The Lonely King Without a Throne

February 10, 2011 by  


Crowned as an infant, he now mourns the past in Switzerland; caught in a new nostalgia for the monarchy

By Lucette Lagnado

Ahmad Fouad in Switzerland

Ahmed Fouad II in Switzerland.

TMO Editor’s Note:  This article was written in the Wall Street Journal in September.

Ahmed Fouad II leads a quiet, secluded life in the Swiss countryside, surrounded by mementos of his ancestors—oil paintings, busts and old black-and-white photographs. He reads history books, putters in his garden and ruminates about the past. One of his favorite possessions is a picture of his father, King Farouk of Egypt, saluting the cheering crowds at his 1937 coronation.

The 58-year-old Fouad—as he prefers to be called—is the last King of Egypt. The honor was conferred on him when he was six months old by his father as one of his final acts before abdicating in July 1952.

Egypt’s government doesn’t recognize the title, or Fouad’s claim to it. But within Egypt, new signs of longing for a monarchy many Egyptians never knew are emerging. “In the past, we were more or less pariahs,” Fouad says. “They used to say so much that was bad about my family. Now it has completely changed.”

On the 58th anniversary of the revolution that brought down King Farouk, Egyptians are looking at the government that replaced him with a more jaundiced eye. Despite economic growth, about 40% of Egypt survives on $2 or less a day, according to the World Bank. The recent killing of a 28-year-old man by police in Alexandria has been a reminder of the power security forces wield.

Elections are set for next year, but in light of President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year tenure, there is a sense that little may change in the authoritarian system that took shape after the revolution, giving military and security services effective control over the country. Mr. Mubarak, 82, has suffered health problems and there is a widespread belief that his son is being positioned to take power—as in a royal succession.

In the midst of all this angst, “Farouk fever” has been sweeping Egypt. A TV soap opera on King Farouk was such a hit its producers just unveiled another series about the royals. Books set in the era are selling briskly at the popular Diwan bookstore chain in Cairo. A tour company is marketing cruises along the Nile on a yacht with a “Farouk Suite.”

In his Swiss hideaway, Fouad lives the odd life of a king without a throne. For an entourage he only has his companion and aide, an amiable Swiss widow named Nelly. He likes to take walks in the countryside, occasionally watches TV—mostly Egyptian programs, CNN and old Westerns—and when he dines, he’ll simply pull up a chair in the kitchen.

He has a passport from Monaco that identifies him as His Royal Highness Prince Ahmed Fouad Farouk. He also has an Egyptian passport that lists his name, no title. In egalitarian Switzerland, many call him “Mr. Farouk.” A small group of loyal Egyptian friends insist on addressing him as “Your Majesty” or “King Fouad.” Fouad says this is “kind of an embarrassment.”

“You are and you left as the king,” says Youssef Makar, a friend who is seated nearby. “And to us you will always be the king.”

In July 1952, the young Fouad, swaddled in fine Egyptian embroidered cotton, boarded the royal yacht with his parents and three half sisters as they fled the country during the revolution. He was in the arms of his nanny, and Farouk ordered them to walk in front of him. “He is the King,” Farouk declared. They landed in Capri and Fouad, carried by his nanny, was the first off the boat.

The baby king “reigned” from abroad for nearly a year as his father hoped that people would rally around his young son. But it quickly became clear that the officers who led the revolution had no use for kings or princes. Egypt was declared a republic and Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had helped engineer Farouk’s overthrow, rose to power.

Queen Narriman, Fouad’s mother, wanted a divorce and returned to Egypt in 1953. Farouk insisted she leave their son behind. His three daughters, from his first marriage, also went with their father.

Farouk then settled in Italy, and placed his children in a small Swiss village with aides—an English nanny, a French governess and an Albanian bodyguard—to look after them. Fouad only saw his father a few times a year.

He attended a public school in the village, studying with children of vineyard workers. While no one at home ever talked about him being the king, other kids at school would tease him. It didn’t help that his Albanian bodyguard took him to and from school every day. Later, Fouad was sent to Le Rosey, an elite Swiss boarding school.

In 1965, Farouk died suddenly in Rome. Fouad was 13 and shattered. “I lost a father when I most needed him,” he says.

As a young adult, Fouad spent winters in Gstaad and summers in Monte Carlo, where he was befriended by Prince Rainier of Monaco. As he grew older, he wrestled with a broken marriage, a lack of steady work and bouts of depression.

He says he had jobs as a consultant, as well as in real estate in Paris, where he lived on the upscale Avenue Foch. “I had trouble paying the mortgage,” he says. His marriage, which produced three children, ended in divorce after two decades.

In recent years, Fouad lived in a small flat in a middle-class apartment complex outside of Geneva. This summer he moved to a rented house in the countryside. Some say he bears a resemblance to his late father—six feet tall and with the same fair skin. Yet he hasn’t inherited his father’s outgoing personality. “I don’t like cocktail parties and I never go to night clubs,” he says. People who have seen him at receptions say he appears awkward and shy.

He grew “profoundly depressed” as one by one his three sisters died. Last November, his oldest sister, Ferial—who had been like a mother to him—passed away. His mother also died; the two had eventually reconciled. “Now, I am alone,” he says.

The 1952 revolution grew out of discontent with the King’s rule, resentment over Britain’s pervasive involvement in Egypt’s affairs and a sense that Farouk was to blame for the country’s defeat during the 1948 War of Independence with Israel. Some poor Egyptians lived like serfs while a privileged few had huge land holdings. The king himself, without a male heir, abandoned his first wife, the beloved Queen Farida.

Fouad is sensitive to charges that his father walked away with massive treasures or had large foreign bank accounts. His father had some means, he says, but coped largely because of help from the Saudi royal family. His half-sisters—each one a royal princess—”were all working women,” he says. One was an interpreter, another helped her husband run a hotel, a third worked as a translator. As for Fouad, he says he receives help from Middle Eastern royals and remains especially grateful to the Saudis.

After Farouk’s ouster, Nasser began to implement policies that emulated socialist ideals, including land reforms, the nationalization of factories and rent controls. Foreigners and minorities were booted out or pressured to leave. A police state was born. Egypt fought three wars with Israel, then made a shaky peace with the Jewish state. The architect of that historic treaty, Anwar el Sadat, was gunned down in October 1981. His vice president, Hosni Mubarak, took power and has held it ever since. He has tried to undo many of Nasser’s economic policies that were seen as harmful to Egypt and has kept the peace with Israel.

The royal family was most reviled under Nasser. The image of the monarchy was defined after the revolution by stories of Farouk’s personal shortcomings—his womanizing, his voracious appetite, his gambling and expensive hobbies like collecting fancy cars, coins and Fabergé eggs.

In the summer of 2007, the narrative began to change.

It’s customary during the month-long Ramadan observance for Muslim families to have a big meal together to break the sunrise-to-sunset fast. Egyptian television producers trot out new shows to capture viewers relaxing after their feasts. In 2007, one of the hottest new shows was a 30-episode drama about Farouk and his court. “All of a sudden they were allowed to see a human being,” says Mahmoud Kabil, an Egyptian actor.

Mr. Kabil co-starred in the new royal soap about King Farouk’s colorful mother, Queen Nazli, which aired in August to coincide once again with Ramadan. The show came in second in the ratings sweeps, with millions of viewers, Mr. Kabil says.

“Farouk fever” has spread. Young Egyptians born decades after Farouk left make pilgrimages to his grave in a Cairo mosque to lay flowers; there are Facebook pages and blogs dedicated to the royal family.

Egyptians are “living through unprecedented hardships which makes the past—any past—look beautiful by comparison,” remarks Samir Raafat, a Cairo author who has chronicled life under the monarchy. “They typically become more nostalgic especially with the rising cost of living and the total breakdown of everyday amenities: transportation, housing, education, hygiene.”

The nostalgia is proof of how much Egypt has changed under Mr. Mubarak, a spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy, Karim Haggag, says. “The government considers the period of the monarchy as part of Egypt’s historical legacy, which has to be preserved,” he says. The press is more free, he says, and there is a more open political and intellectual climate. A constitutional process will determine who follows President Mubarak, he says.

Several exiled monarchs are scattered in Europe and the U.S. Reza Pahlavi II of Iran, the son of the late Shah of Iran, has an office in Virginia and has openly criticized Iran’s ruling mullahs. King Constantine II of Greece fled his country in 1967 when the junta abolished the monarchy, and resides in London. King Michael of Romania for many years couldn’t even go back to Romania, which he had ruled until 1947. He lived in Switzerland but in recent years he was invited back to Romania.

Fouad says he doesn’t really hang out with them: “People think there is a brotherhood of exiled monarchs, but there isn’t,” he says.

Fouad has travelled to Egypt several times and is free to come and go, but he worries about “causing trouble” and is careful to avoid raising red flags. “I don’t want people to think I have political ambitions,” he says. “And sometimes when I go there, it gets very emotional.”

Now Fouad finds himself swept up in the tide of longing for his father’s era. Last spring, he was a coveted guest at Cairo receptions, offered special access to ancient monuments and addressed as “Your Majesty” in some quarters. Then there was the tour of the 500-room Abdeen Palace, where he was born. He visited a small room where more than a dozen seamstresses sat at a long table, repairing his mother’s sumptuous wedding dress from her 1951 wedding to his father—yards of embroidered satin encrusted with 20,000 diamonds.

Or so it was said. Fouad says the gems were only crystals.

His father’s “comeback” has given Fouad a new optimism. He longs to return to Egypt in some capacity—perhaps as cultural ambassador. Monarchs such as the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, have helped their countries move to democracy, he says: “It works for Spain beautifully.”

Meanwhile, Fouad continues to mourn the past. Politically, his father needed a son, “but I came very late,” he says. “I am sure that if he had had a son earlier, it would have been different.”

Write to Lucette Lagnado at lucette.lagnado@wsj.com

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