King Farouk of Egypt and the Constitution of 1923: Disentangling the Culprit from the Victim, by Ramses Abul Naga

Seventy years after King Farouk left his country, the question still remains open as to how we should judge the reign of the late king. Rather than go into the details of his private life, Ramses Abul Naga, IMéRA Fellow in 2018-2019, suggests to examine his legacy in the light of his rights and obligations, as stipulated by the overarching law that regulated political life in Egypt during the entire period of his tenure – the 1923 Constitution. Whom of King Farouk and the 1923 Constitution contributed most to the ending of Egypt’s liberal era ?

Farouk of Egypt, crowned before his eighteenth birthday, was commonly known as the Boy King.

Ramses Abul Naga is Reader in Economics at the University of Aberdeen and was in residence at IMéRA from January to July 2019, in partnership with AMSE – Aix-Marseille School of Economics. His research topic at IMéRA was « Income Redistribution with Indivisible Allocations ».

King Farouk of Egypt and the Constitution of 1923: Disentangling the Culprit from the Victim

Just over 100 years ago, on 11 February 1920, Farouk, Hereditary Prince of Egypt and the Sudan was born to Sultan Ahmad Fuad I of Egypt, in his second marriage to Princess Nazli Sabry.

Today King Farouk has long been forgotten in his country of birth, after having been vilified for decades in the history books of the national curriculum that followed the advent of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, and likewise discredited and mocked in the international tabloid press. In his biography of the late king [1], William Stadiem writes:

“The tabloids’ wildest dreams were realized in Farouk, who raised the eyebrows of the entire world. Gargantuan gastronome, ruthless seducer, profligate gambler, war profiteer, Nazi ally, museum level kleptomaniac, imperial wastrel, these were ways the press described him.”

It was to a large extent in the beginning of the current century, with growing dissatisfaction with President Mubarak’s economic policies, that Egyptians began to debate the legacy of their last king. The accounts of King Farouk’s era are nostalgic and dreamlike: videoclips on social media show the beautiful streets of downtown Cairo, the district erected by Khedive Ismail in the French style that came to be known as Paris on the Nile. Other sources also remind us that Egypt was once upon a time a creditor nation, lending capital to the European powers during the war years, and that Great Britain had once accumulated a debt of 400 million pounds sterling to its former protectorate [2]. While all these facts are true, they will not take us far in distinguishing between royal acts and royal reputation, and disentangling culprit from victim.

King Farouk’s rein spanned a 16-year period. But seventy years after Farouk sailed on the royal Mahroosa frigate for a last time, to the land of his exile, the king’s appraisal is largely negative, mainly revolving around his private life (in fact exposing his night life.) Why is this so, and is such a ‘metric’ for judging Egypt’s last monarch really appropriate?

Seventy years on, the question still remains open as to how we should judge the reign of the late king. Rather than go into the details of his private life, I suggest here to examine his legacy in the light of his rights and obligations, as stipulated by the overarching law that regulated political life in Egypt during the entire period of his tenure—the 1923 Constitution. As the monarchy was ended and the Constitution suspended shortly after King Farouk was deposed, I also ask the question as to whom of King Farouk and the 1923 Constitution contributed most to the ending of Egypt’s liberal era.

Nationalist movement of the late 19th century

The origin of the nationalist movement of the late 19thcentury was the intervention of the Great Powers in the domestic affairs of Egypt, that culminated in the removal of Khedive Ismail in 1879 [3], and in the British occupation in 1882. Initially, the Great Powers were content with taking control of the country’s public finances, under a scheme that came to be known as the Caisse de la Dette Publique. By 1887, Sir Evelyn Baring (Lord Cromer—also nicknamed Over-bearing by the Egyptians) effectively took full control of government, appointing prime ministers of his choice, and running all ministries via British advisers who had seniority over Egyptian ministers.

One of Cromer’s policies for redressing the ailing finances of the country was to dramatically cut expenditure on health and education, and to invest in modernizing agriculture and irrigation [4]. As the development of agriculture ensured the flow of much-needed exports to the hungry cotton mills of Lancashire, Lord Cromer was accused of favoring the prosperity of the British Empire at the expense of stifling efforts at industrializing the country, and of compromising the development of the Egyptian economy. By the time he resigned his post as Consul General in 1907, Lord Cromer had helped to galvanize the nationalist movement that demanded independence and an end to what came to be known as the Veiled Protectorate.   

Sir Evelyn Baring (Lord Cromer) also known to Egyptians as Over-bearing

The independence movement, led mainly by urban intellectuals, demanded democratic parliamentary institutions in order to curb the powers of the Khedive, to curtail British meddling in the domestic affairs of the country, and to formulate public policies understood to favor the economic and social development of Egypt.

Lord Cromer, who had effectively ruled the country for a twenty-year period, had stifled every effort at meeting the demands of the nationalist movement for the emergence of a parliamentary democracy. In his farewell speech of May 6, 1907, he declared “I shall urge that this wholly spurious and manufactured movement in favour of a rapid development of parliamentary institutions should be treated for what it is worth, and gentlemen, let me add, that it is worth very little.” [5]

Nonetheless, the nationalist movement drew its inspiration from the recent experience of the first wave of Middle East constitutional reforms (mainly the Tunisian and Ottoman Constitutions of 1876) which aimed at introducing elements of liberal and secular democracy and capping the arbitrariness of state rule [6] [7].

The Constitution of 1923

The 1923 Constitution came about through a complex process of negotiation between the leaders of the main political parties (to a large extent the Liberal Constitutionalists), the British Empire and the Palace. The Wafd refused to take part in these discussions, as the majority of its leaders were either in exile or imprisoned at the time. In the aftermath of the 1919 Revolution, the national leaders, opposed to the British Protectorate, wanted a greater say in running the affairs of the country. The British for their part wanted to protect their economic interests in the Suez Canal to maintain secure the road to India. Finally, the monarch attempted to hold on to his executive powers, and to rule the country unhindered by the political parties. For the nationalist movement, the possibility of gaining independence from the British Empire, and of limiting the powers of the king, was seen as a chance to improve the lives of all Egyptians. And the Constitution was seen as the first step to secure and enshrine the freedoms and benefits Egyptians would enjoy as nationals of an independent monarchy.

These tripartite negotiations were to produce a system of government described in Article 1 as a representative hereditary monarchy [8]. Article 73 clarified what representativeness meant for Egypt: The Parliament shall be bicameral and composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives.” Article 24 stipulated that “Legislative power is held by the King in participation with the Senate and the House of Representatives“, while Article 28 clarified that new laws may be enacted by both chambers of parliament and the king.

The king not only enjoys legislative power, but is also granted under Article 29 executive powers within the limits of the present Constitution. In particular, Article 38 grants the king the right to dissolve the House of Representatives.

Article 46 further stipulated:

The King is the Commander-in-chief of land and navy forces and shall appoint and dismiss officers, declare war, make reconciliations, and conclude treaties and report such to the Parliament whenever befitting the State’s interest and security supported by an appropriate explanation. However, the declaration of an offensive war may not take place unless with the approval of the Parliament…

While the king assumes executive power through his cabinet of Ministers (Article 48), parliament, may nonetheless, also dismiss the monarch’s government. Thus, Article 65states:

Should the House of Representatives make a no-confidence vote on the cabinet, such cabinet must resign. Should the vote be on a minister, such minister must resign his ministry.

It is worth noting that the Constitution imposes age-related restrictions for occupying positions in the legislature: A member of the House of Representatives must be at least thirty years of age (Article 85) while a Senator must be at least forty (Article 77). A Crown Prince may on the other hand become king, and enjoy executive as well as legislative powers, at the age of eighteen.

The Constitution did not clearly separate the legislative from executive branches of government (the king was endowed with both of these powers). Another particularity of the 1923 Constitution was that the king appointed two fifths of the senators, and the remaining three fifths were appointed by public vote (Article 74) [9].

There were nonetheless some remarkable gains for the liberal and constitutionalist movement. Article 30 safeguarded the separation of judiciary powers (held by the courts) from the executive and legislature. Article 19 stipulated that tuition shall be free in public schools, and that primary schooling is compulsory for boys and girls.  Also, worth stressing for the reader, Article 19 stipulated that Freedom of belief shall be absolute.

Plainly lazy or a timid Robin Hood?

In 1936, by the time Farouk became king of Egypt, there were pressing needs for reform. Among the expectations set upon him were the development of state institutions to support a parliamentary democracy (as enshrined in the 1923 Constitution), tackling landlessness and wealth inequalities, promoting economic development and leading the country to a genuine independence from Britain. But was Farouk the lazy king that the Revolutionary Command Council which abolished the monarchy had portrayed him to be?

The reader may rightly ask: wasn’t parliament’s role to initiate reform? Did the Constitution stipulate that the King shall not be a bon vivant? The Constitution of 1923 granted both the monarchy and parliament the right to legislate, and it was the king’s duty to execute these acts (via the cabinet which the Palace appointed). Had parliament and Abdine Palace worked together in a cooperative spirit, the Constitution of 1923 would have been praised for providing a successful architecture for a modern Egypt. In practice however, there were long-standing rivalries between the palace and the Wafd party that dominated the legislature, and there was also a veiled third force that would often arbitrate between these two competing parties: the British Empire via its ambassador Sir Miles Lampson.

Farouk of Egypt, crowned before his eighteenth birthday, was commonly known as the Boy King.

As the young King Farouk tried to maneuver his country away from British influence, he increasingly came under the radar of Sir Miles Lampson. Lampson became set on removing the young king from the palace, especially as the threat of invasion by the Axis forces from the Libyan border became imminent. In what came to be known as the February 4, 1942 Incident (the word Incident is of course largely debatable) Sir Miles Lampson surrounded Abdine Palace with British Army units. With a gun pointed at King Farouk, he threatened to force him to abdicate if the latter refused to appoint the pro-British Al-Nahas Pasha as prime minister. That such an act was as remote as could be from the principles of liberal democracy was of no concern to the British who acted in the most illiberal manner when it came to safeguarding the Imperial interests. Such meddling in the affairs of the country greatly undermined the nascent constitutional democracy that was Egypt during the early rein of King Farouk.

On February 4 1942, Sir Miles Lampson forced upon King Farouk the premiership of Mustafa Al-Nahas Pasha.

But if at times Egypt was cursed by the Empire, on other occasions, its alliance with Britain came to be beneficial. In this respect, one recalls that it is thanks to British international influence that the regime of capitulations [10] that had plagued the country for several centuries was finally abrogated.  Article 13 of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 acknowledged:

His Majesty the King and Emperor recognises that the capitulatory regime now existing in Egypt is no longer in accordance with the spirit of the time and with the present state of Egypt.

The ending of the capitulations came about a few months ahead of the coronation of Farouk. It finally gave Egypt the possibility to introduce more progressive taxation and public expenditure [11],  and to reorient economic activity toward benefitting the fellaheen [12]. But did King Farouk or parliament really seize this unique and historic opportunity to redress social injustices?

Not Really. Even Winston Churchill was attuned to the urgent need to tackle the great wealth disparities that characterized Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century. So pressing did he perceive the situation to be, that on his way back to London from the Yalta conference, Churchill stopped in Cairo to lecture the young king about the need to address inequality. According to Sir Miles Lampson, “Winston…told Farouk that he should take a definite line in regard to the improvement of the social conditions in Egypt.  He ventured to affirm that nowhere in the world were the conditions of extreme wealth and extreme poverty so glaring. Why not take from the rich Pashas some of their superabundant wealth and devote it to the improvement of the living conditions of the fellaheen? “[13]

It is not entirely true that Farouk was insensitive to social justice. Rather, his efforts in this respect were perhaps muted and clearly insufficient to tackle the growing discontent arising from the unequal shares of income and wealth of the minority Pasha class, and the majority fellaheen. To give some content to this claim, we list three such timid Robin Hood initiatives [14]

(1) In 1948 Farouk started to turn his attention to tackling the rise in rural landlessness, by granting plots of 5 Feddans (acres) to 600 families in the Damietta region. This positive initiative was timid in comparison to the scale of the problem it was meant to tackle: by mid-century, landless rural households accounted for 50% of the farming population [15].

(2) In 1951, The King’s government launched the first social security program in the history of Egypt (and the Arab countries). In the same spirit, Farouk also launched his housing project for the poor [16].

(3) It was felt by the nationalist movement that Lord Cromer had stifled initiatives to tackle illiteracy. Faithful to the spirit of Article 19 of the 1923 Constitution, the education budget was increased by a six-fold factor during Farouk’s rein.

The fall of the monarchy and Constitution

By the time Farouk had started addressing inequality, a domestic concern, he became confronted with a new foreign policy problem: the ending of the British mandate over Palestine. In 1948 his Prime Minister, Mahmud Fahmi Al-Nuqrashi, favored a diplomatic solution to settling the Arab countries’ differences with the new state of Israel.  However, it is here that the Constitution contributed to the downfall of the inexperienced king. Recall that Article 46 granted the monarch the power to declare war in his role of Commander-in-Chief of land and navy forces. Perhaps in the naïve hope of redirecting the frustration of the people onto a new enemy, Farouk —against the express desire of his Prime Minister— secured parliamentary approval to declare war. For the first time in the country’s modern history, the king put the Jews of Egypt—a business, cultural and scientific elite—in an estranged position. And by losing the war badly, Farouk added the army to the growing ranks of the dissatisfied. By the time the armistice was signed in early 1949, the king had lost the support of his own people.

By orienting agriculture toward cotton farming and other cash crops, the dynasty of Muhammad Ali Pasha had in effect produced a landless peasantry working for a landed aristocracy. By the time the 1923 Constitution was enacted, half the farming land was owned by 2% of the population and cotton accounted for over 90% of the value of exports [17]. To secure their economic interests, many land owners became members in the new House of Representatives and the Senate. If the king was naïve and unfit to assume the executive powers that the Constitution had endowed him with, then parliament also had its fair share of responsibility in the deterioration of domestic affairs. It also comes as no surprise that the parliamentarian Pasha class was keen to procrastinate when it came to enacting land redistribution programmes. Indeed Al-Sayyid-Marsot (1985, p. 86) observes that the elected parliament of the liberal years banned the fellaheen from organizing into worker unions, and that it was not until the early 1950s that a minimum wage for rural workers was instituted.

If King Farouk took most of the blame for failing to end British meddling in the domestic affairs of the nation, neither was parliament without reproach. Saad Zaghlul Pasha, the independence leader and founding member of the Wafd movement, took it upon himself to see the British troops out of Egypt. He was succeeded, by the several-times Prime Minister Al-Nahas Pasha, who was perceived by many to be London’s man rather than a true national statesman. Because Egypt’s large land estates supplied cotton for Britain’s textile market, the parliamentarians of the liberal years saw their economic interests aligned with those of the Empire.  Egypt’s attempts to end British influence during the liberal era were thus compromised, especially during Al-Nahas Pasha’s premiership.

Finally, one must mention that Britain often acted in a way that was contradictory to its imperial interests. If London’s overriding priority was to protect its economic interests in the Suez Canal Company and to safeguard the route to India, then in the least, it should have acted in a way as to respect the Constitution.  Instead, Miles Lampson acted with contempt toward the institutions of the monarchy by staging his coup to reinstate the premiership of Mustafa Al-Nahas Pasha (the February 4, 1942 incident).

A or F for Farouk?

It is easy to get carried away by the sensationalist narrative of the Egyptian, British and American press of the 1950s that hit hard when it came to reporting on the deposed king. Such accounts have focused on discrediting the king on the basis of the excesses of his private life, criticizing the corpulence and baldness of his later years and the like.

But even if one abandons the accounts of the populist press and sycophants of the Nasser régime, one finds that much controversy remains among historians regarding Egypt’s experience with the monarchy and the constitutional form of government prescribed by the 1923 Constitution. For the Egyptian historian Afaf Lutfy Al-Sayyid-Marsot, this form of government amounted to a “…a corrupt and useless system of hereditary exploitation disguised as a monarchy…” [18]. However, in the concluding pages of his biography, William Stadiem praises the deposed king arguing, “Yet he was a leader faced with an impossible task of leadership that remains unresolved today.”[19]

In the twenty-first century however, there is broad consensus that the anatomy of individuals, their sexual penchants and their religious practices (or lack thereof) should not be the subject of historical judgement. I adhere to this view. Whether King Farouk drank orangeade, whisky or sheep’s milk, should not be the subject matter of our judgement. It is high time we moved on, and began to explore the context in which the Constitution of 1923 emerged, as well as Farouk’s achievements and failures in relation to his rights and obligations as monarch, what he could have done and chose to do, and what he refrained from doing. This in my view is a more fruitful and objective line of argument to pursue.

In July 1952 the deposed King Farouk sailed the Royal Mahroosa frigate to Italy, his country of exile.

An imperfect Constitution, the monarchy, parliament and the British Empire all acted in a way as to undermine Egypt’s experience with constitutional government. When Farouk was gone, he took with him on board the royal Mahroosa frigate sixty suitcases. One is tempted to ask if his personal belongings may have contained a copy of the first Constitution of Independent Egypt. Or perhaps we may ask ourselves, when the liberal years were banished for good, whether King Farouk and the Free Officers that deposed him, ever once in their lives really took the time to read the seven parts of the Constitution of 1923.


[1] William Stadiem (1991): Too rich: the high life and tragic death of King Farouk, Parkway Publishing (page 27).

[2] See for instance the page https://www.facebook.com/king.farouk.faroukmisr/ that now counts over five million followers.

[3] The reader must be warned that at the height of their imperial power, the British had developed an unusual and somewhat confusing habit of deposing rulers in Egypt, and exchanging them for would-be more docile puppets. Thirty-five years after Khedive Ismail was deposed, it was the turn of Khedive Abbas Helmi II to be toppled. Things did not stop there: as we shall see below, twenty years on, High Commissioner (later Ambassador) Miles Lampson developed a fixation on removing King Farouk in favor of his uncle Prince Muhammad Ali.

[4] See for instance pp 118-119 of Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. and Robert Johnston (2004): Historical Dictionary of Egypt, The American University in Cairo Press.

[5] Cited in Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayed (1968): Egypt and Cromer, John Murray Publishers, Page 182

[6]  For a detailed discussion, see Mina E. Khalil (2016): “Early Modern Constitutionalism in Egypt and Iran,” Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, 15(1). See also Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron (2001): “Les constitutions égyptiennes (1923-2000: Ruptures et continuités)”, Egypte/Monde Arabe 4/5, 101-133.

[7] Early advocates of a Western-style form of liberal government in Egypt included Ahmad Fathi Zaghloul in various published works.

[8] https://constitutionnet.org/sites/default/files/1923_-_egyptian_constitution_english_1.pdf

[8] https://constitutionnet.org/sites/default/files/1923_-_egyptian_constitution_english_1.pdf

[9] In an effort to secure full control of the legislature, King Fuad modified this Article in the Constitution of 1930, endowing the king with the right to appoint three fifths of the senators. The Constitution of 1930 was abolished five years later, and the former Constitution of 1923 was reinstated.

[10] The capitulations were treaties concluded between the Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers, granting immunity for Western subjects from local courts and exemption from the payment of taxes.

[11] The financially-apt Lord Cromer himself had often complained that the capitulations regime hindered his economic policies.

[12] Agricultural workers of the Nile valley are commonly referred to as the fellaheen (the word is of Arabic origin).

[13] Cited in Stadiem, 1991 p. 249.

[14] For a more detailed discussion of Farouk’s initiatives in this matter, we refer the reader to the so-called king’s official website https://www.faroukmisr.net/farouk_achievements.htm )

[15] Afaf Lotfy Al-Sayyid-Marsot (1985): A Short History of Modern Egypt, Cambridge University Press.

[16] The Arabic title of this initiative was مشروع فاروق لإسكان الفقراء.

[17] Afaf Lotfy Al-Sayyid-Marsot (1985), p. 86.

[18]  Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid-Marsot (1977): Egypt’s Liberal Experiment: 1922-1936, University of California Press, p. 250.

[19] William Stadiem, p. 385.


  • Read also from the same author, in The Cahier des Fellows de l’IMéRA:

Legacy of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Mercantilist Development, by Ramses Abul Naga

Is sovereign borrowing a new form of colonialism? by Ramses Abul Naga

Public Finances of Egypt under the Mamluks, by Ramses Abul Naga

Labour markets in developing countries : are they really different? by Ramses Abul Naga


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