The world’s kaizers, czars, and emperors are history, but Britain’s monarchy endures
The monarchy in Britain is once again in a state of uproar.
With Meghan and Harry opting out of traditional roles as part of the royal family and the chaos it has thrown the Queen and her family into, one can only imagine the fuming and the anger going down all the way from the monarch to her grandsons and their spouses.
There was once Diana, whose life towards the end was an endless cause of misery for the royals. It is now her younger son who has caused a new problem for the family.
None of this is, of course, any suggestion that the British royals are about to go the way of history. The last time people thought the monarchy was gone for good was when Oliver Cromwell saw to it that Charles I had his head chopped off in 1649.
But then the royals roared back with a vengeance in 1660, with Charles II leading the charge.
And since then, the royals have become a precious part of tradition, with no major hiccups coming in the way, unless, of course, you happen to remember the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 for the woman he loved.
And so Elizabeth II is there and her descendants will be there. That is quite a feat, given that monarchies elsewhere have risen and then fallen by the wayside through the tortuous passages of history.
The hapless Louis XVI lost his crown and then his head in the face of a popular revolution in France. In Russia, the reign of the czars, despite Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible, collapsed with the arrival of the communists in 1917.
The historical process was at work. If the British monarchy has survived through the centuries because of its ability to adapt to changing times, the others fell on their swords because of their failure to read the writing on the wall as well as through a mistaken belief that they could hold back the tide.
In our times, Iran’s Pahlavis, with all their pretensions to grandeur, were unable to earn popular respect. The last Shah -- there were only two, counting his father -- was driven out of his kingdom barely eight years after a grandiose display of pomp and power that saw him and his third wife have crowns placed on their heads.
The Shah’s fall was well-deserved in as much as the collapse of King Farouk of Egypt in 1952 was a welcome happenstance. Lazy and given to pleasures of the sybaritic kind, he had no idea of the discontent gathering around him.
When Naguib and Nasser overthrew him in 1952, Farouk was a wreck who deserved no sympathy. In much a similar manner, the imbecilic Jean-Bedel Bokassa was undeserving of any kindness when he seized the Central African Republic in a coup and then proceeded to transform himself into Emperor Bokassa I.
Napoleon Bonaparte was his hero, but he was unable to understand that his country was not France, he was not Napoleon, and the 20th century was not the 19th century. He died in misery and shame.
In our times, monarchs have been ejected from their thrones and sometimes from their countries through sudden eruptions of political disaffection.
In 1973, Sardar Mohammad Daoud, a relative of Afghanistan’s King Zahir Shah, overthrew the monarch and swiftly turned the country into a republic. Decades later, Zahir Shah was called back to a nominal monarchy. But Afghanistan had dwindled into being a cesspool of murderous chaos.
There are, too, the stories of erratic monarchs, a prime example being Cambodia’s Norodom Sihanouk. In his days of influence, he projected himself in a diversity of roles.
He was king. And he was a singer, an actor, a movie director. His monarchy was effectively a study in why modern times were in little need of kings and emperors. His death was good riddance to irritating rubbish.
Iraq’s monarchy was brought to a violent end by Brigadier Karim Kassem’s coup in 1958. The manner of the death of the young Feisal was brutal, a sign that the men taking over the country were as medieval as those they were replacing.
But when a young Muammar Gaddafi ousted King Idris in Libya in 1969, there were reasonable rounds of cheers around the world. Libya was finally free of its predatory royals.
Yet, nothing of the kind has happened in Saudi Arabia. Incongruity underlines the name of the kingdom. Its royals have given it their family name, Saud, and have remained on the heights of power through an absolute rejection of modernity and through absolute support from the Americans.
Think of this other incongruity: A land where the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) spoke of the equality of all men and all women before Allah is burdened with an un-Islamic concept of royalty.
Perhaps the Sauds will go someday, but as long as they are there, men of liberality cannot sleep in peace. You could argue the same about the sheikhdoms in the Gulf and the royals of Kuwait. Such monarchies are in these times an eyesore, for they hold their countries back from catching up with the rest of the world.
Some have princes who do not hesitate to kill or order killings. Remember Jamal Khashoggi. Remember too the late King Hassan of Morocco. The dissident Mehdi Ben Barka disappeared in Paris in 1965, and the finger has always been pointed at Hassan for the misdeed.
There are the monarchies that survive, only just, when they should not.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is an instance. And so is Morocco, where Hassan’s son Mohammed rules.
In Greece, the cradle of democracy, King Constantine lost his throne when a bunch of colonels seized power in 1967. When in the 1970s the colonels were sent packing, the deposed king expected to be called back. The republican Constantine Karamanlis had no wish to have the monarchy restored. Greece went back to its rich heritage.
Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne survived defeat in the Second World War. But it was survival minus the original majesty of power, thanks to Douglas MacArthur’s clipping of Hirohito’s wings.
It is today Naruhito who reigns, his father Akihito having abdicated. Thailand remains, though, a major concern. Its absolute monarchy is all over the place, along with its power-driven military. Lese majeste is a weapon the monarchy continues to wield, despite Bhumibol Adulyadej’s passing.
The Nepalese monarchy is gone. The one in Bhutan tries to come to terms with the call of modernity. Sikkim lost its independence and its royals when it was incorporated in the Indian Union. Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie had his soldiers murder him in 1974.
The world’s kaisers, emperors, and czars may have become history, but Britain’s kings and queens will endure.
You cannot be sure, though, if Charles will ever possess the crown. Or should the world begin looking upon William as the next king?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.