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EGYPT: Perfect Performance

6 minute read

At 7:30 one morning last week, King Farouk’s past caught up with him. He looked out of the huge window of his office in the summer palace in Alexandria, saw tanks and cannons of a hostile army —his own—advancing under cover of Egyptian Royal Air Force planes. Farouk had made and unmade Premiers and generals, manipulated the Arab League, and lost $140,000 in a single night of gambling. But last week, at the payoff, he couldn’t command a battalion. His order to the bodyguards to resist never reached them because the messenger was intercepted. A few loyal bodyguards shot up three soldiers, and with that the last remnant of Farouk’s power evaporated.

Always a realist, he accepted the ultimatum of an obscure general delivered by a turncoat politician. He abdicated, and quit Egypt within the six hours specified. As he stood on the quay to embark, his huge, beefy frame encased in a white naval uniform, tears spilled down his cheeks. Twenty-one guns fired the royal salute, and the royal yacht Mahroussa (meaning Protected) put past the harbor’s red and green entrance lights and steamed for Italy. It carried Farouk, his 19-year-old wife, their seven-month-old son, now King Fuad II, and 204 royal trunks.

The Egyptians he left behind laughed and shouted and pumped each other’s hands, Alexandria had not seen such a happy outpouring since another day 16 years ago. That day there were also Royal Air Force planes overhead and a 21-gun salute. Tall, handsome, slender King Farouk had come home from school in England (the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich), to replace his recently dead father, plump Fuad I. Wrote the New York Times correspondent: “Farouk has won the hearts of his people by his democratic manner.” Last week, the independent newspaper El Akhbar of Cairo updated the story: “Today, history records the name of an oppressive and unjust King … A King who used the influence of the monarch to flog the backs of the liberals, who imposed misery and slavery on the country and forced the country to call his tyranny justice, his corruption reform, and his immorality piety.”*

The Palestine Scandal. The indictment was overdrawn but not incorrect. Farouk, who could have been an uncommonly intelligent and able King (and occasionally was), turned out in the main to be an uncommonly gross and unrestrained one. He gave free rein to all his appetites—from women to power, and treated his Premiers as he did his girl friends, changing them constantly (five Premiers in one six-month period). After the birth of his only son he made a valiant effort to straighten up, and brought in honest Premier Hilary Pasha to purge the corruption that was endangering the government. But inevitably, Hilaly’s probings led close to Farouk’s palace gang, and the King dumped the honest Premier.

That was his fatal error. For among the dirty deals that Hilaly was tracking down was the Palestine arms scandal.

In 1948, young, alert field officers returned from the Israeli war, having suffered a more humiliating defeat than any country in the 20th century. For their defeat they blamed the inept, lazy officers who ran the War Ministry and also Farouk, for he meddled in the army, promoting the inept officers, including the worst of all, General Mohammed Haidar Pasha, the commander in chief.

The young officers, mostly majors and colonels, banded together in what they called the Free Officers’ Club, and pledged to fight for army reform. One of their members was Major General Mohammed Naguib, a sound military man who graduated from his 2½-year military-school course in nine months. Well read, he also held degrees in law and political economy. Naguib, an infantry expert, had picked up three wounds in the Israeli war, plus the Fuad I star (Egyptian equivalent of the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor).

In 1950, the Palestine arms scandal broke. Indignant officers learned that a gang of swindlers had made over 180,000 Egyptian pounds by selling the army old, defective ammunition which exploded prematurely, killing many frontline soldiers. For the young officers this was the crucial test of where Farouk stood. They looked to their King to clean up the mess. Instead, he protected his palace gang.

King v. Army. Six months ago the Free Officers, on a seemingly small matter, bucked the palace directly. Instead of allowing Farouk’s favorite, Commander in Chief Haidar Pasha, to be named president, of the Cairo Officers’ Club as was customary, the Free Officers wangled 51-year-old General Naguib into the office. Haidar Pasha raged; Farouk unwisely intervened. The issue passed from a simple clubroom dispute to an issue of a reformed army or a corrupt one. Premier Sirry Pasha begged the King to take Naguib into camp as War Minister. But Farouk was stubborn. He rebuffed Sirry, who resigned, and persuaded Hilaly, the next Premier, to appoint as War Minister the King’s amiable and unqualified brother-in-law.

That did it. The coup which had been on the planning boards for months was brushed up in an all-night session, mostly by junior officers, and Naguib, who had been reluctant to move against the King, agreed to take the leadership.

Performance was faultless. The officers of the coup called out combat units at Abbassieh barracks outside Cairo, secured the base, then swooped down on a senior officers’ meeting. Among the arrested was Naguib’s own brother, a top general. The mutineers moved into Cairo with big field guns and tanks, and cordoned off the palace and communications facilities. At 7:15 that morning the Radio Cairo news commentator stopped in midsentence. The next voice, a husky parade-ground baritone, read a communiquè from General Naguib: “Egypt has been subjected to bribery, corruption, and instability in government. All this has had a grave effect on the army. For this reason we are cleansing ourselves.”

Hilaly, who had returned to power barely 24 hours before, heard the news and quit. Into office as Premier (Farouk was now anxiously compliant) went Naguib’s choice: 68-year-old Aly Maher Pasha, a smooth politician who gets along with all factions. Naguib vowed he had no intention of going into politics, “which I leave to the politicians.”

In a few hours Aly Maher dethroned Farouk, and the Great Might Have Been sailed off, assured by his fortune of from $150 to $250 million that he would never lack a chip for baccarat. A few minutes later, the people of Egypt heard the voice of their new master: “We’ve had enough of carnivals and demonstrations,” snapped Naguib. “Today we work.” Added a young officer: “This is only the beginning.”

*None of this, of course, had Egyptian newspapers ever dared hint before, and when TIME spoke of it in moderate terms, TIME was banned.

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