Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Farouk and history

When interests trump facts, people look back and falsify history, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Many of us tend to blame regimes when historical facts get lost. But governments are not historians and it is not their job to be. Historians are the professionals tasked with chronicling what they believe are the most crucial facts in any era, determining aims and trends, and evaluating consequences.

So if anyone is to blame for lost and missing facts it is them. This region has many famed historians, from Al-Maqrizi, Al-Jabarti and Ibn Khaldun to Abdel Rahman Al-Rafie, Yunan Labib Rizk and Assem Al-Dessouqi.

On the other hand, some among us simply do not read. Then they attribute their ignorance to the regime and accuse it of falsifying history. Every regime has its own perspective on its predecessors. Often it is a negative one. But that is a political phenomenon that has nothing to do with historical scholarship.

Politicians have very little time for history and historical scholarship. Show me one history book written by one of our regimes on the regime that preceded it.

What about those school texts that every era produces to glorify current regimes and vilify previous ones, some might ask. This is a problem of the quality of education. It has nothing to do with the job of historians. To learn the facts of history we need to turn to real history books, not grade-school booklets.

I have brought this subject up because of the common tendency to yearn for a distant past. The phenomenon is one familiar to all peoples. It is a way to complain of the problems of the present by pointing to a past that they believe was golden in all respects. Indeed, archaeologists have come across inscriptions in Pharaonic tombs that speak with a wistfulness of a more remote past than that 4000-year-old “present”. Nostalgia is not just a universal phenomenon felt by people everywhere; it is a very ancient one.

The danger comes when some petty historians take it upon themselves to clear one era of the politically motivated charges heaped on it by a subsequent era, but then take this to the opposite extreme of ascribing to that earlier era virtues that it never had. We have seen something of this sort here, where some romantics hark back to the monarchic era when all our streets were clean and free of traffic jams and women were elegant and decked in the latest fashions.

Some attempts to vindicate the monarchic era have described it as democratic and its king as a philanthropist whose image was later marred by the revolution. Overlooked in these accounts were the dictatorial practices of the governments of Ismail Sidqi and Ibrahim Abdel Hadi and the fact that the king could dissolve elected governments whenever he so willed, and he so willed on many occasions and would even ignore election results if they did not bring to power the party he favoured.

The king was not alone in this. The British (who boast of their own democracy) imposed the governments they preferred not just on the people but also on the king himself. On 4 February 1942, British High Commissioner Sir Miles Lampson rolled tanks into Abdeen Palace and issued the king with an ultimatum to either appoint Mustafa Al-Nahhas as prime minister or abdicate. It is said that this incident broke King Farouk who, from then onwards, let everything slide until corruption and chaos prevailed, to the degree that the first half of 1952 brought six governments in just as many months.

The romantic historians also forget that while it is true that demands for the British evacuation and for agrarian reform had preceded the revolution, it is equally true that King Farouk’s dissolute behaviour predated the revolution. Tales of the young king’s visits to nightclubs such as L’Auberge and gambling casinos such as that in the Automobile Club were legion among the people well before the revolution.

Some attempts to defend Farouk go to absurd lengths, such as to suggest that the Nasserist revolutionary regime conspired to murder him to prevent his return to power. Last week, Al-Masry Al-Youm featured an enjoyable interview conducted by Fadi Fransis with the last living female companion of Farouk in exile, the opera singer Irma Capece Minutolo.

Capece Minutolo claims that she was married to Farouk, but that she lost her marriage certificate. In her interview, she said that he loved women (he died in the arms of another woman) and she affirmed that he never touched alcohol (which is also true). However, she denied absolutely that he was killed or that there was anything suspicious about his death. His family members believed likewise and refused to have an autopsy conducted on his body.

Farouk died in Italy in March 1965.

The new regime in Egypt was at the apogee of its success. Time magazine of 26 March 1965 reported that in the same week that Farouk died Abdel-Nasser was re-elected president by an unprecedented majority. The magazine added that Abdel-Nasser was “no less authoritarian than Farouk” but that in his 12 years of rule he had achieved great economic progress, which was what mattered most to the people.

“Industrial production in Egypt rose from $753 million in 1952 to over $2 billion this year. The volume of exports has quadrupled. Textile production rose from $204 million to $660 million. Land reclamation that stood at 5,000 acres in Farouk’s era has now reached the rate of 150,000 acres. The national budget is three times as large as it was. Per capita income during the past 12 years has risen from $120 to $180.”

According to the US magazine, the king’s life in exile was a continuation of the life of fun and pleasure he had known in Egypt: late-night escapades, gambling, womanising. It is said that all the prostitutes in Rome knew him by name, the magazine wrote.

In short, the revolutionary regime in Egypt was at the height of its popularity at the time of Farouk’s death. It had nothing to fear from the pleasure-seeking exile in Italy. Talk about a possible return to power says more about the authors of such notions and their inability to grasp the historical dynamics of the time.

I personally believe that Farouk, whom the people loved at the outset of his reign, was the victim of many circumstances, some political, others personal.

However, to attempt to cast him as a virtuous philanthropist and to blame the revolutionary regime for vilifying him, distorting the history of his rule and then killing him to prevent his return to power, is the ultimate in falsifying history.

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