On July 26, 1952, Egypt’s King Farouk abdicated the throne and was exiled from his country, travelling to Naples. The ex-king’s belief that the Muslim Brotherhood were behind his sudden overthrow is revealed through a copy of the Farouk's long-forgotten memoirs obtained by Al Arabiya News.
As the dust settled on the coup d’état by the Free Officers movement which forced Farouk and his family into exile, the Officers were busy trying to hasten in a new era in Egypt’s history.
In the first few months of 1953, they disbanded all political parties, issued a decree disbanding the Muslim Brotherhood, who – as a prominent Free Officer and then-President Anwar Sadat wrote in his memoirs, published in 1978 – had the “obvious intention of overthrowing us and taking over the rule of Egypt.”
aAnwar Sadat, seen here in 1975, recalled banning the Muslim Brotherhood in his memoirs. (File photo AFP)
While the exact nature of the Brotherhood’s power in Egypt in the early 1950s is difficult to establish, the fact that they, rather than the nationalist Wafd party, the most powerful political movement at the time, receive special mention by Sadat as a movement that had to be stamped out, suggests a larger presence than might otherwise have been imagined.
But for the officers, getting rid of squabbling politicians and outsider movements was not enough.
A young king
The officers quickly grew tired of the regency council, appointed while infant Crown Prince Ahmed Fuad was not of age to rule; by this time only one year old and in exile with his family. In June 1953 - less than one year after Farouk's abdication, the Officers declared a Republic and abolished the monarchy.
Naguib was then appointed both president and premier, while Nasser took the shrewd step of becoming deputy premier and minister of the interior – where he would wait for less than two years before seizing power from Naguib at the end of 1954.
The monarchy, along with most hopes of its eventual restoration, lay in ruins. Yet were the Free Officers acting on their instincts and direction alone? Was the revolution merely an almost-bloodless surprise coup, or had there been, as Naguib might have hinted to the ex-king during an encounter on the royal yacht, “fanatical ones” behind the conspiratorial officers themselves?
Farouk thought the latter.
The Brotherhood’s ‘secret politburo’
From the very beginning of his memoirs, Farouk insisted that the officers had not acted alone.
“Who are the men behind Naguib? I will tell you,” the ex-king wrote in his memoirs, which were first published from Oct. 12, 1952 in a British Sunday weekly, Empire News, just months after his abdication.
“They are a secret politburo of the Muslim Brotherhood… and that efficient coup d’etat which cost me my throne was not planned by Naguib in the candlelight of his simple army tent, but was worked out for him by a group of foreign military advisers.”
Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1929. He was assassinated in 1949. (File photo: Reuters)
Farouk continued by insisting that the Brotherhood had received international backing from the Soviet Union, through the Russian embassy in Cairo.
The king had originally mistrusted the Russians, then under dictator Joseph Stalin, and had tried to stop the communist superpower from establishing a base in Egypt’s capital.
Even at this time, Britain’s fragile empire still had a grasp on Egypt.
The king, who described himself as the “first ruler in the Middle East to give warning against opening the doors to Russia,” recalled begging the long-standing British ambassador, the “haughty and disdainful” Sir Miles Lampson, not to force Egypt into allowing the Russians to establish a diplomatic presence in the country.
Miles Lampson, seen here in a scan from Farouk's memoirs. (Al Arabiya)
Lampson – perhaps speaking as the archetypal arrogant and supercilious colonialist – had told the king: “Really, you Egyptians must realize that the Russians are our allies!”
However, Farouk, limited by presumably constitutional and diplomatic restraints, was not able to stop the establishment of the Soviet embassy.
The Russians, apparently keen to establish influence and goodwill in their new post, would hand out free food and tea to the city’s poor.
These acts of benevolence were not just charity. Any group of “hotheads” as the ex-king framed them, disillusioned by the Ancien Régime, would suddenly receive generous cash grants from the embassy.
‘Poor, religious fanatics’
Why was it in the Soviet Union’s interests to usurp the monarchy?
According to Farouk, Russia wanted to establish an aligned Communist government in Egypt, and needed to work through local groups to achieve this aim.
“They [the Russians] plan that Egypt shall soon become a second Korea, and good Egyptian, British and American blood will be spilled to make a red carpet for Russian tanks into the Middle East, and Europe,” Farouk wrote.
With support from the Kremlin, the Brotherhood was able to rise from lowly street corners to own newspapers and establish their own network of informants, according to the ex-king.
“Before the Russians came, the Muslim Brotherhood were not dangerous. They were poor, religious fanatics,” Farouk wrote.
Spurred by their Russian-derived financing and influence, Brotherhood then gave the plans to Naguib, who promptly brought about the coup, according to the ex-king.
But how likely is Farouk’s theory?
Most historians contacted by Al Arabiya News are skeptical of Farouk’s claims.
Farouk was more aware and suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood than he would have been towards the Free Officers, in part due to his trust in the army, according to Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo.
“He [Farouk] counted on the loyalty of the senior officers, he understood their social background,” Fahmy said.
However, Nasser’s generation, many of whom were from poorer, more conservative backgrounds, rather than the Ancien Régime’s more traditional, aristocratic officer class, were of an “unknown quantity” to the king.
“[From Farouk’s perspective] I would believe this self-delusion, this is how he would be seeing reality at that time, which shows something of how out-of-touch he was,” Fahmy added.
Farouk’s claims of being overthrown by a shadowy cabal of Muslim Brothers are “utter nonsense,” said Joel Beinin, a Middle East History professor at Stanford University, adding that the American Embassy was more involved in the king’s ouster.
“The Russian Embassy in Cairo has zero to do with it. It was the American Embassy who was more involved.”
The CIA knew of the coup in advance, and had some kind of relationship with the Free Officers, according to Beinin.
On the night of the coup, the U.S. convinced the British – who had a substantial army base at the Suez canal zone – not to intervene and save Farouk, added the academic.
But why would it be in American interests to side with the Officers?
“They understood that he was corrupt and if he remained in power and continued completely ignoring the interest of ordinary Egyptians, then that would be an opening for a Communist overthrow of the regime,” said Beinin.
Sadat himself recalled the Free Officers movement enjoying a very cordial relationship with the U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery - who Farouk recalled had attempted to help the beleaguered royal family while holed up in Ras el-Tin palace – referring to the envoy as “our friend.”
Close to the king
One historian, who is also a relative of Farouk and has met many of his family members and courtiers, believes that the Brotherhood was more involved than is commonly believed.
“There’s smoke there certainly [of Brotherhood involvement],” said Mahmoud Sabit, the son of Farouk’s second cousin, childhood friend, and later close courtier, Adel Sabit.
“That smoke is the fact that they created the insecurity and the environment of instability that made a coup d’état inevitable. They created that environment, certainly,” Sabit told Al Arabiya News.
Rather than the Free Officers working directly through the Brotherhood at the time of Farouk’s ouster, the Brotherhood more likely destabilized Egypt enough for the Officers to use the country’s precarious situation in the last days of the monarchy to quickly gain the upper hand, according to Roger Owen, a Middle East history professor at Harvard University.
“It’s thought that the Muslim Brothers were the most powerful organization in Egypt at that particular stage. The Officers got in first because they were worried the Brothers might get in,” said Roger.
“It’s not impossible that it was the Muslim Brothers who created the revolutionary situation, and the Free Officers took advantage of it,” he added.
Naguib’s intriguing, apologetic exchange with Farouk onboard the royal yacht which would shortly take the family to exile was to do with the rivalry and ideological differences within the Free Officers, Owen said.
“Naguib was quite a different person from the Free Officers, and a servant of the old regime. He wanted democracy, and was outmaneuvered by Nasser and the others,” said Owen.
To read the third part of the series, entitled: “Memoirs of Egypt’s King Farouk reveal lonely boyhood” click here.
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