for five months -- ample testimony to the efficacy of the Egyptian art of creating pharaohs.