“I suppose that the greatest moment in the life of any revolutionary is when he walks through the royal palaces of the freshly deposed monarch and begins to finger his former master’s possessions,” wrote the freshly deposed King Farouk of Egypt in the early 1950s, adding that he would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when the pillaging took place: “I admit that I would have enjoyed seeing those prudish, clerkly sect leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood as they drifted through my rooms like elderly ladies on a cook’s tour, pulling open drawers, prying into cupboards and wardrobes, and gaping like country bumpkins at the number of the king’s clean shirts.”
Farouk was somewhat loose with the historical facts: he was overthrown by the Free Officers’ Movement of the Egyptian army, which staged a military coup that ignited the Egyptian revolution of 1952, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood. But he was spot-on about the shirts. During the 12 years of his reign as ‘King of Egypt and Sudan, Sovereign of Nubia, of Kordofan and of Darfur’, Farouk amassed more than a thousand bespoke suits, alongside museum-worthy collections of rare stamps and coins, cars (including a Mercedes-Benz 540K that Adolf Hitler gave him in 1938 as a wedding gift); jewels (he would shake a sistrum studded in diamonds, rubies and emeralds in order to summon his servants); watches and, allegedly, the world’s largest collection of pornography, including an “album of semi-nude photographs” found under his pillow. Farouk happily copped to the finery, but balked at the idea of smut. “They were classical artworks,” he protested.
So far, so kleptocratic business-as-usual, you might think: the usual tale of a detached leader who strip-mines his country of its wealth while leaving its people among the poorest in the world. It was a damning verdict that the aloof Farouk did little to challenge; indeed, the corruption seemed embodied in his bloated figure — the result of a fondness for industrial quantities of oysters and soda — and the cartoon-villain twists of his handlebar moustache (on whose oily lines David Suchet would later model that of his Hercule Poirot).
But modern historians argue that it’s not the whole story, pointing out that the Muhammad Ali dynasty, of which Farouk was the last significant scion, had worked wonders in lifting Egypt from a provincial backwater of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 19th century into a state so strong that the Imperial British felt compelled to curtail its rise only decades later. “I can’t speak on the people’s behalf, but I think we did a titanic amount to change a country that was steeped in the Middle Ages,” said Prince Abbas Hilmi, modern descendant of the Ali dynasty, last year. “And many are looking back from the chaos and violence of our own era to a time of glamour, class, religious tolerance and a civilised society. Some even refer to it as ‘the beautiful era’.”