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King Farouk I: Egypt's Decadent Monarch

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Totally unsuited and ill-prepared, Farouk inherited the throne of Egypt in 1936 at the age of 16. He was skilled at being a wastrel and womanizer, but not much else. His penchant for indulging his lavish lifestyle led to his removal in a coup in 1952.

King Farouk I.

King Farouk I.

The Muhammad Ali Dynasty

At the start of the 19th century, an Ottoman army was sent to push Napoleon out of Egypt. The Ottoman force was under the command of Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Albanian mercenary.

With Napoleon gone, Muhammad Ali formed an alliance with Egyptians who had resisted French occupation. In so doing, he created a power base that forced the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II to recognize him as the de facto ruler of Egypt. So began the Muhammad Ali dynasty.

As the Ottoman Empire decayed, Muhammad Ali emerged as the main regional power. He conquered Sudan and began modernizing Egypt, handing over a strong and powerful state to his successors, until it landed in the untrained hands of Farouk I.

Farouk's Early Years

On February 11, 1920, Farouk arrived in this world, the only son of King Faud I of Egypt and his wife Nazli Sabri. He was born into a family of immense wealth in a country where the vast majority of the population was mired in poverty. At the time, Egypt and Sudan were British protectorates, and, by a treaty in 1922, the king had considerable power.

Faud was a highly controlling man who kept his son confined to the palace in which the family lived. However, Farouk was the centre of everybody's attention. When servants kiss the ground upon which you stand before kissing your hand you are likely to develop a heightened sense of self importance. So it was with young Farouk.

Portrait of young Farouk.

Portrait of young Farouk.

Tutors were brought in to educate the monarch-in-waiting, but the teachers quickly noticed something about their royal student—he was not remotely interested in learning anything. One of his tutors, Sir Edward Ford, described his student as “totally incapable of concentration.”

Faud decided his son should attend Britain's esteemed Eton College, a place that royals everywhere sent their sons to be educated. However, young Farouk foiled his father's plans by failing the entrance exam.

That mattered little because, on April 28, 1936, King Faud succumbed to a fatal heart attack. At 16, the poorly educated teenager became the ruler of Egypt and Sudan.

Farouk is “uneducated, lazy, untruthful, capricious, irresponsible and vain, though with a quick superficial intelligence and charm of manner.”

— Sir Miles Lampson, the British high commissioner to Egypt in 1937

King Farouk's Rule

On his return to Egypt, huge crowds greeted the new king, but his popularity honeymoon lasted mere months. He gave a radio broadcast to the people of Egypt: “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 certainly intended to be personally happy and had no plans to make any sacrifices.

His libertine instincts came to the fore quickly. He bought a red Bentley car and decreed that nobody in Egypt was to own a vehicle in the same colour.

Farouk and his mother, Dowager Queen Nazli, started casting about for a wife for the young king. Farouk's taste leaned heavily towards teenage girls and the unfortunate female picked out of the herd was 15-year-old Safinaz Zulficar; young and naïve she ought to be easy to control.

On her 16th birthday, the king attended her party and proposed publicly. He renamed Safinaz Farida because he thought names starting with “F” promised good fortune; it seemed to have worked for him. The wedding, befitting Farouk's taste, was opulent and gaudy.

What Farida learned was what other unsuspecting young women learned when they were dazzled by a proposal of marriage to a royal—her job was to produce a male heir, while the king cavorted with his many mistresses. But, Farida didn't keep her end of the bargain; she kept producing girls that angered Farouk who wanted sons.

Not having a clear grasp of biology he, like many Egyptians, believed that if he couldn't father sons there must be something amiss with his virility. Farouk became unhinged by his obsession over producing a son and his marriage went off the rails. Farida sought comfort in the arms of another, Simon Elwes, a suave British artist.

And then—gosh, golly, crikey—Farida was with child and Farouk had reason to believe he was not the father. Danged if another daughter turned up, but Farouk now had other concerns.

And, to the king and queen a female child was born, which accounts for the king's lack of exuberance.

And, to the king and queen a female child was born, which accounts for the king's lack of exuberance.

War Comes to Egypt

Farouk had always had admiration for Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, an attitude that did not go down well with Egypt's British overlords. When North Africa became a Second World War battlefield, Britain pressured Farouk to appoint a government that was sympathetic to the Allied cause.

The young king balked at being pushed around by the British, so his palace was surrounded by tanks in an effort to persuade him to be more cooperative. He was given an ultimatum: appoint a Brit-friendly government or abdicate.

Farouk did not like the prospect of giving up his luxurious lifestyle, so he caved. Alasdair Soussi, writing for The National, commented “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.” (We'll hear more from these officers later).

Perhaps, feeling that being pushed around by a colonial power was another affront to his fragile manhood, Farouk returned to his hedonistic ways with renewed vigour.

“Farouk never wrote a letter, never read a paper, never listened to music. His idea of culture was movies.”

— Irene Guinle, one of Farouk's many mistresses

The Hedonism of King Farouk I

Farouk's Italian valet, Antonio Pulli, was sent to comb the brothels and dance halls of Cairo for fair-skinned women with whom he could have sex. Between times, there were mistresses of a slightly higher class.

He divorced Queen Farida in 1948 and went about his merry way.

He made frequent trips aboard his yacht. The vessel was sumptuous when compared with the lives of the vast majority of Egyptians who still lacked indoor plumbing.

Aboard the yacht was the usual bevy of young women ready to cater to the king's every whim. The voyages took him to the south of France or Italy where he could indulge his love of parties, rich food, and shopping.

In 1951, he married 18-year-old Narriman Sadek and she presented him with a baby boy. Prince Faud briefly became king of Egypt before the monarchy was abolished in 1953. Narriman divorced Farouk in 1954; fed up with his constant infidelities.

Ex-queen Narriman and the very corpulent Farouk with their son King Faud II in 1953.

Ex-queen Narriman and the very corpulent Farouk with their son King Faud II in 1953.

The Downfall of Farouk

While his royal highness was cavorting elsewhere, his popularity at home was plummeting and a group of army officers began plotting to get rid of the playboy king. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser led a group that called itself the Free Officers and they decided to strike on the night of July 23, 1952.

Farouk suspected a revolt was brewing but, true to his nature, he was enjoying a champagne and caviar party. About 200 officers and 3,000 soldiers quickly took control of Cairo and by July 26, Farouk was barricaded in his Ras el-Tin palace in Alexandria and facing an ultimatum; abdicate or the soldiers outside will be ordered to attack and execute you.

In tears, the king signed his abdication papers and boarded the royal yacht Mahroussa, before setting sail for Naples. Richard Cavendish (History Today) writes that “He had to leave a thousand suits and his pornographic necktie collection behind, but with him went crates labelled champagne and whisky which had been surreptitiously packed with gold bars.”

The precious metal ensured he would be able to pass his time in comfortable extravagance. On March 18, 1965, the ex-king was dining with a 22-year-old blonde in Rome's fashionable Ile de France restaurant when he collapsed and died. He was just 45 years old.

No autopsy was performed. This has given rise to numerous rumours that he was poisoned by the Egyptian secret service because his debauchery and scandalous behaviour had become a national embarrassment. We'll never know the truth.

Bonus Factoids

  • After his abdication, Farouk observed “The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left—the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds.”
  • Farouk was the first and only member of the Muhammed Ali dynasty to learn Arabic.
  • In addition to his other failings, Farouk was a kleptomaniac. His most famous theft was Winston Churchill's pocket watch that he stole while at dinner with the British prime minister. Churchill noticed that his family heirloom timepiece was missing and a great hue and cry was raised. The fuss was such that Farouk sheepishly returned it, claiming he had found it.
  • King Faud II lives quietly in Switzerland and, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, mourns the loss of the monarchy and lives in hope that Egypt will restore it one day.

Sources

  • “Debauched Facts About Farouk of Egypt, the King of the Night.” factinate.com, undated.
  • “Farouk, the Last King of Egypt: A Monarch who Was Dapper yet Divisive.” Alasdair Soussi, The National, February 27, 2020.
  • “The Abdication of King Farouk.” Richard Cavendish, History Today, July 7, 2002.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor