A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, November 25, 2013

Why King Farouq Missed the Conference: The First Cairo Conference, 1943, Part II

King Farouq Earlier in 1942
This is my second post on the 70th anniversary of the First Cairo Conference of 1943, the first of three continuous World War II summits held in the Middle East (First Cairo, Tehran, and Second Cairo). But this one is not about the conference itself, but about the absence of King Farouq. Although the local rulers were not participants in the Allied Conference, at the Casablanca Conference earlier in 1943, FDR had hosted a dinner for Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco, where he openly seemed to support Moroccan independence, in the presence of the local French authorities (most of whom were Vichy holdovers). But FDR did not meet Farouq on this trip to Egypt. (He did later though, on his way home after the Yalta Conference in 1945, when he met with Farouq and King "Ibn Saud" of Saudi Arabia aboard a ship in the Red Sea.)

Ahmad Hassanein Pasha
Instead, on November 24, Roosevelt received the Chief of Farouq's Royal Cabinet and Royal Chamberlain, Ahmad Hassanein Pasha (a powerful figure in his own right who may be the subject of a future blogpost) and with the Wafdist Prime Minister, Mustafa Nahhas Pasha. It is unclear if they also called on Winston Churchill; he doesn't seem to mention it in his memoirs.

So where was the King? Improbably enough, he was in an ordinary Army hospital bed in an obscure British Army field hospital at a British camp in the small town of Qassasin on the eastern edge of the Delta, midway between Cairo and Ismailia, and had been there nearly 10 days.

Needless to say, therein lies a good story, and needless to say, I'm going to tell it.

But first let me set the political context of the time. In 1936, Egypt and Britain signed a treaty which was supposed to end Britain's military occupation of Egypt, except for the Suez Canal Zone, and make Egypt (nominally independent since 1922) recognizing Egypt as fully sovereign with a right to join the League of Nations. The treaty was also a treaty of alliance, allowing Britain to reoccupy the rest of Egypt in order to protect its Ally Egypt and the Canal in time of war. And in 1939, Britain found itself at war. With first the Italians and then Rommel threatening Egypt from Libya, the British built up their forces in the country, and became concerned by what they perceived as a pro-Axis tilt in the Palace itself.

Sir Miles Lampson's title was Ambassador to Egypt and High Commissioner of the Sudan, but once the British had reoccupied Egypt he, with the backing of the British Army, began acting much more like a colonial viceroy. The King had surrounded himself with a number of Italian cronies who were, in British eyes, enemy aliens and perhaps Mussolini's spies; Lampson demanded the King get rid of them. (He never did. Lampson's own wife was the daughter of an Italian aristocrat, and the King supposedly quipped, not to Lampson's face, that "I'll get rid of my Italians when he gets rid of his.")

I did a post last year on the ‘Abdin Incident of February 4, 1942. After the fall of Prime Minister Hussein Hussein Sirri Pasha's pro-British government, the British decided to insist on a Wafdist Prime Minister. It's conventional to analyze Egypt in this period as a three-way power struggle between the King, the British, and the nationalist Wafd Party; usually the British were anti-Wafd, but this time they insisted on the King naming Wafd leader Nahhas Pasha as Prime Minister. When the King resisted, Lampson and his military counterpart showed up at the gates of ‘Abdin Palace accompanied by tanks and carrying an instrument of abdication drawn up by Sir Walter Monckton. who had done the same for King Edward VIII and was now at the Embassy in Cairo. He offered the King a choice: abdicate or appoint Nahhas.

Lampson and Nahhas in 1936 
The ‘Abdin incident is notorious among Egyptians to this day; at least in folklore, Lampson asked, "Where's the boy?" (Farouq was 22) and "I know the way" when someone tried to lead him to the King. Any British hope that forcing the King to name Nahhas would strengthen their own popularity was misguided; instead, Egyptians considered that the once nationalist Nahhas had been installed in power by British arms. And the King despised both Lampson and Nahhas.

In the 21 months between the ‘Abdin Incident and the First Cairo Conference, the once svelte young King of the late 1930s had begun to put on weight and indulge his appetites, both gastronomic and sexual, and had reached nearly 250 pounds. He had continued to feud with Nahhas, seeking to replace him, but unable to do so. Though Rommel had been stopped at El ‘Alamein, the British still suspected the King's real sympathies.

Meanwhile, Sir Miles Lampson's popularity in Egypt might be nil, Britain felt otherwise and had elevated him to the peerage as Lord Killearn. (One of those perhaps apocryphal stories that has to be told, even if untrue, claims that Noel Coward supposedly told Lord Killearn that "I understand that you are much more popular than your predecessor, Lampson.")

That brings us to November 1943. Now the King loved cars. Like some other royalty he loved fast cars. (King Ghazi of Iraq had died in a car accident in 1939 at age 29.) And Farouq loved red cars, so much so that he's reported to have banned importers from importing and selling red cars in Egypt except for the King. He had hundreds of cars at various times. All seem to have been red, though a Mercedes given to him for his 1938 wedding by Adolf Hitler seems to have started out black and been repainted a dark shade of red. (Even in his post-1952nEuropean exile, Farouq's cars would be red.)

Now back to our story. On November 15, 1943, the King decided to get out of Cairo and head to one of his other palaces, gathered some of his aides and cronies, and got one of his red Cadillacs ready, and headed out on the Cairo to Ismailia road. In open country the King was said to drive normally at least 80 mph, and along the way apparently became frustrated by finding himself stuck behind a British Army lorry (truck). apparently, the King decided to pass the truck on the two-lane road and, once in the other lane, saw oncoming traffic, and veered into the truck. (Or, if you prefer conspiracy theories, the whole thing was of course a British plot.) The car swerved off the road and hit a tree.

The King suffered two cracked ribs and a cracked pelvic bone. (There are stories the stretcher-bearers dropped the overweight King, which wouldn't have helped.) There was no concussion. Nothing life-threatening, but the pelvic injury would keep him off his feet.

An Egyptian Magazine Visits the Hospital
The nearest hospital was Military Hospital Number 6 at a British Army camp at nearby Qassasin. The King was treated by both British and Egyptian doctors; his weight seems to have been one obstacle to his being moved immediately to Cairo, but as the days went on, he seems to have been recovering well. For whatever reasons, however, the King decided he was going to enjoy a leisurely recovery in a military hospital rather than a Palace in Cairo. He was still there at the time of the First Cairo Conference; he was still there during the Second Cairo Conference; he only returned home December 7, three weeks after the accident. Why? He claimed, supposedly, he wanted to be sure he was in good shape. Some have suspected he wanted to stay well away from the Court (and perhaps his mother, Queen Nazli.) Perhaps he was even avoiding the Cairo Conferences?

This being the Middle East, the long delay fueled conspiracy theories. After the accident, the King's descent into obesity and libertinism continued, and though there was evidence of these before the accident, a theory emerged that either the pelvic accident or the British treatment had altered the King's hormonal balance and perhaps his mind in some way. The doctors said that wasn't possible, but conspiracy theories never need evidence, do they?

And that is where the King was during the Cairo Conference.

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