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The fall of the House of Mohamed Ali

Mohamed Ali — the apex
(File photo: Jordan News)
Mohamed Ali — the apex

Tarek Osman

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

The fall of King Farouk was not a surprise. British archives show that perceptive Egypt observers at the British foreign office, as well as at the US State Department, had foreseen Farouk’s end. اضافة اعلان

It was a sad story. His patriotism and intelligence could not subdue the insecurity and pain that had tormented him for years. He left Egypt, like his grandfather Ismail 70 years before him, for an exile that, though it glittered with pleasure, extinguished in him the spark of life. He died away from his country and family after a night of heavy dining at the age of 45.

But was the drama of one man’s life the cause of the fall of a house that for over a century was by far the most powerful, stable, and sophisticated of the region’s royal families? Destiny does not always make the right men kings, as a famous quotation from the novel The Prisoner of Zenda goes.

Perhaps some men (and women) are born to fail, and through their failure they fulfill a destiny that transcends their own lives.

The House of Mohamed Ali had reached major heights, and its achievements had placed it at the pinnacle of any serious history of royalty in the wider Middle East. But seeds of destruction had been laid down within its rule, and these had spread, growing over the years into poisonous weeds.

Failing to truly belong to Egypt was the first of these. Mohamed Ali created a modern state in Egypt, but it was a state for himself and his family. His son Ibrahim tried to develop that state into an empire. But that also was by and for the family.

The question of belonging — of whether the Mohamed Ali state was truly Egyptian — came to the fore in the aftermath of Ismail’s project for the country. The emergence, rise, and growth of an Egyptian upper-middle class, well educated, able to engage with and lead the modernization that was taking place in the country in the early 20th century, and with economic interests to protect and ambitions to grow, made the question of identity crucial.

The Mohamed Ali Dynasty failed to find an answer to that question. From the time of Mohamed Ali and up until that of King Fouad, King Farouk’s father, the family insisted on highlighting and anchoring its public image in its Albanian and Turkish origins and on a royal protocol devised from Ottoman as well as French and Italian models.

Even in terms of language, Arabic was almost utterly alien to the Egyptian royal court up until Farouk ascended to the throne in the mid-1930s, almost 120 years after the House of Mohamed Ali had come to rule Egypt.

Identity matters. It connects the ruler to the heritage of the land through a link that transcends utilitarianism and the mere accounting of the costs and benefits of any ruler’s record. This link signifies representation and the fact that the ruler is for and of the land and its history and culture that he rules. Failing to anchor its rule on some understanding of Egyptian identity created a subtle but growing legitimacy problem for the House of Mohamed Ali.

The problem was exacerbated in the period after World War I. The Ottoman Empire fell; US president Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of the right of all nations to self-determination found receptive ears in Egypt; and revolts in the Indian subcontinent against British rule became examples for rejecting colonialism in Egypt.
Rather than rise to protect arguably the most valuable jewel of Egypt’s liberal age — real democracy, free representation, and the beginning of what could have evolved into true respect for human rights — Farouk and the most influential powers in the palace relished the return to a system in which the crown was the final arbiter of politics.
Powerful populist forces wanting to see Egypt’s independence from Britain built colossal constituencies in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. Their message was anchored on a nationalist and secular identity that eschewed and often vehemently rejected Ottoman as well as Western affiliations. Amidst such tumultuous fights over Egyptian identity, the Mohamed Ali Dynasty offered nothing meaningful. It neither endorsed the independence movement nor attempted to provide its own definition of what Egyptian identity in a changing world was.

The acquiescence to foreign rule was partly to blame. The khedive Tawfik, Ismail’s son, is usually demonized in modern Egyptian history for seeking the support of Britain in the face of a rebellion by the armed forces against the political structure of the 1880s that strongly favored foreigners in all walks of life. Tawfik’s decisions paved the way for the British occupation of Egypt.

But Tawfik was not the only ruler of the House of Mohamed Ali who sought Western protection against actual or potential insurrection against the family’s rule. On several occasions in the early 20th century, British heavy-handedness and the strong British military presence in the country ultimately guaranteed the family’s rule.

By the end of the 1940s, and as independence movements spread across the region, the family was widely perceived to be inextricably dependent upon the foreign domination of the country.

The fall of political liberalism in Egypt exacerbated an already simmering situation. Egypt was a key theatre of military operations in World War II, leading Britain to effectively take control of the country’s domestic politics. This marked the end of the liberal political experiment that flourished in Egypt in the period between World Wars I and II.

The collapse of liberalism coincided with the rise of a war economy accompanied by its classical effects of inflation, corruption, and rising inequality. The royal family and particularly King Farouk were among the financial beneficiaries of the blurring of money and power. Rather than rise to protect arguably the most valuable jewel of Egypt’s liberal age — real democracy, free representation, and the beginning of what could have evolved into true respect for human rights — Farouk and the most influential powers in the palace relished the return to a system in which the crown was the final arbiter of politics.

Yet, even in accumulating power and exercising it with less and less checks, Farouk was neither assertive nor decisive. He was hardly interested in politics; often equivocated; and surrounded himself with a group of corrupt yes-men. He lacked Mohamed Ali’s and Ibrahim’s ruthlessness and Ismail’s determination. Even in the face of clear dangers, such as when his secret police informed him early in 1952 that a group of officers was plotting to overthrow him, he procrastinated and failed to act decisively.

Egyptians detect weakness and disdain it. Many came to see Farouk as weak. By the early 1950s, he was shouldering the immense pain of successive personal tragedies. For most Egyptians, however, contempt for him trumped sympathy. When his yacht Al-Mahrousa, meaning “the protected”, a name historically used to designate Egypt, left Alexandria taking him into exile in Italy, scores of Egyptians took to the streets to celebrate the end of an era. The House of Mohamed Ali thus fell after 150 years of ruling Egypt.

Many young Egyptians today know very little about Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim, Ismail, Tawfik, Fouad, and Farouk, let alone other members of the former ruling family. But their history is important not only because, as an Egyptian saying goes, history in our country lives in every corner, but also because modern Egypt is to a large extent the product of the House of Mohamed Ali.


Tarek Osman is the author of “Islamism: A History of Political Islam” (2017) and “Egypt on the Brink” (2010). A version of this article appeared in print in the July 28, 2022, edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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