In 1938, King Farouk I of Egypt, then aged 18, summoned the officer-in-charge of Egypt’s military museum, Mohammad Naguib, 38, for a presentation of its finest exhibits. The young king wore shorts and sandals, while Naguib was dressed in full military attire.
Farouk asked Naguib to bring him the oldest rifle in Egypt, since he wanted it for his private collection. Little could the king have known that, 14 years later, this same officer would lead the revolution that would topple him and bring down the Egyptian throne.
The terms of departure
On that fateful day of 23 July 1952, when Egypt’s monarchy screeched to a halt, King Farouk I set out a series of conditions before abandoning the crown. The first was that his abdication letter be written on official stationery.
His friend, President Shukri al-Quwatli of Syria, had been forced to write his resignation on a small scrap of paper in 1949 and Farouk wanted to make sure that his was different – a resignation fit for a king.
Second, he asked for a Guard of Honour to greet him at the gates of the royal palace and for a 21-cannon salute to ring round the skies of Cairo. Third, he wanted Egyptian destroyers to accompany him into territorial waters.
Finally, he wanted the leader of the Free Officers, Mohammad Neguib, to escort him onboard the royal ship El-Mahrousa before it sailed to Napoli. Neguib accepted them all except the ships’ escort and Farouk signed his abdication.
A fit of nerves, he erroneously signed it twice – once at the bottom of the page, once on top. General Naguib boarded El Mahrousa, saluting the ex-king. This time, both wore military uniform, Farouk in the fatigues of a Navy Admiral.
In his memoirs, Neguib recalled the dramatic encounter. “Silence passed,” he wrote. “It was heavy silence...like a mountain. It was humanly difficult to bid farewell to a king who had owned everything and ruled everything until a few days ago.
“He could have arrested me or killed me. The silence that overcame both of us continued, making words immobile on our lips. Farouk noticed that Gamal Salem (one of the Free Officers) was holding a stick while standing in front of him.
“He pointed to him and said, ‘Drop your stick.’ Gamal Salem tried to object but I ordered him to stop. Farouk turned to me and said: ‘Your duty is very difficult. It won’t be easy to rule Egypt.’”
A poisoned chalice
These were the king’s final words before he left Egypt in the summer of 1952, never to return. His prophesy has proven true - four of his six successors would suffer miserable fates.
One was Naguib himself. After just two years in power, he was toppled and put under house arrest for 17 long years by none other than his trusted friend, Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Egypt’s third president, Anwar al-Sadat, would be killed in October 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, would be overthrown and jailed in February 2011. The same fate would await the next leader, Mohammad Morsi, in 2013.
Farouk himself died at the relatively young age of 45, collapsing at a French restaurant in Rome on 18 March 1965 after a lavish meal of oysters and lamb.
Although his formal abdication was in favour of his infant son Ahmad Fouad, it was largely symbolic. No other king would ever rule Egypt after him.
Enjoying auspicious beginnings
Farouk I was born at Abidin Palace in eastern downtown Cairo on 11 February 1920, his birthday becoming a national celebration (ironically, it would be celebrated many years later, when Hosni Mubarak resigned in 2011).
He was the tenth monarch of the Mohammad Ali Dynasty that had ruled Egypt since the early 1800s and was the son of King Fouad I.
His grandfather had been Khedive Ismail, a forward-looking ruler credited with Egypt’s cultural renaissance in the 19th century. He was the man who built the Suez Canal, which landed Egypt in so much debt that he would be eventually overthrown and exiled - just like Farouk.
Under the towering influence of his ancestors and his father the king, Farouk had a strict upbringing, with tutors hired from Europe and Istanbul to train him in mathematics, geography, and world history.
He had to forego the ‘privileges’ of other young Egyptian children - no school, no friends, little interaction with anybody beyond the nannies, courtiers, and palace aides. He only visited the Great Pyramids of Giza after becoming king in 1936.
He grew up in a troubled household. Love was totally absent between his mother, Queen Nazli, and his father the king. Nazli was Fouad’s second wife after a failed marriage to Princess Shivakiar, who bore him only a daughter and no male heir.
Queen Nazli Sabri of Egypt. Photographed in 1920. pic.twitter.com/u3qPBLKYrg— WikiVictorian (@wikivictorian) March 1, 2022
An Ottoman aristocrat who spoke impeccable French, culturally and socially Nazli was far more refined than her husband. She was also much younger, 20 years his junior. After 17 years of marriage, Nazli finally gave birth to a male heir, but reportedly shed no tears when King Fouad died in 1936.
Farouk was sent to study at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich in London, staying at a small house in the Surrey countryside where, rather than attend class, he spent his time shopping, driving fast cars, and womanising.
When King George V died on 20 January 1936, Farouk attended his funeral at Westminster Abbey, in his capacity as heir to the Egyptian throne. Three months later, Fouad died, on 28 April 1936. Aged 16, Farouk was automatically proclaimed king, but only coronated in July 1937, after his coming-of-age.
A good start despite the odds
According to William Stadiem, author of ‘Too Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk’, the young monarch inherited $100 million, five palaces, 200 cars, two yachts, and 30,000 hectares of agricultural land along the Nile.
Stadiem wrote: “No pharaoh, no Mamlouk, no Khedive, ever began a reign with such questionable, enthusiastic goodwill as King Farouk, and none was as unprepared to rule.
“Here was a completely sheltered, virtually uneducated sixteen-year-old, expected to fill the spats of his wily, politically astute father in a loaded tug-of-war between nationalism, imperialism, constitutionalism, and monarchy.”
King Farouk addressed the nation in a live radio broadcast, winning hearts and minds by speaking directly to the people as no Egyptian king had done before, certainly not through radio, nor in such well-versed classical Arabic.
He had a deep, warm voice, unlike his father, who rarely spoke publicly owing to a lack or oratory skills and terrible Arabic.
From Day One, the young king’s reign was marked with several main challenges that would haunt him until the curtain fell, namely the British, the Wafd Party, and his mother, Queen Nazli.
The challenge of Miles Lampson
Miles Lampson had been appointed British ambassador to Egypt in 1934. He hated Farouk and the feeling was mutual. He tried to control the young king’s actions with colonial advise and paternal recommendations that Farouk found both rude and condescending.
Although the Free Officers would later accuse Farouk of being pro-British, in truth he was never an Anglophile. In fact, he despised the British, none more so than Miles Lampson.
Another who raised Lampson’s ire was Antonio Pullo, an electrician-turned-tutor to Farouk, and later the king’s special advisor. Lampson and Pullo were in competition for the young king’s ear.
Pullo had accompanied the king since childhood and counselled that for him to really rule, he had to get rid of Lampson. For the British diplomat, his concern was the spread of Italian influence in Egypt, especially with Benito Mussolini occupying neighbouring Libya and expanding into Ethiopia.