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    Algeria and the Wilsonian Moment

    The Big Four at Versailles, 1919

    The Fourteen Points

    In the closing stages of World War I, the American president, Woodrow Wilson, unveiled a sweeping vision for a new international order based on “liberal internationalist” principles. In his famous “Fourteen Points” speech to the US Congress in January 1918, Wilson called for the creation of an international organisation, a “league of nations,” that would maintain the peace by regulating disputes between countries, great or small. He stressed the principle of “national self-determination,” arguing that every people had the right to choose their own government, citing specifically his desire to see an independent Poland and independent Turkey emerge from the debris of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, respectively. 

    Wilson deliberately disseminated his ideas through the international press and by means of increasingly powerful radio technology, in order to raise widespread support for his agenda before he arrived at the momentous peace conference convened at the Palace of Versailles, in January 1919. The leaders of Britain, France, Italy, and the United States would decide the fate of their defeated foes— as well as huge swaths of the globe and its inhabitants. 

    Wilson was thinking principally of east-central Europe, not “the Orient”, in his advocacy of self-determination and equality between nations. Unintentionally however, his ideas also energised politics in many parts of the colonial world, where activists in places as far apart and diverse as Syria, Korea, Ireland, China, and India championed the Fourteen Points. Rather awkwardly from a diplomatic perspective, crowds of “colonials” shouted the American president’s name in mass protests against their British and French overlords. 

    In Egypt

    One of the largest such commotions occurred in Egypt, where massive unrest broke out across the country in early 1919 in response to Britain’s tightening control. The initial spark for the uprising came when the British rejected the demand of an otherwise moderate establishment politician, Saa’d Zaghlul, to send a wafd delegation to Versailles to make the case for Egyptian independence. When repression alone failed to quell the unrest, the colonial authorities did finally try to placate the protesters by allowing the wafd to proceed to the conference in April—but only after ensuring that neither Wilson nor anyone else of consequence would receive them. 

    The American president’s rebuff would live in infamy in Cairo. “Here was the man of the Fourteen Points ... denying the Egyptian people its right to self- determination and recognising the British protectorate over Egypt,” wrote the famous journalist Mohammed Haykal. “Is this not the ugliest of treacheries?! Is it not the most profound repudiation of principles?!” 

    Zaghlul’s Wafd Party, named after the failed mission to Versailles, would play a central role in Egyptian politics until the 1950s. Wilson made less of an ideological impression than a geopolitical one; he did not suggest new possibilities of what independence might be. Rather, he opened up new practical avenues of achieving it by positioning the Anglo-Egyptian power relationship in a wider international context. 

    From Egypt to Algeria

    Engaged Muslim Algerians, who held Cairo to be the capital of the Arab world, certainly followed Egyptian developments (an early Young Algerian newspaper, El Haq, or “truth,” was subtitled “The Young Egyptian”). The war’s end brought increased instability in Algeria, too. By 1918, a full third of working- age Muslim Algerian men were employed in France as either soldiers or labourers, and they returned home with a new perspective on the world as well as expectations of reward for their service. 

    German and Turkish propaganda had also tried to stir up anti-colonial sentiment in French North Africa during the war, and the Algerian Arab public enthusiastically cheered on Kemal Atatürk’s forces in their war with Greece, which broke out in May 1919, because they viewed it as a national struggle against Franco-British imperialism. In this light, the modest political reforms that Georges Clemenceau’s government implemented in February 1919— increasing to 500,000 the number of Muslims allowed to vote in a dual-college system that gave Arabs very limited say over their own affairs without challenging the pieds-noirs’ supremacy— were an inadequate response to rising discontent and a surge in directionless, uncoordinated violence. 

    Early Militant Nationalism : The Emir Khaled

    Yet even in these circumstances it was very surprising that the emir Khaled, the assimilationist, demanded in January 1919 that an Algerian delegation be allowed to attend the Versailles conference in a capacity similar to the representatives of Britain’s dominions.

    Khaled's Letter to Wilson

    Like Zaghlul, he set out for Paris with four companions in May, though he too managed only to deliver a letter to Woodrow Wilson’s staff. Addressed to “the honourable President of American Liberty,” it asked that an investigatory delegation be dispatched to Algeria in order to “decide our future fate, under the aegis of the Society of Nations.” Naturally, the letter made no impact on the Versailles proceedings, and there is no evidence that the American president actually read it. Nevertheless, the endeavour incensed the pied-noir community, who branded Khaled a dangerous subversive in thrall to foreign designs and succeeded in having him exiled to Damascus in 1924. 

    The substance of Khaled’s appeal to Wilson, undeniably at least proto-nationalist in its implications, was so discordant with his otherwise impeccable record as a Francophile assimilationist that scholars believed for many years that the pied-noir lobby had simply made the story up. 

    Yet eminent French historian Charles-Robert Ageron was eventually stunned to find a copy of the letter to Wilson in the American archives, prompting him to completely re-evaluate Khaled as the budding nationalist. 

    Revealingly, the FLN’s “official” history also came to treat him as such, reflecting the legitimacy conferred posthumously by this fleeting diplomatic initiative in spite of the rest of Khaled’s recorded positions being so anathema to the nationalist narrative. 

    Even if he did sincerely renounce the letter’s implications, his having written it demonstrates how new methods of political action could radicalise the goals those methods were meant to serve.

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