In Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany’s bestselling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building, an aging aristocrat declares: “It was a different age. Cairo was like Europe. It was clean and smart and the people were well mannered and respectable and everyone knew his place exactly…”
Fewer and fewer people remember Egypt as it once was, a glittering romantic metropolis and a genuine regional hub for culture and the arts – it is an Egypt that now only lives in the collective memory of some exiles, the result of dictatorships both republican and Islamic.
Prince Osman Rifaat Ibrahim was barely two years old when his family was forced to leave his native Egypt, after the 1952 Free Officers’ revolution. As members of the dynasty of Mohamed Ali, founder of modern Egypt, they had become persona non grata. His father, Prince Amr Ibrahim, was blacklisted as a potential threat to the new order. He had been a high commander of the Special Police during World War II, and enjoyed a great deal of support among certain circles. As a grandson of Mohamed Ali’s eldest son, he was viewed as a contender for the throne.
Overnight, their family lost everything, as the state confiscated extensive properties and all of their personal belongings, including priceless antiques and artworks, by order of the Revolutionary Command Council. There were three palatial homes in Cairo, three buildings in coastal Alexandria, and vast swaths of agricultural land on which they grew cotton, then a highly profitable crop. With nothing left in Egypt, they went into exile, first to Italy and later to Switzerland, where Prince Osman grew up among other Egyptian aristocrats.
Today, like the rest of the world, the 63-year-old prince watches from afar as chaos unfolds in Egypt, wondering whether there will ever be a happy ending to the story that began six decades ago.
“When this latest revolution started a little over two years ago, I was hopeful that it might be the end of nearly 60 years of military dictatorship,” he told Al Jazeera. “Unfortunately it was not, and where we are headed is gloomy.”
Egypt is ruined and whatever regime comes in, nepotism and corruption will prevail. The people have been cheated and, as usual, they will be cheated again.
On the coup d’état that ousted President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, he reflects: “Egypt is happy, but I wonder what for? No more Morsi, even though he was elected by a majority. And now the army that brought him to power will find another Morsi or Torsi. Nobody seems to understand that the army removed Hosni Mubarak, and now they’ve removed Morsi. Tomorrow they will remove someone else.”
Comparing the army cadre to the Mamluks, a ruling class of soldiers who governed Egypt from 1210-1517, and continued to hold sway as landowners until 1811, he added: “Egypt is ruined and whatever regime comes in, nepotism and corruption will prevail. The people have been cheated and, as usual, they will be cheated again.”
Since 2001, Prince Osman has resided in Madrid, working as a consultant for financial firms dealing with Turkey, Russia and Central Asia. Over the years, he has attempted to take legal steps to reclaim the property that had once belonged to his family, but he has faced hurdles every step of the way.
“[Saudi Arabia’s] King Khaled and King Fahd had intervened on our behalf on numerous occasions, asking the Egyptians that some of the property ought to be returned to the families. They promised but never did anything about it,” he recounted. “Whatever government comes next, thieves do not give back what they steal.
“My mother’s house was turned into a police station, and later some Arab League office,” he said, mournfully. His mother was Ottoman Princess Nedjla Hibetullah, granddaughter of both the last Caliph Abdül Medjid II (1922-1924) and the last Sultan Mehmet VI (1918-1922)
Today, the magnificent neo-Islamic palace that once belonged to Prince Osman’s father in Cairo’s district of Gezirah has become a museum for ceramic tiles. Known as the Prince Amr Ibrahim Palace, it was built in 1921 by the last of the Balians, the illustrious family of Armenian architects in the Ottoman court. By some estimates, the property may be worth more than 200 million euros ($257m).
The Spanish model
In 1985, a few years after President Sadat reinstated their passports, Prince Osman travelled to Egypt for the first time since his forcible exile.
“The atmosphere had been described to me so well that it felt like I had never left,” he recalled. “But certainly the country had changed. The city was falling apart. And you could see the onset of what has happened in most Middle Eastern cities today… The unruly constructions, which destroy everything of what used to be a very nice city.”
Asked what he thought would be the solution to Egypt’s malaise, Prince Osman cited the example of Spain, which successfully reinstated its monarchy following a devastating civil war and an era of fascist dictatorial rule. It now enjoys a viable democratic system.
“The dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco chose the actual king Juan Carlos de Borbon as his successor, to reestablish democracy in the country and it worked. If this were done in Egypt – it might make people smile, but I believe that, especially the youth, with whom I have talked a lot, would receive it well,” he said.
A neutral person above all parties concerned is a real factor of stability. Restoring the monarchy would certainly do that. A king is above parties, he unites the nation.
While he conceded that the final days of King Farouk’s reign may have damaged the reputation of the Egyptian monarchy, he claimed that many of the shocking reports that contributed to destroying the deposed monarch were vastly exaggerated by British and US agents.
“The Spanish model is certainly an option, because it worked. A neutral person above all parties concerned is a real factor of stability. Restoring the monarchy would certainly do that. A king is above parties, he unites the nation. The reputation of the royal family is not tarnished in Egypt, suffice it to see the hundreds of blogs on the net. Quite the contrary, the lies said against it for all these years are now fully perceived,” said Prince Osman, himself co-author of Mehemet Ali Le Grand [“The Great Mohamed Ali”], published in France and Egypt in 2005.
An implausible dream?
John Bell, a former Canadian diplomat in Egypt, dismisses this option as “not plausible”.
“Monarchy… has no real and deep roots in Egypt – the pharaoh complex is another matter altogether, and in this context of desire for freedoms and end to any authoritarianism, Mubarak or Muslim Brothers, these ideas are fanciful,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ironically, in the view of many Egyptians today, that role of impartial overseer proposed by Prince Osman is already taken. They suggest that the army fulfills the function of impartial overseer of Egyptian politics – notwithstanding the controversy over the July 3 coup.
“I don’t think the monarchy is associated with neutrality in Egyptian political culture today,” said Pascale Ghazaleh, an Egyptian historian. “The army was able to take that role after 1952, presenting itself as the corporate institution most capable of representing society as a whole, against the particular interests and corruption of the monarchy and the Wafd, and that legacy still seems strong today.”
In 2005, Ghazaleh’s mother, Fayza Hassan, penned her memoirs, A Flight of Kites: Growing Out of the Nasser Years, chronicling life for Egypt’s elites after the 1952 revolution.
“My family were certainly no supporters of [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, although my parents stayed on until 1967, though the nationaliations cost my father his job,” recalled Ghazaleh, an associate professor of history at the American University in Cairo. “I recall my mother saying that they would meet their friends at the Gezirah Club and run their hands under the table to make sure that there were no microphones planted there. She also told me that intelligence personnel would come on the line while she was speaking on the telephone and shout ‘stop speaking French!’
“Was this class paranoia, or my mother’s love of a good dramatic story? There was probably some truth to it, even if reality was not quite as vivid as she depicted it. But the 1967 war was what made up my father’s mind: the extent of the government’s lies, and the magnitude of the defeat, proved unbearable.”
Whether or not the proposal to reinstate the monarchy catches on, for the time being, Prince Osman is channelling his efforts into education projects. He serves as president of the Lisbon-based Royal Institute of Mohamed Ali, which facilitates scholarships at universities in Europe in specialisations relevant to Egypt and other countries affiliated with the institution.
The Royal Institute also sponsors exhibitions and publications on the legacy of Mohammed Ali (1805-1848), and that of this dynasty, with special emphasis on literature, art, and religious tolerance.
And what does he expect will come of all these revolutions and counter-revolutions rocking his native country?
“I see more pain and hardship, I am not optimistic at all. Nevertheless, one has to put his trust in the youth of Egypt. They are the ones who can influence its future,” he said.
“I believe that when one starts an uprising or a revolution, one must go to the end. The people trusted the army, and they were wrong.”
Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @ummanais