It was March 1965 and an Egyptian man widely regarded as garish and self-indulgent was hosting a midnight supper at the Ile de France restaurant in Rome. The eatery was located on the ancient Aurelian Way near the Vatican City, and twice-divorced Farouk, 45, the erstwhile king of Egypt (and Sudan), was accompanied by a blonde female. Reports said he had just finished consuming oysters and lamb when he collapsed and died.
The one-time monarch had packed a considerable amount of living into his relatively few years. But Farouk, a father of four, had already faded into obscurity after the bloodless coup of 1952, when soon-to-be president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his Free Officers seized control of the state and transformed it into a fully fledged republic.
Farouk was born 100 years ago this month and spent 13 years in exile as he morphed from a monarch – who was part of a great dynasty that began with Muhammad Ali in 1805 – to the lampooned subject of gossip columnists.
He was effectively the last king of Egypt – if we don't include the accession of Farouk's son, Ahmed Fuad II, who, at only six months old, was constitutional monarch for less than a year (today, he is alive and well in Switzerland). Farouk died thousands of miles from home as an ousted ruler, and so his time to ruminate on his past life as ruler of an Arab kingdom was cut short. More than five decades after his death, Farouk's dramatic fall from grace remains the stuff of legend, with common perceptions of his rule as corrupt and wasteful taken as historical fact. But, in the final analysis, does Egypt's 10th ruler of the Muhammad Ali dynasty really deserve this most unflattering of reputations?
Khaled Fahmy, a professor of modern Arabic studies at the University of Cambridge, thinks he does. King Farouk was a "corpulent, corrupt head of state", says the academic. "He was a member of the Muhammad Ali dynasty, but what a contrast between the founder and the last person in that dynasty."
Fahmy says Ali had emphasised the diligence required to rule Egypt – a notion, he states, Farouk rarely took on board during his reign from 1936-1952, which encompassed great political upheaval, namely the Second World War and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Accused by his detractors of being a womaniser who lived lavishly with little regard for the millions of Arabic-speaking subjects he ruled, Farouk was only a teenager when he assumed the title of Egypt's king. He was born as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Egypt was then a British protectorate, ruled by Farouk's father, Fuad I. Farouk had attended England's Royal Military Academy in 1935, but his reputation as something of a wastrel was already beginning to take shape with reports – not least from his English tutor – suggesting that his studies came second to shopping.
The dynastic boots that Farouk had to fill at age 16 after his father's death in April 1936 must have caused some genuine trepidation. His great-great-grandfather, Muhammad Ali, was a high-ranking Albanian army officer, who, after fighting the French on behalf of the Ottomans during Napoleon Bonaparte's audacious invasion of Egypt between 1798 and 1801, occupied the resulting power vacuum by bagging the land of the pharaohs for himself as governor.
Yet, Farouk’s reign began promisingly enough when the boy-king went on radio to declare to his subjects: “I am prepared for all the sacrifices in the cause of my duty … My noble people, I am proud of you and your loyalty … We shall succeed and be happy.”
He had learnt Arabic – none of his predecessors, such as his ruler father, who was educated in Italy, had reportedly ever learnt the language – and was popular at first. But, Fahmy says, the turning point in his fortunes began in 1942. It was the middle of the Second World War and Egypt's British overlords strong-armed him into appointing a government that would be more disposed to supporting Britain's war effort, in the form of prime minister Nahas Pasha, giving credence to the view that the young king's throne could only be secured by "appeasing the British".
This episode, during which Britain surrounded the king's palace with tanks and offered Farouk the choice between abdication and appointing Nahas, appalled Egyptian nationalists. The king "had been made to eat dirt", recalled the late Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal of the incident, and "had an electrifying effect on young officers of the army" who all seethed at the humiliation imposed on their country by a foreign power.
Farouk divorced his wife of 10 years, Farida, in 1948, and his love of luxury cars and parties sat in stark contrast to the lot of the people for whom he claimed to care. The military humiliation following the creation of the state of Israel was squarely laid at the door of Farouk’s apparent ineffectual rule.
In 1951, the king married his second wife, Nariman (whom he would divorce only three years later), but he was, by then, losing his grip on the near-150-year royal dynasty. The army had long since plotted to rid themselves of a monarch who it not only held accountable for its catastrophic defeat to Israel, but who was still allied to a much-hated British regime that had dominated Egypt since it first occupied the North African state in 1882.
On July 23, 1952, the Free Officers Movement, led by General Muhammad Naguib and Nasser, ousted the 32-year-old king. It was bloodless and empathic, and three days later, Farouk and the royal family sailed aboard the yacht Mahroussa to Italy and exile. One year later, Egypt would be declared a republic – and Farouk's reputation as a wasteful, corrupt and failed monarch was effectively set in stone.
While counter-arguments to Farouk’s legacy are difficult to come by, not everyone in Egypt is so keen on giving the former king’s memory a kicking. Amr Abu Seif, for example, set up a Facebook account dedicated to Farouk in August 2011 – and it has more than five million followers. “Nobody is perfect,” says the Egyptian citizen, who established a website in honour of Farouk four years prior to his Facebook page going live. “He has both positive and negative points. But I wanted, from a historical point of view, to show the people of Egypt the positive sides of the former king.”
Seif says that during Farouk’s reign, not least in the 1940s, “Egypt was a hub of arts and culture”.
"I wanted to show the people of Egypt the bright side of that era," he says, emphasising that it is not his wish to call for the reinstatement of the Egyptian monarchy.
Seif's website, written in Arabic, offers several mitigating factors to explain Farouk's troubled legacy. These include the young age at which he assumed the immense responsibility that came with ruling both Egypt and Sudan, and the ongoing British occupation, which, Seif argues, fatally compromised his rule.
Bassil Mardelli an Egyptian-born author who wrote A King Oppressed: The Story of Farouk I of Egypt (1936-1952), shares some sympathy with Seif's sentiments, and adds that after the death of his father, Farouk's education was prematurely cut short, thrusting him into a role for which he had little worldly preparation. "He stayed at the [Royal Military Academy] for just six or seven months until his father died, and he was pulled from his studies," he says from his home in Beirut. "He was 16 at the time, whereas his ministers were over 50."