Of Two Kings

Two young men came to rule at an early age in the unstable and occasionally violent Middle East. The first was Farouk of Egypt, who became King at 16. The second was Hussein of Jordan, who became King at 17. The circumstances would seem to favor Farouk; but in a demonstration that character is destiny, Hussein would die on his throne of cancer, beloved by his people, while Farouk passed away under murky circumstances in Italy, sometimes reviled by his former subjects. Egypt is not in a happy state today, and as to be expected there is some nostalgia for the seemingly better and elegant age of Farouk. That should not blind us to his flaws.

Farouk came to the throne of Egypt in 1936 in a country that was developing a nascent and powerful nationalism (Egyptianism of the 1920s) and with the economy in relatively good shape. The developing parliamentary democracy was far from perfect, but it showed real promise to foster the growth of a native and somewhat liberal order. The people gave him adulation and affection. The political leaders had secured a formal independence from outside powers for the first time in centuries. All the politicians recognized his royalty and right to the throne. 

What did Farouk do with fortune’s gift?  First, he surrounded himself with ignoble sycophants. His first act was to demand a bizarre coronation that undercut Egyptian nationalism; and sulk when objections rose up. He tried to rig the first election under his rule (1938), setting a pattern of sectarianism, violence and corruption that was to beset the nation for decades to come. That debacle was totally unnecessary; he simply could not abide becoming a constitutional monarch. He looked for baubles. Not merely the Harry Winston diamonds he could not afford, but also irrelevant intangibles such as becoming a “Caliph of All Muslims”. A young man with unlimited appetite and unconstrained ego, he was never content with Egypt, as if the country was too small for his desires. He wanted to become a leader larger than his nation and that led him to many dangerous dead ends. His flirtation with Islamists would end up costing his ministers their lives, and his country’s politics its decency. Against all reason he wanted to become a leader of the Arabs. In the end, his demise was sealed by a disastrous involvement in the conflict between Arab and Jewish nationalisms, one having little to do with Egypt. He was too clumsy to even coup-proof his tiny army, flirting foolishly with different factions. The youngest and most impetuous among the officers saluted and sent him on his way at 32, looking far too old for his age. What followed was decades of misrule for Egypt, and exile or worse for those who loved it.

King Hussein came to the throne with a double trauma. His beloved grandfather was shot in front of him. His father was mentally ill. The country he ruled was a sliver of desert with no national feelings or a history of geographic or cultural unity. To the west rested Israel, brimming with ill-intent for his kingdom. To the east loomed Iraq, which soon was to murder his kinsmen and its royals. To the south grew the House of Ibn Saud, which ejected his great grandfather from his homeland of the Hijaz. Further afield, Nasser of Egypt had set his cross-hairs on him. “Uneasy lies the head” hardly describes his ordeal. But at the root of it Hussein was a decent man. Again, character is destiny. A descendant of the Prophet, he saw no need to play up his Muslim credentials, and in time  built a reservoir of tolerance in his country. He could have harbored resentment against the Ibn Sauds, but he showed no sign of it. He had a greater birthright than Nasser to being proclaimed a “leader of the Arabs”, but he avoided all such entanglements, to the benefit of his country. The single exception was a big one. He followed Nasser into the disaster of 1967 to the detriment of all involved. Still, he built one of the best and most professional armies in the region. Not the largest, but one that kept its nose out of royal affairs. This is no small feat in the Levant, where every other country saw its army descend to militia status and incompetence.  Jordan stands as a reprimand to all who argue that Middle Eastern states collapsed due to “artificial” borders. The fault was not in the map lines but in the character of the rulers. Hussein was wily when Farouk was foolish. Hussein was disciplined when Farouk was capricious. Hussein was patient when Farouk was hasty. Hussein built a country. Farouk destroyed a 150 year throne.

It is not too harsh to judge Farouk as the inferior of the two men.

— Maged Atiya


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