The Crack-Up: Egypt & the Wilsonian Moment, with Erez Manela

Mar 26, 2019

For about 18 months after World War I there was what historian Erez Manela calls the "Wilsonian moment"--a brief period when President Woodrow Wilson led people around the world to believe that he would champion a new world order of self-determination and rights for small nations. How did this actually play out, particularly in the case of Egypt, which was a British Protectorate at the time?

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to another episode of The Crack-Up, an occasional series of podcasts in which we think about ways in which the year 1919 affected the world we live in.

We're really lucky today to have a great authority on the year 1919, Professor Erez Manela of Harvard University, who wrote a book called The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism that in some ways was the inspiration for this series.

So Erez, welcome to The Crack-Up.

EREZ MANELA: Thank you for having me.

TED WIDMER: Can you tell our listeners, what is the "Wilsonian moment"?

EREZ MANELA: I define the Wilsonian moment as a period of time in international history roughly stretching from the Fourteen Points address, which is January of 1918, to the signing of the Versailles peace treaty, which is late June of 1919, so we're talking about a year and a half, more or less.

This is a period in international history in which U.S. President Woodrow Wilson seemed to people around the world—in North America, in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East, and elsewhere—as a figure who was heralding a future world order that was going to be very different from the one that existed before the war, a future that was outlined in the principles that were in Wilson's speeches from the Fourteen Points on, self-determination, the rights of small nations, and international cooperation through an international institution like the League of Nations.

Obviously, the expectations waxed and waned somewhat during this period, but I think this year-and-a-half period roughly brackets a time of great expectation, of great transformation in world order. I think Wilson symbolized a lot of what people expected to happen, which is why I called it The Wilsonian Moment.

TED WIDMER: It's such a poignant story because he raised hopes so high, and yet so many hopes were disappointed around the world, as you point out in detail. Do you think he knew he was on a slippery slope? He seemed to genuinely believe that human history was changing.

EREZ MANELA: Yes. I think he did believe that. I think Wilson, along with many other people at the time, was really shocked by the disaster that was the Great War, what we now call the First World War.

We have to remember that people at the time didn't know that the Second World War was coming. They of course couldn't see the future, and the war that was fought in Europe and elsewhere between 1914 and 1918 was far, far more disastrous than anyone expected in 1914 and far more disastrous than what anyone living at the time had really ever experienced. The last really major world war, or at least on the European scale, European war, was the time of Napoleon, so it was a hundred years in the past by the time we get to 1914.

What we have to remember is how shocked people were at the time by the carnage of the war and therefore how willing they were to believe that what would come after the war would have to be different, radically different, than what came before.

TED WIDMER: Do you think when he began to say words like "self-determination" he knew how many peoples of the world—not just sovereign states but ethnic peoples within states—were listening and how many would develop extremely ambitious plans for their freedom afterward?

EREZ MANELA: The short answer was that he really didn't know. He was presenting it as a general principle at first.

But I think what we have to remember is that when Wilson started using the term self-determination he was using it in a way that's very different from the way it was perceived by many others, even at the time, and certainly the way it has been perceived since by a lot of people around the world. From his perspective he was simply using the term as a synonym to this notion of consent of the governed, government by consent, which is a central piece of rhetoric that undergirded the American Revolution, that people must be governed by their consent.

He picked up on this term self-determination because the BolsheviksLenin, Trotsky—used it and injected it into the conversation in international affairs, and one of the things he wanted to do, of course, was contain and hopefully roll back the Bolshevik Revolution. One way in which he tried to do that was by co-opting their rhetoric. So he co-opted the term self-determination from the Bolsheviks.

But in terms of what he meant by it, again what he meant by it was, for him, from his perspective, identical to the phrase "consent of the governed," which he'd already used numerous times prior to the Fourteen Points. It was a central phrase in his political rhetoric. From his perspective the importance of government by consent was that it was more stable than the alternative, which he saw as autocratic government. So he was looking at the Russian Empire before the Revolution, the tsar; he was looking at the German kaiser, and what he saw was militarism and autocracy. That was his analysis and his word. The antidote to that was government by consent, that is to say, government that was answerable to the people.

His basic instinct was that the people as such were on the whole less likely than elites or militarists to get into conflicts and war because they were more likely to pay the price. Therefore, as a general principle he thought that it would advance the cause of peace.

TED WIDMER: How does this start to play out as the war ends in November 1918 in a way that makes Wilson look even more important because the United States has done so much to support the last year of the fighting? What happens to self-determination as an idea at that moment?

EREZ MANELA: It certainly explodes on the international stage. There's a combination here of the rhetoric that Wilson was increasingly being identified with, including the principle of self-determination and the rights of small nations, which the Allies purported to be fighting for, and the gathering of the peace conference in the months right after the armistice.

As you said, the armistice is concluded on November 11, 1918. Shortly thereafter Wilson heads to Europe to lead the U.S. delegation to negotiate the peace.

We have to remember how unusual that was. Wilson ends up spending more than six months in Europe. A sitting U.S. president had never spent anywhere close to this amount of time outside the United States, either before or since, actually. We've never had a president go overseas for anywhere near the amount of time that Wilson spent there.

That's another hint both to how important he thought his mission was and also how largely he loomed in the minds of war-weary people in Europe and also elsewhere. His willingness to go to Europe himself and the reception he received there, the way he was fêted there—in Britain, in France, in Italy; he did this short European tour before the peace conference started, and he met adoring crowds in most of those places.

So it seemed like he had a lot of leverage, he had a lot of power. It seemed like that to him; it seemed like that to many observing around the world.

You have to remember that by this point information was moving essentially at the speed of light because newspapers were using the telegraph to move information around, so if Wilson is being celebrated, say, in Rome, within two days people can read about that in China. So the news of his reception and his purported power and his purported mission in arriving in Europe really spread around the world and got a lot of people motivated to think and do things that they hadn't thought and done before.

TED WIDMER: Your piece in the Times was focused on Cairo and the way Egyptians were following this global news story. They too are current with what's happening. They're getting the news in immediate real time as Wilson's speaking and then traveling in Europe.

EREZ MANELA: Yes, absolutely. That's right.

Like I say in my piece, the Egyptians who were opposed to British rule, British power in Egypt—it was then known as the British Protectorate over Egypt—moved very quickly. I think within a day or two of the announcement of the armistice a delegation arrived at the office of the British High Commissioner to ask—and it's interesting. What they ask for is permission to travel to Paris to put their claims before the peace conference.

I think that's fascinating because here we have a protectorate that the British government in London declared over Egypt, and yet here we have Egyptian leaders who are opposing this Protectorate asking to go, not to London to negotiate with the British government about this protectorate, but asking to go to Paris to put this before the international forum gathering there, and particularly before President Wilson.

In effect, from the British perspective they were trying to make a kind of end-run around British authority and appeal to what Wilson might have called "world opinion." That's just one hint of the extent to which people really did believe that the future of world affairs and the future of the specific demands of various peoples and places would be decided in Paris as part of the negotiations under the influence of the U.S. president.

TED WIDMER: It's so interesting in so many ways because the British and Americans are extremely close allies at this moment, so one would expect the British to agree in theory anyway with the pronouncements of the American president, but as your piece describes they really don't agree at all with any of the ideas of self-determination.

EREZ MANELA: It's interesting. The British leaders, all the way up to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, were actually quite aware during the last year of the war of the developing and growing contradiction between Wilson's rhetoric and the Allied rhetoric around the rights—the Brits were also using the rhetoric of the rights of small nations with reference, of course, to primarily, first and foremost, the German invasion of Belgium. That was the paradigmatic small nation whose rights were being violated for Europeans and North Americans during the war. They were aware of this contradiction, and they hoped that they could contain it.

Besides, the British and the Americans were allies, but they were not quite as close as we might imagine. They actually had quite a few rather diverging interests.

For example, if we look at the case of Egypt, the British had declared a protectorate over Egypt in 1914, soon after the war broke out, and presented it as a wartime measure. The United States throughout the war, even after the United States joined the war in April of 1917, did not formally recognize the British claim over Egypt because Wilson wanted to preserve a kind of flexibility, a freedom of action. Actually, part of the story that's told in that piece in The New York Times, certainly part of the background of that story, is very concerted British efforts to get the Americans to do that after the war, after protests and demonstrations break out in the streets of Egypt.

To convince the Americans basically they tell Wilson's advisors: "Look, it's your fault that Egyptians are protesting. They're doing this because they think you're going to help them. So if you say you recognize our authority in Egypt, they'll stop because they'll understand they have no hope of getting you on their side."

There are actually behind the scenes furious diplomatic efforts by the British. As I think I mention in the piece, they try to convince Wilson that these Egyptian efforts at the same time represent an Islamic fanaticism and also Bolshevism, which is an interesting mishmash of ideas, but that's the rhetoric. That's what they say.

Eventually, they do get that recognition that they want from the United States, but it actually takes them some significant effort. Wilson is at least at first reluctant to give it, but then does in the end become convinced that that recognition will lessen or stop or reduce the violence that he sees breaking out in Egypt.

Egyptians, of course, as I say in the piece, are extremely disappointed and really shocked. They can't believe that the so-called "prophet of self-determination" had just betrayed them in such a fashion.

TED WIDMER: As you point out, it's a really diverse group of Egyptians. It's not just a couple of radicals trying to become a new country; it's a very broad cross-section of Egyptian society.

EREZ MANELA: Yes, that's right. What we see in 1919 in Egypt in really an unprecedented way—and it's true in other places, it's true in Korea, it's true in China—a mobilization that is broader in terms of class, in terms of gender, in terms of sects across Egyptian society than anything we had seen previously.

So we see Egyptian women. There's a historic demonstration of Egyptian women on I believe March 16, 1919.

TED WIDMER: Yes, that's fascinating.

EREZ MANELA: That is something that as far as I know, to have women come out in the public square like that was to that point unprecedented in Egypt in those numbers.

We have Egyptian Christians and even Egyptian Jews come out and say that they support the revolution, that this is about the Egyptian nation and its liberty, not about a certain sect or religion. We have people of all classes, from laborers and farmers all the way up to landowners and elites, and they very explicitly in their material make sure to emphasize the breadth of the support that they have.

Actually, in the flag that they make—I have it right here in front of me—for the 1919 revolution, it's a green background, and they have both the Islamic crescent and the Christian cross—

TED WIDMER: That's amazing.

EREZ MANELA: —both of them on the flag precisely because they want to represent the fact that Egyptians, both Christian and Muslim, support this movement.

TED WIDMER: Wow. What an image.

Then the Egyptian leaders of nationalism persevere. They're not getting a lot of support, but they don't give up. Can you tell us what happens to them?

EREZ MANELA: The main leader who is at the head of this delegation that is put together to ask to go to Paris, as I say in the piece, first he and several of his supporters are arrested by the British authorities and exiled to Malta, which is an island the British controlled right in the middle of the Mediterranean. But that leads to an even stronger response in the Egyptian streets and stronger, bigger demonstrations and protests, and various acts of sabotage against British telegraph lines and so forth across Egypt.

What the London government ends up doing is they end up replacing the high commissioner and sending a general who was very prominent in the war itself to take command of the situation. One of the things that he does is he decides—after the United States agrees to recognize the protectorate—to release Zaghlul and his supporters from their internment in Malta as a kind of effort to let some pressure out and say, "Okay, we're letting you go to Paris."

Now that the British are sure that the Americans won't support the Egyptian claim, they let them go to Paris. They go to Paris. They're not received in any formal way by the peace conference. Nevertheless, they try to advance their case. They put out all sorts of pamphlets and various kinds of materials. Zaghlul persists in sending telegrams and messages to various world leaders, including Wilson.

After the peace treaty is signed, he and his supporters actually try to influence the debate in the U.S. Senate—this is late 1919—over the Versailles Peace Treaty. So they hope to find some leverage there. At the same time, they formalize their delegation into a political party and start negotiations with the British over the removal of the protectorate and the granting of Egyptian independence, which actually does happen in a circumscribed way in 1922. So there actually are concrete results from that movement.

Of course, the British reserve various important aspects to themselves, particularly control of the Suez Canal, which from the British imperial perspective was absolutely indispensable for the defense of the British Empire, but they do give Egyptians at least formal independence in 1922 as a result of this movement and this delegation and the negotiations that then occurred even after the Wilsonian moment petered out and disappeared.

TED WIDMER: How do Egyptians today remember these events? I assume they admire the leaders of independence. How do they think about the British and American roles a hundred years after the fact?

EREZ MANELA: That's a great question. There has been so much history in Egypt since 1919 that I'm not sure that the events of 1919 themselves loom very large in Egyptian historical memory. Certainly, Saad Zaghlul, the leader of that movement, is remembered oftentimes as the father of the nation.

The events are also commemorated in the name of the square or the plaza in central Cairo where these demonstrations were centered. That square was renamed after the 1919 events Liberation Square, Tahrir Square in Arabic.

Of course, Tahrir Square was also the epicenter of the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Now how many of the protestors who gathered in Tahrir Square knew the full history of why it was named that, I honestly can't tell you. But the history is etched; it's written in the name of that place at the center of Cairo where these protests happened.

TED WIDMER: It's an amazing way you end the piece by bringing 2011 and the Arab Spring into the context, as you say, right in all the same places. It just settles right over the older history.

I guess you could say Egyptians are still seeking self-determination. It's arguable, but most would probably say they're not where they want to be.

EREZ MANELA: If we understand self-determination in the original sense that I think Wilson used the term, which is government by consent, then one could argue that hasn't yet arrived in Egypt. So, yes. In that sense, if we're talking about government by consent, I think it's quite plausible to think that Egyptians and actually many other peoples around the world are still looking for the perfection of that form of government in their own context.

TED WIDMER: You said that beautifully both in this podcast and in the piece. I can't thank you enough, because it was the thrill of reading your book a few years ago and the feeling that 1919 was still very much with us that I think led to the creation of this series this year in The New York Times. So these ideas ricochet back and forth. I'm really grateful to you as a fellow historian for saying all these things so clearly.

EREZ MANELA: I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.

TED WIDMER: Thanks so much. We've been talking with Professor Erez Manela of Harvard University, and this has been another episode of The Crack-Up.

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