By Tanya GoudsouzianMadrid
In 1999, a referendum was held in Egypt to determine whether or not the people wanted presidential elections. It came as no surprise when the results confirmed that Hosni Mubarak’s tenure would continue unchallenged. Asked whether this meant that Mubarak would be president until his death, a journalist from the state-controlled Al Gomhoriya (The Republic) newspaper replied wearily: “No, he will be president until WE die!”
At a time when successive governments’ efforts to bring lasting peace and prosperity to the Middle East – whether through nationalism, socialism or liberal enterprise – seem to have failed, some have started to look back nostalgically at the “golden days” of monarchical rule. Still, can one realistically expect a political comeback for the progeny of exiled Egyptian (or other Middle Eastern) royals in the manner of Spain or Bulgaria?
“It was a different age. Cairo was like Europe. It was clean and smart and the people were well mannered and respectable and everyone knew his place exactly…” declares Zaki Bey, the aging playboy aristocrat in Alaa Al Aswany’s bestselling novel “The Yacoubian Building”, whose recent film adaptation took Egypt and the rest of the Arab World by storm for tackling taboo political and social issues with shocking candor.
Prince Osman Rifaat Ibrahim was barely two years old when his family was forced to leave his native Egypt, after the Free Officers’ revolution in 1952. As members of the dynasty of Mohamed Ali, founder of modern Egypt, they had become persona non grata. Ibrahim’s father, Prince Amr Ibrahim, was blacklisted as a potential threat to the new order. He had been a high commander of the Special Police during World War II and enjoyed a great deal of support among certain circles. As a grandson of Mohamed Ali’s eldest son, he was viewed as a contender for the throne.
In an interview at his flat in a chic district of Madrid, which is furnished tastefully with Oriental tapestry, antiques and images of his illustrious ancestors, Ibrahim confessed that he does not have any real memories of pre-revolution Egypt – apart from “glimpses of the garden of our house in Maadi”. But, growing up in exile in Europe among other Egyptian aristocrats, he claims to have always had a sense of the city he left behind. In 1985, a few years after President Anwar Sadat restored their passports, Ibrahim visited Egypt for the first time since their forcible exile.
“The atmosphere had been described to me so well that it felt like I had never left,” recounted Ibrahim, who is co-author of “Mehemet Ali Le Grand¨ (The Great Mohamed Ali), published in Paris, France, and in Cairo, Egypt, in 2005. “But certainly the country had changed. The city was falling apart. And you could see the onset of what has happened in most Middle Eastern cities today… The unruly constructions, which destroy everything of what used to be a very nice city.”
During this trip to Cairo, and his subsequent visit in 1993, he had conversations with Egyptians from all walks of life to gauge their views.
“The minute they understood who I was, they started to be very disagreeable to the actual regime,” he said. “The sentiments were not so much pro-monarchy, but they were certainly nostalgic…”
‘NOTHING MORE THAN MAMLUKS’
When Islamic fundamentalists killed Sadat, they said that they had killed “the Pharaoh”. President Hosni Mubarak was famously called “the Sphinx” in a scathing editorial by Thomas Friedman, the notoriously anti-Arab critic of the New York Times, in 2000. While some Middle East analysts have praised Mubarak for playing a balancing act between the conflicting forces in his country, he has also been severely castigated for his reluctance to institute an acceptable mechanism for succession. For his part, Ibrahim calls Mubarak and other Arab politicians with military backgrounds and dynastic ambitions, “nothing more than Mamluks”.
“These people can be, and I will say it negatively – because there was a positiveness to the Mamluks of old – but these people are nothing more than Mamluks. Some of these officers, like in the past, have tendencies to believe that they can create dynasties within republican regimes, which is something totally paradoxical. They are doing exactly the opposite of what they came for,” he said.
Ibrahim points out that Mubarak’s recent speeches contain notable references to Mohamed Ali as the founder of modern Egypt, and Khedive Ismail as one of the great rulers. He believes that this is an attempt by the Egyptian President to muster some legitimacy, at a time when he is being accused of grooming his son to succeed him in the same way that the late Hafez Al Assad handed over the Syrian presidency to his son Bashar. While these allegations have been vehemently denied by Mubarak and his son, a putative successor, a clear mechanism for succession has yet to be specified.
“Unlike Syria, Egypt is a country of thousands of years and a nation as such with a population of 70 million people. I think that it could be quite difficult for a president of the republic in Egypt to try to push his son,” opined Ibrahim. “Bashar [Al Assad] is a front for the Allawis, who are a minority in Syria. This is not the case in Egypt, and I do not think that Mubarak’s fellow officers would accept his son taking over.”
However the succession issue is resolved, Ibrahim views Egypt’s “Mamluk” regime as a “failure”.
“They tried nationalism, it failed. They tried socialism, it failed. They have tried liberal enterprise and it is failing. Sadat and Mubarak have under the table helped the Muslim Brotherhood, so now there is a religious problem in Egypt, which is only aggravating matters,” he lamented. ¨Frankly, the Brotherhood is not going to help solve Egypt´s problems any more than the other approaches...¨
Moreover, Ibrahim observed that 25 years of socialism have completely changed the nature of civil society in Egypt.
“The [Gamal Abdel] Nasser years were catastrophic. There might be good things to say about Fidel Castro, but you can say that Nasser’s Egypt ended up a bit like Cuba, except that there might have been some positive things that happened in Cuba,” said Ibrahim. “In Egypt, during the Nasser years, except for useless wars, all lost, and regression of the power of the people, maybe the agricultural laws, which were put in, were good for the people. But even that, they couldn’t take advantage of it. I believe it
changed the mentality of the people. The cadre, the elites are all leaving. They left in 1953, they left in 1956 and 1961… They continue to leave, as soon as they arrive to something, which enables them to leave.”
THE SPANISH MODEL
Asked what he thought was the solution to this quagmire, Ibrahim mused: “Somehow, this country should have normal elections with normal established parties. But how do you organize such a thing?”
He cited the example of Spain, which successfully reinstated its monarchy following a devastating civil war and an era of “fascist” dictatorial rule. As a result, it now enjoys a viable democratic system and sustained economic growth.
“The dictator [Generalisimo Francisco Franco]… chose the actual king [Juan Carlos de Borbon] as his successor to reestablish democracy in the country and it worked. [If this were done in Egypt] it might make people smile, but I believe that especially the youth, with whom I have talked a lot, would receive it well,” said Ibrahim.
While he concedes that the debauched last days of King Farouk’s reign no doubt damaged the legitimacy of the Egyptian monarchy, he stresses that much of the shocking reports (including corruption, kleptomania, and insanity) which contributed to destroying the deposed monarch, were vastly exaggerated by British and American agents.
“Part of it was how it was described, but the rest of it was exaggerated by the British and Americans at the time to completely discredit the family. From one day to another, they turned their policy around,” he said, recalling that in the early 1950s, King Farouk had been hailed as TIME magazine’s Man of the Year. “And then, it changed. He became a ‘despot’. His image changed within a few months or a year. Of course, he had been negative, but it was also quite increased.”
This mode of operation was also applied in Afghanistan in 1929, when British agents (disguised as Pashtun tribesmen) waged a covert campaign on the ground to turn popular opinion against their forward-thinking monarch, King Amanullah, who had sought to modernize his predominantly tribal country, and had declared independence from British influence.
Ibrahim’s father, who died in 1977, was convinced that the monarchy fell in Egypt because the king and the Wafd Party, which was in power at the time, were playing a role, which was too independent for Anglo-American interests, and were headed toward confrontation with the state of Israel.
“The belief that Nasser would eventually make some kind of arrangement with Israel was very high in the thought of those who brought him to power,” said Ibrahim. “Until 1955 or 1956, Nasser was totally pro-American. It was the Anglo-French operation in Suez, which made him change.”
The British and the Americans were afraid of the instability brewing in the country at the time, and there was an acute belief in the danger of the Soviet Union. There was also the question of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, which Britain wanted detached from Egypt. Nahas Pasha, who had been elected Wafd leader, was trying to bring Sudan back to the crown of Egypt. Moreover, there were still British troops in the canal and Nahas Pasha was pushing for the removal of these troops, calling for a full severance of the links, which was going against Anglo-American policy in the region to build some kind of defense system against the Soviet Union.
“The British made several statements to members of the families, that they should try to do something from above, before something happens from below,” said Ibrahim. “The American ambassador before the one who brought Nasser to power, was very pro-monarchy. This ambassador was replaced by a group of people who were basically there to take care of the overthrow of the monarchy. As a matter of fact, the American ambassador at the time was calling Nasser and his officers ‘my boys’.”
Ibrahim surmised that, much like the “US-led coalition” in Iraq and Afghanistan today, “in order to better control the region, [the Anglo-American alliance] had to bring their own people, whom they could control more easily than kings.”
“Egypt, being the largest country and the only nation of the region, was the first one on the list for ‘regime change’,” he said. “One must not forget that Egypt was the only parliamentary monarchy in the region, with a constitution, which was based on the Belgium model. It had political parties and elections, which had been going on for a long time. And while the Wafd Party was in power and effectively ruling the country, the king served as the guarantor of the constitution, due to the fact that the throne had a
certain respect in the country.”
According to Ibrahim, the revolution of 1952 was “the first step toward the destabilization of the whole region.”
ECHOES FROM THE PAST
Perhaps nostalgic for his ancestral rule, he explained that the monarchies in the region that survived, did so because they never attempted to steer away from British or American influence.
“Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Sauds, the Hashemites, the Sabahs in Kuwait, all these dynasties were brought there by the British to counter the Ottoman Turks. The only one which was not was the Egyptian monarchy,” said Ibrahim.
Still, the monarchies, which did survive the wave of Western imposed “regime change”, have played a positive role in keeping their countries in one piece, observed Ibrahim, citing The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as a prime example.
“For a country, which is a new country, the dynasty of the Hashemites has certainly been positive because they have been the guarantors of the existence of that country, unlike the Egyptian dynasty, which was a parliamentary democracy. If the late King Hussein had not existed, or even his grandfather, King Abdullah I, I doubt strongly that the country itself would still be in existence,” he said.
Moreover, he pointed out that King Abdullah I made deals with the Israelis in 1948, which King Farouk did not do.
“What was Jordan at the time? How many people were living there? And they remained for a while under British influence… This and the other monarchies [in the Gulf Arab countries] are not monarchies, which came by themselves and made themselves. They are imported monarchies, even though they are, like Jordan, playing an important role in keeping their respective countries in one piece,” said Ibrahim, whose mother, Princess Najla Sultan, is a granddaughter of the last Ottoman Caliph, Abdel Mejid II.
Ibrahim sees many parallels today with the events of the past. The late Saddam Hussein, for example, became an enemy of the West, when he waged his campaign to “reclaim” Kuwait, just as Prime Minister Nouri Said before him was removed from power when he began talking about annexing Kuwait, recounted Ibrahim, whose first cousin was engaged to marry Iraq’s King Faisal II, two days before the latter was assassinated.
“The collapse of the old monarchies, first the Ottoman Empire, then Egypt and then Iran, have basically created a situation, which will be unstable for a very, very long time to come,” said Ibrahim. “Today, you only have two great powers in the region, capable of enacting major changes: Turkey and Iran, which are both non-Arab countries. If a solution comes from somewhere one day, it will come from these two countries, nowhere else.”
Today, Ibrahim’s father’s house in Gezirah, which was built in 1921 by the last of the Balians, the illustrious family of Armenian architects in the Ottoman court, has now become the Ceramic Museum. The Egyptian government has put an addendum in the constitution, which says that all the property of the Mohamed Ali dynasty belong to the state.
“[Saudi Arabia’s] King Khaled and King Fahd had intervened on our behalf on numerous occasions, asking the Egyptians that some of the property ought to be returned to the families. They promised but never did anything about it,” said Ibrahim, adding that some of his cousins had filed lawsuits against the state to reacquire their property, and though they had won the cases in court, the property was never returned.
With nothing to return to in Egypt, Ibrahim has been living in Madrid since 2001, and working as a consultant for financial firms dealing with Turkey, Russia and Central Asia.
His first book was published in French and Arabic on the occasion of the Mohamed Ali dynasty’s bicentennial. The success of the latter prompted him to start work on a second book, which will be a more in depth look at the dynasty, from the 1900s up until the revolution. It will be a compilation of the personal papers of his father and uncle, and cousins who had kept notes and papers about the time, recording the views of Egyptians from all walks of life on political and social matters. It will be published in England and in the United States.
“The Mohamed Ali dynasty was genuinely committed to defending the interests of Egypt, and did so since Mohamed Ali, who waged many wars against Turkey,” Ibrahim reiterated. “It was a national dynasty, whereas the other dynasties of the Middle East are British by-products.”
Egyptians under the age of 35, who were raised in a ¨parliamentary dictatorship¨, might not be able to tell the difference between it and a monarchy. As such, it remains to be seen whether nostalgia can effect political change, and lead to the return of the exiled royals in a political capacity, enabling them to take an active part in solving the problems of the country.
¨The fact that our passports have been restored does not mean that we enjoy the same civic rights as other Egyptians,¨ Ibrahim pointed out. ¨At present, we neither have the right to run for elections or join the army.¨
Photo: King Farouk I, Queen Farida and little Princess Feryal