Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 October 2007
Issue No. 868
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Peddling nostalgia

Ramadan TV is over, but one serialised drama lives on: Hala Sakr seeks out informed opinion regarding the controversy surrounding the monarch's portrayal in King Farouk, which though restricted to the Saudi satellite channel during Ramadan is now being screened again on national television

Click to view caption
King Farouk (click for more images)

It's been 55 years since King Farouk I, Egypt's last monarch, left the country and the throne, and 40 years since his death in Italy. Having kept a more or less low profile since then, the regent hit back with a vengeance this Ramadan. Since the screening of the 30-episode TV drama Al-Malik Farouk (King Farouk), written by Lamis Gaber and starring Syrian actor Taim El-Hassan, Farouk's spectre has haunted living rooms and café terraces alike, with virtually the entire population debating the merits of the monarchy, abolished a year after the king departed in 1953.

An avalanche of praise for the monarchy took the country by surprise, prompting one weekly magazine often detracted for being close to the regime running a special supplement this week entitled "Long live the republic". Therein senior commentators and contemporaries of the monarchy sought to extol the virtues of the republican system over the monarchy.

They address a generation who view any history written in the last 55 years with scepticism at best, rectifying a popular wisdom that found in the serial confirmation of "the truth about Egypt's maligned king" who abdicated to prevent bloodshed.

This line of thinking finds expression in the last episode of King Farouk, when on his departure the monarch tells his private secretary Hassan Hosny to write down the truth if he could: Hosny, the supposedly impartial witness of an era, is to inform future generations of what really happened -- the good and the bad.

In fact Hosny's memoirs were published a few years ago and in them the king appears in a less than favourable light -- an irony Gaber seems to remain unaware of even though, being an "amateur" as opposed to properly trained historian, she claims to have consulted the full range of published material including memoirs.

HOSNY AND HASSANEIN: Gaber's sympathies clearly lying with "the maligned king", however, she seems to have taken on the task Hosny would have been unable to perform with a clear conscience.

This is not necessarily to say she falsified history, however. According to historian Emad Abu-Ghazi, lecturer at Cairo University's documents and archives department, the serial was historically accurate with minor exceptions only identifiable by the specialist.

"These relate mostly to the production itself," Abu-Ghazi told Al-Ahram Weekly, "not to the script which was read and revised by a senior historian."

But Helwan University history professor Assem El Dessouki begs to differ: "If you want to produce a historical drama there should be no exceptions, major or minor. King Fuad should not address the top British diplomatic agent in Egypt in 1920 as Lord Allenby, but as Field-Marshal Viscount Allenby, which was his title then. The banners Egyptians were carrying in the 1920 demonstration outside the palace should not have read 'Go home, Miles', since Miles Lampson would not arrive in Egypt for another 13 years." It is this latter mistake to which Abu-Ghazi was likely referring when he spoke about "production errors", since when, in a different scene, Fuad mentions the name of the person the people wanted out he correctly cites Milner, who had arrived on a negotiations mission in December 1919 following the exile of Saad Zaghloul -- only to leave in March 1920 in response to a nationwide boycott of the initiative.

Aside from minor mistakes, more significantly, Dessouki takes issue with the writer's treatment of the central character which he describes as "selective and biased": "Gaber inflated minor incidents beyond all proportion, ignoring major historical events.

She skews the viewer's perspective on the period she covers to suit her sympathetic view of the king." Hardly a problem from the artistic point of view, but such poetic license is certainly a concern in the light of debates the serial has generated.

One widespread criticism of Gaber's presentation of this period of history -- and her sympathy with its symbol -- is the extent to which it ignores the social and economic context in which Farouk operated: the dire poverty under which the vast majority of Egyptians lived at the time.

For her part sociologist Nahla Imam believes the viewer remains "locked within the palace walls": the poor, the downtrodden remain invisible. "How can anyone take a position for or against the 1952 Revolution on the basis of a presentation of the monarchy that ignores the very people in whose name said revolution took place. It was a revolution for the people, not a revolution against the palace; but the serial only pays attention to the palace, nothing more."

For veteran journalist and political analyst Fahmi Howeidy it is likewise hard to view the serial as history: "At best it's one version of the historical period it deals with. It has nothing to do with the people. This is not pre-1952 Egypt as I knew it, for example. There is no sign of the Egyptian people in this drama."

Though eager to commend the effort that went into historical research to make this drama, historian and senior jurist Tarek El-Bishri likewise warns that "works dealing with history, even books, are not in themselves historical documents: what they contain is the author's viewpoint".

King Farouk 's portrayal of the director of the Royal Cabinet Ahmed Hassanein Pasha is a case in point: "What was shown in the serial runs contrary to historical evidence and common knowledge about the sordid nature of this character." Hassanein had worked closely with the British since WWI and was a major corruptive influence on Farouk, both personally and politically, as El-Bishri goes on to clarify: "He conspired against two of the young monarch's closest advisors, Aziz El-Masri and Ali Maher: had they not been removed, they could've played a positive role in Egyptian history." The serial's version of Ahmed Hassanein is as such a more or less fictional character.

REALITY TV? Benha University history professor Latifa Salem -- author of Farouk minal-milad wa ila-arrahil (Farouk from birth to departure) and more recently Farouk al-awwal wa 'arsh misr: buzough wa'id wa'ofoul hazin (Farouk I and the throne of Egypt: a promising rise and a sad demise) -- has often revised scripts of historical dramas and she feels such works can be a good source of information but do not carry enough weight to support opinions.

"Documentary films may have the force of documents but not dramas, in which writers have the right to expand this and contract that, or use their imagination to create a scene. Of course, there are restrictions on the exercise of such a right. They should not make up incidents in contradiction of the facts."

Imam agrees: "It would be a grave mistake to regard this drama on King Farouk as a historical document. It's a specific vision coloured by the writer's beliefs. The serial is an attempt to highlight the monarch's human face with some history in the shadows."

For Abu-Ghazi, however, Gaber never claimed to be addressing Egypt under Farouk anyway. The title of the serial is King Farouk and so is its theme: "Any writer has the right to express his vision when it comes to addressing a historical issue. In this case I actually think it's quite useful, because it opens the door to much research on the period. Contrary to resting to content with what they saw on screen, people will be provoked into looking further and deeper into what the serial has to say."

That King Farouk has undoubtedly done, generating much historical revision with an eye on the relative merits of the pre- and post-1952 eras. The question, rather, is what made it so popular?

As far as Abu-Ghazi is concerned, the answer to this question is relatively straightforward: "For the first time, Farouk is portrayed as something radically other than his conventional image -- framed and fixed over the past 55 years -- as a corrupt drunk and womaniser."

This image is ideologically motivated, Abu-Ghazi insists: part of the Free Officers' propaganda programme intended to discredit the monarchy beyond any possibility of redemption. Ironically, it was the celebrated journalist Mustafa Amin, owner of Akhbar Al-Yom -- a pro-British, pro-monarchy newspaper -- who first jumped onto the let's- slam-Farouk bandwagon in 1952; his book Layali Farouk (Farouk's nights) -- a minutely detailed account of Farouk's alleged debauchery -- came out within weeks of the king's departure. "There was some truth in the book," Abu-Ghazi says, "but the facts are blown far out of proportion. However debauched he was -- and he wasn't as debauched as the book suggests -- this is hardly the issue, from a historical standpoint. His political stance would seem to matter more than his private life."

Indeed the notion that the serial presented an unprecedented -- if not necessarily true image of Farouk -- is the reason most generally believed to be behind the serial's popularity. Cairo University political-science professor Iglal Raafat -- a member of the Wafd Party's Higher Committee -- agrees that the serial was popular because it presented people with an image of Farouk "in complete contradiction with what they have been told about him over five decades". Under the circumstances, it is only natural people should feel that "what they have been force- fed was distorted and politically motivated".

OF NOSTALGIA AND OTHER DEMONS: Salem cited another reason behind the serial's popularity, however, namely the current deterioration in every aspect of Egyptian life. At present many dimensions of society, the economy and the future have been at an all-time low: "Add to this the rosy image King Farouk presents of life under the monarchy..."

A recent poll covering both satellite and terrestrial channels found King Farouk the most popular Ramadan entertainment by far, and this, Salem argues, can only be explained by reference to the nostalgia it made possible. "It triggered much comparison between the present situation and the past. People were attracted to the past because they are furious with what is taking place now. As for the young -- an extra dimension -- they are in more or less complete darkness when it comes to this period of our history."

Nostalgia -- and the need for it -- in themselves raise questions about the manner in which Egyptian history has been written over the last five decades.

Howeidy, for one party who is unhappy with official versions of 20th-century history, feels the serial was positive insofar as it alerted people to the fact Egypt's modern history did not start with the onset of the Revolution: "Sadly for 55 years now we have had no fair or objective reading of Egyptian history. Just as we need innovative interpretations of religious discourse, innovation is required in the political and cultural spheres. Part of this is that our history has yet to be written properly."

Indeed, as Raafat puts it, any comparison between past and present is bound to end up being in favour of the former. "There were truly democratic elections under the monarchy and even British colonialism. There were so many active political leaders. Public opinion was alive. Even the people were more involved -- unlike today, when there is not the slightest shade of political education. It's so sad!"

Rafaat goes on to explain that it was among the earliest policies of the Revolution to establish dictatorship by means of oppression, and this "deformed Egyptians from within": "The people were desensitised, systematically groomed into being political hypocrites and cowards. It's the worst thing that can happen to a nation and next to impossible to reverse. Things might have taken a different turn had Mohamed Naguib stayed in power and democracy prevailed. Perhaps the officers could have pursued political reform alongside their social agenda; had they trodden that path, the country might have reaped the fruit of the democratic struggle people had been more or less continuously engaged in since the turn of the [20th] century."

But things are not that simple, as El-Bishri points out, and the Revolution is not the last 55 years' only -- or even principal demon. The eminent misconception -- a fault El-Bishri attributes to present-day opposition forces -- is to regard the post-1952 era as a single undifferentiated block, blaming the 1952 Movement for all that is wrong with Egypt today -- much of it chronic and next to impossible to resolve.

Referring to the 55 years in question, El-Bishri says, "It is not a continuum. The latter 35 years have been radically different to the first 20 years after 1952. There is continuity in the mode of governance, but there is great disparity between the agenda of the ruling power in the first phase and that pursued following 1973/74. The content is radically different, even if the form remained the same: two contrary visions of development, foreign policy, national security, mobilisation, etc. And to see both phases as a continuum is the easiest way to deny the Revolution's many achievements in the first phase. The discourse of King Farouk seems to deliberately confuse these issues in order to encourage a comparison between the monarchy and the present, difficult times, omitting all that the people gained shortly after the end of the monarchy." Nostalgia for the 1940s, El-Bishri concludes, is one thing. What most people really want to go back to is the 1960s, the great aspirations that remain enshrined in that period.

REASSESSMENTS GALORE: But El-Bishri's is not the only position on the question of the Revolution. Abu-Ghazi insists that the roots of the present stagnation are best sought out directly in 1952. "This is one continuous historical period. Who apart from the 1952 men have ruled since?" In the day of Farouk, Abu-Ghazi argues, a prime minister was able to overrule the king and act as a corrective to his authority, stopping him where he trespassed on the territory of the prime minister or undermined the constitutional rights of the people.

"This is something Egyptians have definitely missed since Nasser and his clique took over. Another, continuous effect of 1952 was that it aborted early attempts to establish a civic state in which religion would not be a major factor in politics: after 1952, there emerged a competition between the regime and the Islamists -- led by the Muslim Brothers -- over who would be more or more truly Islamic."

Still, as El-Bishri repeatedly points out, the monarchy was no democratic heaven: "In the three decades separating the drafting of the 1923 constitution and 1952, the Wafd -- the party of the majority in six of ten elected parliaments -- was in power for a total of seven years. The king was consistently against the rule of the majority, and the constitution was frequently violated by the palace.

A case in point occurred in 1926, when the king appointed a minority government that lasted over a year. In 1928-1929, he suspended the implementation of several different articles of the constitution, and by 1930 he was rid of it altogether, drafting a new, more restrictive one. It's true the 1923 constitution was reinstated after a popular uprising in 1935, but it was rarely adhered to." El-Bishri can understand the people's sympathy with the king as a person, he says, but extending such sympathy into the political sphere may well be an unhealthy development.

Notwithstanding nostalgia for the monarchy, on the other hand, viewers universally acknowledge the merits of the Wafd Party under Farouk.

For Abu-Ghazi the real protagonist is Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha, then leader of the Wafd. "He was finally vindicated after so many years of defamation under the 1952 regime." Yet even here there are those viewers who dislike actor Salah Abdalla's version of El-Nahhas: they feel the prime minister, even though he appeared in a favourable light in some episodes, he was largely portrayed as a crude peasant -- often to comic effect -- so as not to upstage the shining "maligned" king.

Salem says, "It is true that in his early days Farouk was a popular king, but things gradually changed. After [British ambassador] Miles Lampson forced the return of the Wafd to power in 1942, suspecting Farouk of pro-Axis sympathies, Farouk began acting out of revenge rather than in the national interest. In October 1944, he seized the first opportunity to expel the Wafd from power and burnt his remaining bridges with the public when he dismissed the Wafd in 1952."

According to El-Bishri, indeed, Farouk was too weak a head of state to sustain his popularity. He had neither education nor competence: "He lacked qualities essential in any real king. Both intellectuals and seasoned politicians were anathema to Farouk, whose formal education and intellect were deficient. Even directors of his Royal Cabinet such as Ali Maher or Hafez Afifi could not see him for months on end. They had to send him official memorandums to be signed via his palace entourage. He felt more comfortable with his Italian courtiers such as Bolly." In El-Bishri's opinion, real power resided with the palace institution itself. "It was an influential player in the political game," he says. "Its relation with other players in the field was governed by narrow interests which were constantly in contradiction to the national interests represented by the Wafd and other popular parties of the period."

FACTS AND FIGURES: After the fire of 26 January 1952, when Cairo was burned down, the political crisis intensified. Following the expulsion of the Wafd, the King appointed four consecutive minority governments within no more than six months.

The need for change was palpable, according to El Bishri: "The British had also grown weaker and their presence was illegitimate after the abrogation of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. The only force capable of engineering change was the army. Everything was stagnant in the six months following the conflagration. In its entire modern history, and since the time of Muhammad Ali, Egypt has witnessed four major uprisings: the one that brought Muhammad Ali to power, Ahmed Urabi's movement of 1881-1882, the 1919 revolution and the Free Officers taking over in 1952. The army was integral to all but the 1919 Revolution, because it was in the Sudan between 1899 and 1924, and because 1919 was overwhelmingly popular."

But it is not as if the Free Officers took over without good reason. Nor is Farouk's designation as a patriotic nationalist free of contention. The king's connection with the British is a complex subject, and it isn't immediately clear whether he was their friend or foe. The serial shows him to be in continual conflict with the colonisers -- true enough, at some level -- but it also dumbs down the reasons behind such conflict to a misleading extent.

Evidence suggests that for most of his reign Farouk was in fact all too happy to obey the British, siding with them against the nationalist movement. He only really fell out with them when, in the conviction that the Axis powers would come out of WWII the victors, he sought to ally himself with Germany. The British responded harshly, and he was immediately back in line. It was the British, rather, who eventually grew impatient with Farouk -- so much so that when the Army Movement took over power on 23 July, they felt that any intervention to save the throne on their part would make them even more unpopular than they already were with the people. Initially neither the British nor the Americans -- the emergent international power since the end of the war, saw in the Army Movement a serious threat.

Documents from the period point to both British and Americans being all too willing to dissociate themselves from a by then widely unpopular king and take up the cause of the officers -- even competing to curry favour with them.

Eight weeks after the Army Movement, on 11 September 1952, Ralph Stevenson, then British ambassador to Cairo, receives a secret memorandum from R J Bowker at the British Foreign Office in London, in which Bowker says, "We feel that the only effective check upon the Higher Military Committee is the fear of possible British intervention. This is really the crux of the matter. The Americans seem to us to have done their best to remove this fear. By their statement of the 3rd September, followed up by their most recent statement, and by Caffery's [then US ambassador to Cairo] assiduous wooing of Naguib and the junta, they have created the impression that the US government will back the new regime whatever it does (so long as it does not introduce suspected communists into the government) and that the regime can rely upon the Americans in the last resort to prevent British military intervention."

On 17 December 1952, indeed, Ralph Stevenson alluded to "the measure of support which the Army Movement has been able to command" in his evaluation report addressed to the then British foreign minister Anthony Eden: "The successful execution of the coup d'état itself was received with astonished admiration and enthusiasm by virtually all classes, and the support for the movement in the first weeks following the assumption of power by the army was almost universal." What happened in 1952 -- irrespective of what has happened since -- was no sabotage of a rightful system, rather the inevitable response to the monarchy's failure.

Gaber has denied royalist sympathies, but many have perceived in her serial a call for restoring the monarchy -- something she has since dismissed as "irrational" in the newspaper Al-Dustour : "The monarchy has long been dead, but when we had a monarchy it was a constitutional one, and the 1923 constitution is there for everybody to read and marvel at... I do not call for a restoration of the monarchy, but the serial reflects my own understanding of the period."

Abu-Gahzai agrees that restoring the monarchy would go against the movement of history. "But," he says, "the serial has succeeded in raising the question of true democracy. It asserts that Egypt once had a significant democratic experience which has been intentionally tarnished since July 1952. Despite its shortcomings, the pre-1952 liberal experience will continue to be of great importance to our history -- a source of inspiration to all Egyptians."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 868 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Readers's corner | Press review | Culture | Sky High | Living | Sports | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map