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Revisiting the Avaricious, Lustful, Greedy, Fat King Farouk

The slothful Egyptian sovereign might not have been a Kennedy, but his downfall led to even worse.

FDR with King Farouk on Return from Yalta in 1945.(Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Consider a Middle Eastern country. Its most powerful man is a firm patriot exceedingly popular with the masses, profoundly skeptical of communism, and entirely capable of befriending America if only his better instincts can be appealed to. Treated by Washington with some sort of respect, he could be a useful national rallying point against the Soviet hazard. But such far-sightedness is altogether too much for mischief-making spooks to contemplate. Within months he has been hurled from power, leaving a legacy of detestation for America and all its works that endures almost 70 years on.

Which Middle Eastern country and which ruler are we talking about? The Iran that Mohammad Mossadeq governed until 1953? No: the Egypt that King Farouk governed until 1952.

An ex-officio tragedy clings to the last member of any monarchical house (in Farouk’s case, the last adult member, since his infant son Fuad theoretically reigned for a year after Farouk had fled). Yet Farouk’s undoing—hastened by the CIA program crudely known as “Operation Fat F**ker”—has an especial significance, not least for the shadows that it would cast on the Cold War’s future. Had Farouk stayed in control, it is impossible to imagine Gamal Abdel Nasser bringing the world to Armageddon’s brink in the Suez War of 1956. Accordingly, Farouk’s disgrace and exile are no mere cause for moist Ruritanian compunction, legitimate though that feeling probably is. Rather, they continue to help determine the front pages of our newspapers. Farouk, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, remains a figure at once sad, exasperating, and humbling to contemplate. We should ask ourselves how we would have fared in his position (alternately choking on the incense of outlandish flattery and quailing at the dangers of conspiratorial spite) before we rush to deride him.

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Two long out-of-print volumes do Farouk something like justice: A King Betrayed (1989), by the monarch’s cousin A.M. Sabit, written with first-hand experience of Farouk’s doings; and Too Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk (1991), by journalist William Stadiem. Both are worth seeking out, the former for its unpretentious veracity, the latter for its unshockable prose style, which suggests an improbably productive pact between Taki Theodoracopulos and Hunter S. Thompson.

Farouk, despite his birth in Cairo on February 11, 1920, had more Albanian and Turkish than Egyptian ancestry. His father, Fuad I, had not even bothered to make himself fluent in Arabic. Farouk, by contrast, displayed even as a child a natural competence in languages. He would master Arabic, French, English, and Italian with equal ease.

Linguistic flair often cohabits with laziness in every other aspect of intellectual or cultural life, and such laziness, it must be admitted, was Farouk’s default mode. Like most young males in every age, he exerted himself only in subjects that appealed to him, eschewing disinterested mental effort. (His closest approach to philosophical discourse consisted of throwing bread at passers-by, in the heroic tradition of Bertie Wooster and Bingo Little at the Drones Club.) If Farouk ever read a book from cover to cover, history has not recorded the feat. A subsequent mistress, Irene Guinle, astringently commented: “He had three telephones by his bed…[and would] ring up his so-called friends at three in the morning and invite them to come over to his palace to play cards.” Still, even she credited him with “impeccable manners.”

This was more than could be said for the six-feet-five-inches Sir Miles Lampson, who held most of the real power in Cairo once Farouk (in 1936) had succeeded Fuad I on the throne. Theoretically no more than British high commissioner to Egypt, Lampson acted with a Cromwellian brand of tyrannical egotism. The fact that he habitually and openly referred to Farouk as “Boy” says it all.

Lampson’s boorishness (predictably he never mastered Arabic) might have had some vague justification if the British Empire in 1936 had been anything more than the wreckage of a nice idea. No such luck. Any chance of continued imperial vigor had been eliminated through the 1914-1918 mass-suicide by which Britain got as much as possible of its ruling class—and thus its empire-administering class—exterminated on the Western Front. Moreover, Lampson labored under the delusion that if only he could humiliate Farouk enough, then an appreciative Whitehall administration would give him the job that he really craved: the viceroyalty of India. He affected stunned surprise when “Boy” Farouk, full of hormones and self-confidence, seethed under such disdainful treatment.

The year of Farouk’s accession being also the year of Mussolini’s Abyssinian triumph, Lampson dreaded the potential influence of Farouk’s Italian-dominated camarilla. Unfortunately for Lampson’s chauvinistic posturing, he himself had a Roman-born wife. Which inconvenient truth gave Farouk the pretext for one of his better jokes: “I’ll get rid of my Italians,” he told the disgusted Lampson, “when you get rid of yours.”

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Farouk’s slothful good nature, taste for millionaires’ company, and fundamental philosemitism (his favorite mistresses were Jewish) militated against his admiring the Third Reich. On the other hand, Farouk happily enough used Hitler as a bogeyman with which to alarm Britain. At a meeting with Churchill in 1942, Farouk—in a gesture worthy of reverence by paleocons everywhere—surreptitiously pilfered the British prime minister’s watch. A local robber, grateful for a royal pardon, had taught him the requisite conjuring trick.

Abstracting timepieces from exposed wrists assumes a steady nerve, which Farouk indubitably still had. He needed it. The victims of Muslim Brotherhood assassins between 1945 and 1949 included not only Cairo police chief Selim Zaki Pasha, but also two Egyptian prime ministers: Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud El Nokrashy. Nevertheless the monarch himself looked safe. While ordinary Egyptians in the street might have loathed most politicians, they continued to cheer Farouk.

Besides, Lampson made the mistake that almost everyone else in the Western world made during 1945: assuming that Churchill would coast to victory in the first postwar British election. After voters cheerfully forsook Churchill in favor of Clement Attlee, Farouk took great pleasure in appealing to Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin over Lampson’s head. The maneuver worked. Attlee wanted to dissolve the British Empire as soon as possible—in 1946-1947, he had Irgun terrorists as well as Congress Party separatists to contend against—and under no circumstances would he let Lampson rule any imperial domain. Perforce, a furiously disillusioned Lampson (by this time ennobled as Baron Killearn) handed over his ambassadorial office to Attlee’s preferred candidate, Sir Ronald Ian Campbell.

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The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 hurt Farouk’s cause badly. Ignoring all recent lessons about the rapid movement of armored divisions, the Egyptian army’s strategists sent in (Sabit’s own words) “teams of infantry with fixed bayonets—these then being mown down by well-entrenched Jewish settlers armed with heavy-duty machine-guns.”

Historians continue to debate the extent to which Nasser, his front man Muhammad Neguib, and the other leaders of the Free Officers’ Movement acted consciously on CIA orders to force Farouk out. But it is certain that without the CIA, they would hardly have dared act at all. Even when they did act, it was the damnedest close-run thing. To quote afresh from Sabit, who witnessed many of the relevant events: “If Farouk had, that first morning of the coup d’état [July 23, 1952], taken his car and driven straight to the Alexandria Garrison Headquarters at Mustapha Pasha Barracks, he would have been able to assume command of a substantial military force which considerably outnumbered the Cairo rebels. …But he preferred to remain inactive.”

Politically inactive, yes; but not personally so. In extremis, Farouk demonstrated the raw physical courage that many voluptuaries amaze their foes by exhibiting. With his own hunting rifle, he killed no fewer than four enemy soldiers before being persuaded that his surrender alone could prevent further bloodshed. He earned many epithets, but “coward” was not among them.

Nor was “ingrate.” In 1946, Farouk had offered sanctuary to the Italian ex-kings Victor Emmanuel III and Humbert II. Now Italy provided Farouk with asylum. In Naples and—above all—Rome, his generosity to any crook, freeloader, and fantasist who crossed his path continued to get the better of him. So did his ravenous appetite. Already plump as a youngster, he grew almost spherical after abandoning Egypt. The dolce vita grew ever less dolce, ever more deathly.

On March 18, 1965, the 45-year-old Farouk breathed his last in a Rome hospital, having suffered a massive seizure a few hours beforehand at the nearby Île de France restaurant. Perhaps simple obesity, chain-smoking, and excessive consumption of carbohydrates finished him off, but many Egyptians believed, and some continue to believe, that Nasser had had the ex-monarch poisoned.

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Upon Farouk’s death, The New York Times (forever willing to subsidize Stalinist mythomaniacs like Walter Duranty, Castroite mythomaniacs like Herbert Matthews, and race-hustling mythomaniacs like Jayson Blair) officially pronounced the deceased sovereign beyond the moral pale: “One could pile up pejorative adjectives like sybaritic, avaricious, lustful, greedy, to reach a contemptible total. Farouk ended up in luxurious exile, caring nothing for Egypt or the impoverished Egyptian people. The epitaph for King Farouk has to be bitter and contemptuous.”

Truth to tell, Farouk engaged in sexual vices no more and no less outrageous than those which successive Kennedys have practiced without thus incurring the smallest New York Times censure. Stadiem’s conclusion that Farouk sinned chiefly by being fat and bald—instead of lean, Ivy League-schooled, immaculately coiffed, and resplendently toothed—is hard to dispute.

Even harder to dispute is Stadiem’s other conclusion: that the modern Pentagon mania for misinterpreting every Middle Eastern conflict in terms of 1776 brings disaster wherever it has been attempted. Daniel Larison has repeatedly demonstrated how in reality, this hubris (which this magazine was founded specifically to combat) typifies Trump no less than his predecessors. For so long as it lasts, America’s policymakers will continue deserving the bitter aphorism that Ngo Dinh Diem’s sister-in-law hurled at them: “Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies.”

R.J. Stove, based in Melbourne, has been a contributing editor at TAC since 2004.

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