As most of you know, I have spent a fair amount of time reconstructing the life of King Farouk of Egypt. Watching what is going on in Egypt today causes me great frustration because over these last five-six years I have been unable to follow through on my intention to put Farouk’s story out there into the void. Through all these years I have not been able to find anyone interested in partnering with us on producing a historical record, the absence of which I saw as contributing to a brewing crisis.
Beyond the palpable tension I felt amongst the population generally and the pitiful condition of the cities and crumbling infrastructure, one experience in particular affected me very deeply. I was talking with a couple of High School age kids from an upper middle class family, not wealthy, but privileged enough to be well-educated and able to go on to college and travel freely. Their mother was there with us and I asked them what they knew about their Egyptian history, particularly about King Farouk and his family, the Mohamed Ali Dynasty, that being; the Hundred and fifty years, from the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon at the turn of the 18th-19th century ’till the 1952 coup d’etat that drove King Farouk off the throne and into exile. What happened over that period marked the formation and modernization/westernization of what we now know as the Egyptian state. Their response was shocking. Basically, nothing. A few names perhaps and that at some point the Suez Canal was built, there had been a couple of wars, but they weren’t really clear about what Egypt’s involvement had been. Beyond that, they were sure that the Dynasty and King Farouk in particular, had been corrupt and that living conditions had been really bad for the people.
Wow, and it wasn’t just the kids. Their mother, herself having completed her Doctorate and a working professional, said that her generation hadn’t been taught much about that period either and really didn’t know very much about Egyptian history before Nasser. That period had just been scrubbed from the history books. So that’s two generations of Egyptians who didn’t know how their country was formed and didn’t know what living conditions or politics were like before 1952.
OK, moving on, I asked what they thought their future held for them, what was their vision of an ideal Egypt, what would it look like? I was met with a blank stare. “What do you mean?” they asked. They had known nothing but the Mubarak regime and this pervasive sense of hopelessness, where things would never change, it would just always be like this.
Wow, again. I just couldn’t imagine a bright, young person not having some vision of a brighter future, how it might be better if certain conditions were to change, some aspiration to prosper, a state of grace, the pursuit of happiness….
All obvious external comparisons aside, for indeed, the US is only about forty years older than the formation of the modern Egyptian state, the internal growth of a new nation held great promise for Egypt. Where the US was, to some extent, cut from whole cloth, Egypt was born out of reform.
I couldn’t help but see a connection between this young person’s lack of hope for a better future and the absence of a national history. It’s like a kind of collective amnesia; if you don’t know where you’ve been how can you know what is possible in the future?
I took this as a call to a mission. My friend, Aida O’Reilly, who introduced me to this whole new world, and I proceeded to try to reconstruct the Egypt pre-1952 as completely and accurately as possible. The picture, as it stands out there in the world generally, is largely inaccurate, incomplete and very vague. There is very little in the way of documentation or historical non-fiction, aside from the monographs of a handful of very specifically focused academics. Even there the field is full of contradiction and contention, one would not likely find any of these professors in the same room together, let alone agreeing on any cause-and-effect series of events.
The roots of the problem run deep. I often find myself making the comparison to the ancient kingdoms where, with the ascent of a new Pharaoh, they would have the cartouche of the previous ruler obliterated from the hieroglyphic document of their accomplishments. This was exactly what happened after the 1952 coup d’etat. Archives where locked and shuttered, or burned, portraits were removed to damp, moldy basements to rot, history books were collected and reissued without mention, people with memories, who hadn’t fled, were rounded up and ‘lost’ from public view. It was a state sanctioned cultural lobotomy.
Next year, July 2012, will mark 60 years out from the coup. It’s just astounding to me how quickly the sands of time shift to obliterate the past. When we first started to collect information, about five years ago, we could barely get anyone to even talk about the Mohamed Ali Dynasty. To even ask a question of a Minister, curator or archivist they would stiffen and glance over their shoulder. They would shuffle papers and suggest that they weren’t really the right person to ask. But if you asked a cab driver, a shopkeeper or a citizen seated next to you at a dinner party they would be eloquent in fabricating folkloric tales of a mythical time, a kind of Camelot, that would invariably begin with,
“ah, Farouk!” as they gently tap their heart in a gesture of deep fondness.
This fondness was not without justification, even if the tales they would tell were complete fabrications. The emblem of the Dynasty, Egypt before the coup, was a crescent moon and three stars, the stars representing the lands of Egypt, The Sudan and Darfur but they were also read as the people; Muslim, Christian and Jew. You can still see it scattered around in out-of-the-way places, just up beyond reach or on historic buildings, closed to the public. There has been a slight, and I mean slight, change in the attitude towards the Dynasty in the last few years, largely the result of a docudrama about King Farouk that was satellited into Egypt a couple of years ago. It caused something of a cultural revolt amongst the population who were seeing some of the truth about Farouk for the first time. It forced the government to open up a bit about some of the facts from Egypt’s rich, not ancient, history. I credit some of what is going on in Egypt now to this, a nod to Dr. Lamise who researched and produced that series. However, I digress, in speaking about the emblem of the Dynasty, I am recalling a poignant, personal moment of understanding about my ‘mission’.
During our last visit to Egypt, we were staying in Zamalek, a park-like district in the center of Cairo on an island in the Nile called Gezira. Vestiges of its former grandeur are everywhere apparent, now crumbling, filthy and congested, but retaining a certain charm. A couple of evenings previously there had been a water main breakage a few blocks over that had flooded a huge area causing traffic diversions and power outages that lasted for days, not an uncommon occurrence. I was out on a walk and happened to look down and notice a worn, elaborate manhole cover. As I focused in, I saw at the center of the design the crescent and three stars of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty. It was clear to me at that moment that the infrastructure of this vast, ancient city was a relic of an earlier, not so distant, era.
If you’ve been following the coverage of events in Egypt you have probably heard mention of the 1952 coup, but you will have heard nothing of what came before. That’s because there is no definitive reference that covers the period. Most of what is out there are just sketchy generalities about historic moments threaded together with calcified rumors and tabloid headlines. The most common being that the ‘regime’ was corrupt. Well please, to find lessons in corruption one really doesn’t need look much further back, in time or space, than Washington, or say, Bell, California. Clearly one of the reasons el Shaab (the people) are out in the streets in Egypt now is because of corruption. Be that as it may, I won’t attempt here to tell the whole story of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty, but there are a few interesting ‘factoids’ about those last days and months of King Farouk’s reign that are germane to the conversation.
Perhaps first and most obvious is that the ouster of King Farouk was not the result of an uprising against him by the people in the streets. It was an inside job beginning with the seizure of the Army by a small group of disgruntled officers, sanctioned and funded by the CIA. When it became clear to Farouk, through the US Ambassador, that the United States would not support him staying in power, he voluntarily abdicated in order to prevent what would have been a bloody civil war. He would not sanction Egyptian’s spilling blood on his behalf. He was very clear on this point.
In that group of officers were Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Hosney Mubarak was one of Sadat’s protégé, a direct line of succession.
I have a litany of details that shine light on Mubarak’s recent actions, connecting directly to the chain of events leading up to and immediately following the ’52 coup. Farouk’s shuffling of Cabinet Ministers, his appointing a new head of the military, wild accusations from the press that he would not respond to, and going back a little, a string of assassinations carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now history is a tricky thing. One thing I learned in trying to piece this period together is that there are major points of change that make the history books, but surrounding these particular moments in time there are seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc….filling the interstices with decisions and actions that culminate to that critical moment. One of the things I learned about Farouk was that in the 16 years that he was King, Egypt was flourishing. Yes, there was civil unrest and dissent all around him. He made mistakes and was perhaps a bit overly self-indulgent, but he was devoted to the people of Egypt and turned the country’s prosperity back into its growth and development.
One of the most frustrating things about the loss of this history is that it would provide a perfectly viable basis for reform from within Egypt’s own history. In the time of Farouk there already was a well-developed democratic, parliamentary constitution. It was a kind of grass-roots construction, begun under his grandfather, Khedive Ismail, in the mid 19th century and greatly modified and ratified under his father, King Fuad, in the early 1920’s. Yes, the King was absolute, but his power was greatly modified by a Prime Minister who represented the majority party in parliament who were voted for in their local municipalities.
I don’t really know much about the history of Egypt after the coup. What I do know is that most of the things that we know and love about Egypt are remnants of an earlier time, not what Egypt has become. Farouk’s family, however colorful in their methods, built modern Egypt from dust to where it was able to provide the education and opportunities to the people who overthrew them. The system that was put in their place siphoned off the blood of its prosperity and has left us with what we see in the streets today.
No one can predict what the outcome of the current uprising will be, but I hope someone can look to the time in Egypt’s past that showed signs of promise and growth and work from there.