Over 60 years after the fall of Egypt’s monarchy - which brought in a new era of military rule that continued until 2011 - the remaining royals are still attempting to claw back seized assets.
King Farouk – the final ruler of the 150-year Mohammed Ali dynasty whose long-forgotten memoirs were unearthed by Al Arabiya News last year – lost the most.
After the Free Officers movement cast Farouk and his young family into the Mediterranean on his royal yacht, they discovered palaces laden with treasure.
These assets - which included Farouk’s beloved 8,500 piece coin collection and an allegedly vast horde of pornography – were promptly seized, with some being auctioned off.
Yet under the regime of ruling Free Officers, led by Presidents Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the seizures of property and assets extended to all members of the royal family, their relatives, British and later French nationals, and those deemed friendly to British and other colonial powers.
Around the same time, land and buildings held by private trusts were dissolved into the government’s Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments).
Abbas Hilmi, the grandson of Egyptian khedive (an Ottoman equivalent of viceroy) Abbas II, is one of the many direct royal descendants fighting an ongoing legal battle with the Egyptian government to get it back – with limited success.
“Anything which belongs to the royal family, we can’t get at all,” Hilmi said. “We are having a hard time trying to get them back.”
Hilmi was only a teenager when he left Egypt soon after the 1952 revolution. For him, the villa in the upscale Cairo district of Heliopolis where he was born and brought up in carries a lot of memories. “We were very attached to that house,” he said. Yet it was seized – along with all the family’s other property - a year after the monarchy’s ouster.
Some years later, under the presidency of Anwar Sadat, Hilmi’s father, Prince Muhammad Abdel Moneim, received permission to return to the house for the remainder of his lifetime.
Hilmi continued to live there until 2007, until the regime of longtime President Hosni Mubarak ordered him to leave. Despite his refusal, he was forcibly removed – an episode he describes as an “unpleasant” and “traumatic experience.” He has not been able to return.
“I’ve got to continue to try and get it back, obviously, for the sake of our children as well,” said Hilmi.
Mahmoud Sabit, the son of Farouk’s second cousin and close courtier Adel Sabit, has fought a 14-year-long legal battle to recover what he claims is around $27 million in property and assets.
“Every time when a new government is put in place, I watch very carefully their attitude towards these trusts, and what they intend to do about it,” said Sabit. “When they do not do anything all, then it means that they have basically become co-collaborators in this situation.”
While Anwar Sadat was known for his softer, more sympathetic stance towards Egypt’s royal family, his overtures were reversed during Mubarak’s three-decade regime.
“Things were not that bad until Mubarak took power. Mubarak and his extreme system of corruption basically compromised everything after he took power,” said Sabit.
“At least at the time before Mubarak one could get a certain degree of legal satisfaction through some sort of court judgment. Nowadays, that doesn’t happen. It’s very difficult to actually get a court order or a court judgment to be executed.”
While Sabit remains hopeful that the government of President Abdelfattah al-Sisi may resolve the continuous legal battle, he was more optimistic under the government of toppled Islamist President Mohammad Mursi.
“I had higher hopes under the previous administration, which seemed to be more open to paying compensation on these things. These [trusts controlled by the Egyptian government] are religious trusts.”