In November 1918, when news of the armistice in Europe arrived in Cairo, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, a prominent Egyptian intellectual, was approached by a friend. “This is it!” Haykal’s friend exclaimed. “We have the right to self-determination, and therefore the English will leave Egypt.” The United States, the friend explained when asked about this outburst, “is the one who won the war. She is not an imperialist country.” Therefore,” he reasoned, “she will enforce the right to self-determination and enforce the withdrawal.”
The end of the First World War was a time of great expectations, and the American president, Woodrow Wilson, stood at its center. For a brief span of time, Wilson appeared to millions worldwide as the herald of an emerging world in which all peoples would be granted the right to determine their own future. I have called this period, stretching roughly from Wilson’s Fourteen Points Address in January 1918 to the conclusion of the Versailles Peace Treaty in June 1919, the “Wilsonian Moment” — because he, more than anyone, came to symbolize its promise.
In Egypt, the Wilsonian moment was especially poignant. When World War I began in 1914, Britain declared that Egypt, hitherto an Ottoman possession, was now a protectorate of the British Empire. This formalized British de facto dominance in Egypt, in place since the early 1880s, but it was presented as a temporary wartime measure, a fact that Egyptian nationalists would later emphasize. But the protectorate did nothing to protect Egyptians from the hardships of war; Egypt became an enormous military base and thousands of Allied troops congregated on its soil. Wartime inflation, requisitions and conscription made life hard.
At the same time, the United States and its president emerged as a champion of new ideas about the sort of international order that might follow an Allied victory. Wilson’s wartime rhetoric, and especially his increasingly strong promotion of the principle of “self-determination,” convinced many in Egypt and elsewhere that the rules of the game were about to change.