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Friction from the sidelines: diplomacy, religion and culture in American-Egyptian relations, 1919-1939.

This paper surveys U.S.-Egyptian contacts in the interwar years, focusing on three prominent issues--U.S. recognition of the British protectorate in Egypt, American missionary activities, and American archeological interests in Egypt. This paper challenges the standard narrative, which puts the United States strictly "on the sidelines" in this period and holds that it enjoyed much good will among Egyptians. Rather, this paper argues that though U.S. officials did aim to win Egyptian good will, there were nevertheless several important points of friction between Americans and Egyptians in the interwar years that played a role in shaping Egyptian perceptions of the United States. Therefore, if we seek to understand U.S.-Egyptian relations in the post-World War II era, we cannot ignore the experiences and lessons of the earlier period.


American contacts with Egypt before the Second World War remain, by and large, a scholarly terra incognita. Though there are numerous studies of American-Egyptian relations, the vast majority begin their coverage at the end of the Second World War, ignoring earlier contacts. (1) John A. DeNovo's American Interests and Policies in the Middle East 1900-1939 is one of the very few studies that survey, however briefly, American-Egyptian relations in the inter-war years. However, DeNovo's survey--like other studies that deal with that period--focuses solely on American interests, policies and activities, while the Egyptian side of the story remains almost entirely mute. (2) When a bilateral perspective is adopted it invariably deals with American-British, rather than American-Egyptian, relations, and sources in Arabic are rarely consulted, if at all. (3) Yet any serious attempt to tell the story of American involvement and impact in Egypt during the inter-war period cannot afford to ignore the Egyptian side. Egypt achieved formal--if partial independence as early as 1922, and from the mid-1920s direct American relations with an increasingly independent and assertive Egyptian government began to take shape.

The existing treatments of U.S. policy toward Egypt in the inter-war period emphasizes the minor and non-political nature of American interests and activities there. The United States was "on the sidelines"; it was no more than "Britain's junior partner," always recognizing British primacy in Egypt and deferring to British policies and interests there. (4) A complementary assertion regarding this period is that despite its minor role in Egypt during that period, the United States by and large enjoyed a singularly favorable reputation among the Egyptian leadership and public. Gail Meyer, in a brief prelude to her survey of post-1945 American-Egyptian relations, asserts that "by 1945 America's contacts with Egypt had harvested a store of good will." She adds that the United States' "educational, missionary, and philanthropic endeavors had established an image untarnished by a history of colonial domination," and the United States "stood high in the esteem of the average Egyptian citizen." (5) This assertion, as this paper argues, is at best only partially correct, as it fails to account for the currents of disappointment and suspicion that emerged in Egyptian views of the United States during the inter-war years.

This paper takes up the task of exploring American-Egyptian contacts in the inter-war years, contending that despite the American position "on the sidelines" during this period, the exploration of these early contacts is significant for two reasons. First, it exposes the complexity of the American position toward the colonized peoples after the First World War, as Wilsonian ideals of self-determination collided against American interests--and American sentiments--that required preserving the alliance with the colonial powers, particularly with Great Britain. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it illustrates how the image of the United States in Egyptian eyes was transformed in the wake of the First World War: first the high hopes for American support in Egypt's struggle for self-determination; then the bitter disappointment as the United States declined to apply Wilson's principles to Egypt in the manner the Egyptians had hoped; and then, as Egyptian sentiments of national identity and pride continue to develop, the emerging perception of the United States as a source of cultural threats, threats embodied in the American efforts to influence Egypt's future through the activities of American missionaries, and to shape Egypt's past through the practices of archeology and Egyptology.

In examining American-Egyptian contacts during the inter-war period, this paper focuses on the American-Egyptian dimension (rather than the American-British one), integrating the Egyptian voice back into the narrative. It argues that the story of American-Egyptian contacts during the inter-war period is more complex--and far more interesting--than the standard interpretation suggests. The paper, however, does not offer a chronological narrative of these contacts, nor does it present an exhaustive survey of all the issues they included. Rather, it focuses on three major issues that played an important role in shaping the patterns of mutual perceptions and interaction: the question of Egyptian independence in the immediate post-war years; the conflicts surrounding American archaeological interests in Egypt; and the political and diplomatic significance of the activities of Americans missionaries in Egypt. This paper endeavors to fill a lacuna in the historical literature on American-Egyptian relations in order to endow our understanding of American-Egyptian relations in the post-1945 period with historical depth and context. Furthermore, it offers the American-Egyptian case as an example of the complexity of the American position toward, and contacts with, colonized peoples after the introduction of Wilsonianism on the world scene, and of the transformation of America's image as Wilsonian rhetoric gave way to political isolationism and as rising nationalist sentiments came up against various aspects of American cultural influences in Egypt, as elsewhere.

The interpretation that places the United States "on the sidelines" during the inter-war period, while generally correct, neglects to account for the influential, if indirect, role that it played in Egypt in the wake of the First World War. President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, publicly articulated in January 1918, carried a promise of self-determination and freedom for all peoples, and they resonated widely within Egyptian public discourse and had an immense influence on the hopes and expectations of Egyptian nationalist leaders and the Egyptian public. (6) Muhammad Husayn Haykal, a prominent liberal constitutionalist and an important political and intellectual figure in inter-war Egypt, recorded the reaction to Wilson's proclamation in his memoirs. He recounted that upon the announcement of Wilson's points, a jubilant friend exclaimed: "This is it, my friend! We have the right to self-determination, and therefore the English will leave Egypt." When Haykal expressed doubts, the friend declared: "No!! The United States is the one who won the war. She is not an imperialist country. She truly wants that there will not be another war. Therefore, she will enforce the right to self-determination and enforce the withdrawal." (7) Although Haykal's account may be colored by his later turn to Islamic tradition in the 1930s, there is little reason to doubt its gist.

Such was the excitement aroused in Egypt by Wilson's principles, such were the expectations for imminent independence, that Lord Lloyd, the British high commissioner in Egypt in the mid-1920s, blamed the irreconcilable position adopted by the Egyptian nationalists toward the British on "the incursion of America into world politics." (8) By the end of 1918 Egyptian nationalists, led by Sa'd Zaghlul, who would later be remembered as the "father of the nation," organized a delegation to present the case for Egyptian independence before the Peace Conference in Paris. The British refused the delegation permission to travel and in March 1919 they deported Zaghlul to Malta, sparking a massive wave of demonstrations and strikes known in Egyptian historiography as the "1919 Revolution." Wilson's Fourteen Points apparently left a strong impression upon Zaghlul and gave him much encouragement as he embarked on the arduous struggle for Egypt's independence. According to one account the only item found on Zaghlul's person when he was arrested was a copy of the Daily Express that listed Wilson's points. (9)

During the tense months of early 1919 Zaghlul, striving to enlist Wilson's support for his cause, dispatched a series of telegrams to the president. The Egyptian leader repeatedly pleaded for an audience, with Wilson in Paris, assuring the "eminent philosopher and statesmen" that
   no people more than the Egyptian people has felt
   strongly the joyous emotion of the birth of a new era
   which, thanks to your virile action, is soon going to
   impose itself upon the universe, and to spread everywhere
   all the benefits of a peace whose calm and durability
   will no longer be troubled by the ambitions of
   hypocrisy or the old-fashioned policy of hegemony
   and furthering selfish national interests. (10)

The president, however, was not about to irk his British allies by supporting Egyptian aspirations for independence, and the only response Zaghlul received was a terse note from Wilson's personal secretary stating that the president was too busy to see him.

In Egypt, it was not only political leaders who hoped to obtain American support for the national struggle against the British. As the "1919 Revolution" unfolded in the streets of Egypt, a stream of telegrams and letters arrived at the American agency from Egyptians of various walks of life who decried British oppression and solicited urgent American assistance in resisting it. (11) In one such telegram several Egyptian dignitaries protested the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations and the unjust slaying of innocents by the British. They declared that they turned to the United States for help because they "believe in President Wilson and in his principles of liberty and human fraternity" and in "American disinterestedness and in American chivalry," and they exhorted the United States "to realize the solidarity of humanity" adding that "if you want peace in the world you must help the cause of right and liberty in Egypt." Another telegram appealed to a perceived American sensitivity to the mistreatment of women. Signed by "The Ladies of Egypt," it stated that during a "pacific demonstration" British troops "leveled their weapons at us and kept us standing thus for two hours under a burning sun. Such is the treatment inflicted by the British troops occupying this country upon the ladies. This fact alone without commentary of any sort shows clearly the persistence of the British in employing brute force even toward women, in order to stamp out our unanimous movement." (12)

Yet the United States did not help. In March 1919, as Egyptians demonstrated against Zaghlul's deportation in front of foreign agencies in Cairo, the State Department instructed the American representative, Hampson Gary, to avoid any act that could be interpreted as showing support for the nationalists. (13) A month later the United States dealt Egyptian nationalist aspirations a far more devastating blow. On 22 April 1919 Gary delivered a brief official note to the British high commissioner in Egypt informing him that "the President recognizes the British Protectorate over Egypt." The recognition was made public just as the Egyptian delegation, headed by Zaghlul, landed in Marseilles on its way to Paris to present its case before the Peace Conference. The Egyptians, and Zaghlul personally, were caught unprepared. They were "shocked, their faith in the Allies was shaken, and despair began to seep into their hearts." (14) Lord Lloyd also believed that the American declaration had a devastating impact on Egyptian aspirations, remarking that with the United States' recognition of the protectorate, "Zaghlul's last hope of effective action in Paris disappeared." (15)

The Egyptian nationalists had harbored high hopes for American support for their cause, but the American decision abruptly squelched these hopes and left them with a sense of bitter betrayal which was not easily forgotten. (16) Writing some three decades after the event, Muhammad Haykal recalled that the decision fell on the Egyptians "like a bolt of lightening":
   Here is the man of the fourteen principles, among
   them the right to self-determination, denying the
   Egyptian people its right to self-determination, and
   recognizing the British protectorate over Egypt, and
   doing all that before the delegation on behalf of the
   Egyptian people had arrived in Paris to defend its
   claim, and before President Wilson had heard one
   word from them! Is this not the ugliest of treacheries?!
   Is it not the most profound repudiation of principles?! (17)

These strong words, which stand out against the generally calm and moderate tone of Haykal's memoirs, underline the powerful impact that the proclamation of Wilsonian ideals and their subsequent rapid abandonment by the American government--had on the hopes of Egyptian nationalists and on their perception of the United States.

The reasons for the American decision to recognize the protectorate are not difficult to gauge, since the desire to preserve good relations with America's British allies effectively precluded any possibility of lending support to the Egyptian nationalist cause. Moreover, the decision was apparently not a difficult one to make. William C. Bullitt, a member of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, testified that at Paris a British official and Lloyd-George confidant, Sir William Wiseman, informed Wilson of the British quandary in Egypt. The Egyptian nationalists, reported Wiseman, were interpreting the president's Fourteen Points to mean that the president of the United States thought that Egypt should have her independence, and that "they were using that to foment revolution." Wiseman argued that "since the President had provoked this trouble by the fourteen points" he should allay it by declaring that the United States would recognize the British protectorate. The menacing specter of the Russian Revolution was still fresh in Wilson's mind, and it undoubtedly rendered the British appeal to the danger of revolution in Egypt all the more effective. So effective, in fact, that according to Wiseman, the issue was raised at breakfast and already sealed by lunchtime. (18)

This apparent ease of decision notwithstanding, the phrasing of the recognition itself suggested that the position of the United States vis-a-vis Egypt was somewhat more complex. In the same note informing the high commissioner of the United States' recognition of the protectorate Gary added that "the President and the American people have every sympathy with the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people for a further measure of self-government but that they view with regret any effort to obtain the realization thereof by a resort to violence." (19) This paragraph was so phrased, reported Gary, that "it gave the opportunity for a slightly diverse interpretation by the European and Arabic press." The Americans tried to have their cake and eat it, too: they wanted to placate the British by recognizing the protectorate, but they also attempted to salvage their reputation as supporters of liberty among the Egyptians. The purpose of the last paragraph, Gary explained, was to "attain this dual end, whereby the British policy in Egypt is vindicated and the Egyptian Nationalist supporters rebuked for their excesses, while spared an immoderate discomfiture which might have entailed considerable bitter feeling directed against the United States." (20) The American government would not help the Egyptians in their struggle for independence, but it did want, to the extent possible, to retain their good will.

This maneuver, however, did not succeed in preventing "bitter feelings" among the Egyptians, though the damage done to American prestige in Egypt by the recognition of the protectorate was not sufficiently appreciated by American diplomats at the time. In fact, American officials believed that they had successfully achieved their "dual-end," and Gary reported that "the announcement appears to have had a most salutary effect upon the general situation." He admitted that the decision, "like a bolt from the blue, shattered the Egyptian Nationalist hopes and aspirations," but assured his superiors that it greatly pleased "a very large number of responsible Egyptians" and that even the Sultan of Egypt himself, "while regretting the necessity therefor, welcomed the President's announcement as affording a practicable solution of the impasse which had been reached here." (21) The American representative in Alexandria did report that the announcement of the American decision caused "dismay among the natives" and a "revulsion of feeling toward the United States," but added that the "better class natives" were "glad of the American Government's declaration as it has dispelled any illusions on the part of the people that the United States were in any sense of the word 'backing' them or encouraging them to oppose the British by committing acts of violence." (22) Just who these "better class natives" were was left unspecified in the dispatch apparently this group was simply defined by its approving attitude toward the American position.

Some "natives," however, remained unconvinced by this logic. In the weeks following the American declaration dozens of messages poured into the American agency protesting the recognition and beseeching the United States to support Egyptians in their struggle against British oppression. One such message, signed by 72 Egyptian physicians, called upon America, as the "recognized champion of Right and Justice to the weaker members of the great family of the Human Race," to offer the Egyptian people not only "platonic sympathy" but "real and active help to realize their legitimate national aspirations." (23) A memorandum presented on behalf of "the students of the Egyptian universities and higher schools" described the American decision once more as having "fallen on the Egyptian People as a thunderbolt from a clear summer sky," and added that while they did not for a moment doubt the president's "sincerity to his ideals" or "fidelity to his principles," they assumed that he was not "fully informed on the subject of Egyptian aspirations, or, well-acquainted with the factors underlying the Egyptian movement" and had therefore "allowed himself to be hustled into a course of action, which is obviously well-meant and honourably inspired." (24) The students, seeking to dispel the president's fears regarding the nature of the Egyptian independence movement, reassured him that the Egyptian national movement is "neither religious, nor xenophobe" and "far from being bolchevist [sic] in any sense." They concluded by expressing their confidence that the president and people of the United States would not "for long withhold their moral weight and political influence from the side of Right in the present test between Might and Right." (25)

Thus, even after the American recognition of the protectorate many Egyptians still hoped to succeed in enlisting American support for their cause. Zaghlul himself, assessing the dynamics of American domestic politics at the time, believed that if the administration would not offer him concrete support then perhaps Congress would. (26) In June 1919 Zaghlul announced in the Egyptian press that the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate had decided that Egypt was "neither under Turkish authority nor Great Britain" but rather "self-governed." The British high commissioner immediately asked Gary to issue a denial, and one was indeed put out within a few days. Gary reported with characteristic optimism that the denial "was of striking utility in calming down the local situation and exerted a most sobering influence upon the native population, buoyed by false hopes of American support." He added that the denial would "discourage any further attempts at misrepresentation of the attitude of the United States by Nationalist agents ... with a view to exciting Egyptian public opinion." (27)

Far from bringing calm, the American dementi ignited a furor of discussions and interpretations in the Egyptian press. Many observed that the phrasing of the denial was ambiguous if not misleading and stressed the importance of the Senate committee decision. One Egyptian paper saw the committee's decision as
   proof that the Egyptian Question has attracted the
   attention of the New World, and that Egypt has won
   the sympathy of the supporters of liberty. This is ...
   the first time the Americans have come to realize that
   there are inhabitants in Egypt who are not barbarians
   or negroes or red-skinned, but are rather the heirs of
   an ancient civilization who are demanding to occupy
   their due place under the sun. (28)

Another paper declared that the news of the committee's decision "produced profound emotion in Egypt" and "filled Egyptians with joy," and it vowed "to prove the inanity" of the American dementi. The foreign press in Egypt, however, took a different tack. A French language paper seized the opportunity to assert that "Zaghloul pacha was deceived" and that this incident is "bound to destroy without redemption his reputation as a statesman." (29)

Though Egyptian nationalists still did not give up completely the hope of enlisting American help, their faith in the United States had clearly diminished. In November 1919 Zaghlul, still in Paris attempting to get a hearing for his case, sent Wilson a telegram imploring the president "not to leave Egypt alone in her fight against England the implacable." But the same message also hinted of his waning faith in Wilson as he wrote:
   The Egyptian people hailed you more than any other
   people as the Chief of a new doctrine which was to
   have assured peace and prosperity to the world. This
   era which your principles promised would indeed have
   given satisfaction to all, to the great as well as the
   small, the strong as well as the feeble, and the powerful
   as well as the oppressed. For having had faith in
   your principles ... the Egyptian people ... see themselves
   today suffering under the most barbarous treatment
   of [sic] the part of the British authorities. (30)

In November 1919 a delegation of Egyptian nationalist leaders arrived in the United States to press its case, obtaining visas despite early inclinations within the State Department to deny entry on the grounds that the delegation "might have a harmful effect upon Anglo-American relations." (31) The Egyptians presented their case before Congress and also pleaded it in a message to the secretary of state. They contended that despite the American recognition of the protectorate, it was clearly not the intention of the United States government to allow the British to rob Egypt of its independence. They emphasized Egypt's contribution to the war effort and, alluding to Wilson's principles, intoned: "Is Egypt to continue to be ruled by might, or are we really in the dawn of a new day when justice and right shall reign?" (32) But this new day was not to be. Though the Egyptians did manage to garner some support in Congress and within liberal circles, they failed to obtain any concrete assistance for their cause from the American government. (33)

By the early 1920s it had become clear to Egyptians that the American policy was one of acquiescence to British domination over Egypt. In December 1924, when the assassination by an Egyptian of the British commander of the Egyptian army, Sir Lee Stack, led to the imposition of harsh punitive measures by the British, Egyptian leaders voiced their protest to American representatives and called for American support against the measures. This time, however, it was largely a perfunctory gesture, reflecting little hope of obtaining any tangible American assistance. (34) Indeed, the State Department did not see fit to deviate from its quiescent policy. When Senator Albert Cummins informed the department about telegrams he received from Egyptian parliamentarians protesting British actions, the secretary of state, Charles Hughes, replied: "in my opinion, no action or acknowledgement is required." (35)

Despite the official American quiescence, the Egyptian nationalists, who continued to campaign energetically against the British in the. 1920s, found a staunch ally in the American minister to Cairo, J. Morton Howell. Howell, a retired physician from Ohio who got his post as an old friend of President Harding, had nothing but disdain for two things: alcohol--he was a steadfast supporter of Prohibition--and British rule over Egypt. Dr. Howell delighted Egyptian nationalists with his scathing public criticisms of British policies. He accused Britain of aggression and perfidy toward Egypt, of condoning child labor and peddling opium and alcohol, and asserted that the "imperialistic and unjust attitude of the British cannot but continue to breed the most intense hatred among the people of Egypt and those who share with them the belief that Egypt should have her independence." (36) He reserved special scorn for the British high commissioner Lord Lloyd, whom he described as "a constant thorn in the sides of the Egyptian people." (37) Howell did not shy from suggesting that in order to extricate themselves from the vise in which they were being held, the people of Egypt needed "sympathetic help by the powers"--meaning, of course, the United States first and foremost. (38)

Howell's strong convictions were not shared by the cautious, pragmatic career diplomats in the State Department, whom Howell disdained almost as much as he did the British. Howell held that many career diplomats were "absolutely unfit, morally or intellectually," to represent the United States The sentiment was mutual: State Department officials ridiculed Howell in internal correspondence, and they advised Americans resident in Egypt to avoid him as much as possible. On at least one occasion Howell was also severely rebuked by the department for making representations against British policy without waiting for approval. (39)

Previous scholarship has dismissed Howell as nothing more than a tactless diplomat who failed to reflect the actual positions of the United States, but Howell cannot be done away with so easily. He served no less than six years as the American minister in Cairo; for both the Egyptians and the British he was the official American representative there, and for them his statements reflected the American position, regardless of the disapproval they may have met in the State Department. Egyptian nationalists, in fact, used Howell's frequent public critiques of British policy in Egypt to bolster their own case. (40) The Egyptians appreciated Howell's support, and when the time came for him to leave Egypt in July 1927 he received a hearty sendoff from a group of Egyptian dignitaries who expressed "gratitude for his manifold marks of sympathy toward the Egyptians." The ceremony ended with cheers to the United States and President Coolidge. (41)

The British were far less impressed with Howell. After he publicly accused them of imperialism which "deserves the worst censure both by God and man," the British organ in Cairo published an editorial entitled "Malapropism and Myopia," which lambasted Howell for handling delicate issues "with the non-chalance of a clodhopper and the fervor of a Mormon missionary." (42) When Howell published in 1929 a book severely criticizing British policies in Egypt, the British authorities in Cairo attempted to ban it. (43) And when the British high commissioner complained to Howell's successor about the American hostility toward British policies and aims in Egypt, he repeatedly mentioned Howell's behavior. (44) His words and deeds left their mark on the Egyptian and British perceptions of the United States' position regarding Egypt, and his difficult relationship with the State Department reflects the contradictions inherent in American attitudes toward the question of Egyptian independence, and of self-determination in general, during the inter-war period.

Howell's convictions, and his position as the American representative in Egypt for six years, suggests that Wilsonian principles, despite their weak implementation, were more than mere empty rhetoric, and reflected a real contradiction within American political elites between genuine sentiments against European imperialism and the pragmatic impulse, which won out during the inter-war period, both to avoid political involvement outside the western hemisphere, and to preserve the alliance with the colonial powers by acquiescing to their colonial projects.

Howell's militant anti-British positions notwithstanding, his tenure in Egypt was, by and large, uneventful as far as American-Egyptian relations were concerned. In one realm, however--that of archeology--the 1920s were a period of monumental discoveries in Egypt. The unearthing of the tomb of Tutankhamon--achieved in the spring of 1922 by a British excavation headed by Howard Carter--sparked a wave of widespread public interest in Egyptology in the United States, and as the popular press responded to the public appetite, "archaeology was editorially rated second only to murder and sex." (45) Yet Egypt's unfolding past was much more than popular entertainment; archaeology was a field where Egyptian national pride and politics often collided head-on with the expectations and desires of the foreign archaeologists and their institutional backers. Several American institutions were involved in excavations in Egypt by the early 1920s, and they expected to be rewarded according to the 1912 arrangement that decreed a fifty-fifty split of the finds between the Egyptian authorities and the foreign archaeologists. But after the declaration of Egyptian independence in 1922 the Egyptians began to claim full control over their past, embarking on a battle over the tomb of Tutankhamon and its priceless treasures against the estate of the recently deceased Lord Carnarvon, who had received the concession under which the excavation took place. One of the mediators between the feuding sides was the prominent University of Chicago Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, who had been working in Egypt for years.

An American account of the Tutankhamon controversy was given by Breasted's son and biographer, Charles Breasted. Charles quoted his father as ruing the difficulties created by the "arrogant, self-conscious, sweepingly victorious Nationalists at the moment in unchallenged control of the Egyptian government," (46) and he goes on to offer a disparaging assessment the Egyptian attitude toward the tomb of Tutankhamon:
   To the Egyptians in general the significance of
   Tutankhamon's tomb was entirely political and financial.
   It was further proof of their past and present
   glory, it offered a superlative excuse for another burst
   of crowing over their newly acquired independence.
   Most important of all, it contained golden treasure
   and attracted great crowds of tourists to be bled their
   cash. This was something the Egyptians could understand;
   whereas the proper salvaging of the objects in
   the tomb, the solicitude of the entire scientific world,
   and the legal rights of the discoverer and his late
   patron were wholly academic matters which they neither
   comprehended nor cared about. (47)

From Charles Breasted's point of view the picture was clear: the Egyptians were excitable and greedy while the Western scientists objective and selfless. A different perspective on the Tutankhamon affair emerged from the contemporary Egyptian press. The nationalist al-Balagh, referring to Carter's padlocking of the tomb during the dispute, declared: "Egypt has suffered enough from the foreigner, who, under the nose of the Egyptian public and of a high official of the Government, closes the tomb of Pharaoh as though it was the tomb of his own father." (48)

James Breasted's involvement in the Tutankhamon controversy was that of a private citizen, but the State Department was soon also dragged into the fray. In January 1923, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of the several American institutions involved in excavations in Egypt, turned to the department for assistance, threatening to cease its financial support for excavations in Egypt if the 1912 arrangement were abrogated. (49) The department, however, sensitive to American reputation in Egypt, was wary of direct involvement in this delicate issue. It instructed Minister Howell to broach the issue with the Egyptian government only if the other "interested powers" intended to do the same, and then only in an "appropriate and tactful manner." Soon afterward the department grew even more cautious, deciding that the intensity of the emotions surrounding the Tutankhamon controversy made it unwise to broach the issue at all. But as a more strongly nationalist government, headed by Zaghlul, assumed power in 1924 and vowed to move forward with the plan to nationalize Egypt's buried treasures, the Met assessed the situation as "critical" and exhorted the State Department to take "immediate action." (50)

When Howell finally approached the Egyptians about the matter, the reply he received couched the Egyptian plan firmly in the terminology of scientific reasoning, stating that the government merely wished "to establish easily and in conformity with general scientific interests, complete and logical series of documents representing the continuity of Egyptian civilisation." The government further noted tartly that "this change may, in fact, embarrass some scientific institutions from a financial point of view," but that this "should not permit the sacrifice of scientific interests." (51) A comparison of the language of this statement with the one by Charles Breasted cited above reveals that both sides of the dispute--Egyptian officials and foreign excavators--employed the rhetoric of the "scientific interests" to bolster their own position and the insinuation of greed to taint the position of the other. The diplomatic exchange on archaeology continued, with proposals and counter-proposals proliferating, until 1926, when in the face of unrelenting Egyptian insistence the foreign institutions were made to settle for the Egyptian government's assurance that henceforth it would give them the finds that it would not require for national or local collections. (52) Howell's self-congratulatory remarks on "the winning of this contest by us" and the Met's expressions of heartfelt gratitude to the State Department for "these results which your splendid efforts have gained for us" cannot obfuscate the fact that by 1926 the foreign powers, and the United States among then, acquiesced to what amounted to full Egyptian control over the relics Egypt's own past. (23)

As the controversy on the rights of foreign archaeologists in Egypt was still unfolding, another episode occurred which marked archaeology as a field of delicate interplay of science, philanthropy, national pride and imperialistic jostling. In December 1925 John D. Rockefeller Jr., at James Breasted's behest, offered the Egyptian government a girl of ten million dollars intended for the construction and maintenance of a new archaeological museum in Cairo. Though the offer was made by private interests with no direct involvement of the American government, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg nevertheless felt that "the realization of the Project would have a beneficial effect upon our relations with Egypt," and thus it "deserves our informal support and encouragement." (54) The voluminous correspondence regarding this affair in the State Department files is indeed an indication of the lively interest that it showed in the Rockefeller project.

Though presented as a gift to science, Rockefeller's offer did not come without strings attached--the museum was to be controlled for a period of thirty years by an eight-member board, six of which would be foreigners: two Americans, two British and two French.55When the offer was first presented to King Fuad he was dismissive. He remarked casually that Egypt was a rich country, implying that it required no gifts from foreigners. However, he did add that as he was a constitutional monarch the power of decision in the matter lay with the government. (56) Yet the government at the time, which faced the energetic opposition of Zaghlul's nationalist Wafd party, could hardly afford to be seen as selling Egypt's treasured relics to foreigners, and the offer was finally rejected in April 1926. (57) The nationalist al-Ittihad summed up the issue: "It is impossible, from the national view point, to place the Egyptian antiquities in the hands of the committee proposed to be formed according to these terms, for it ought [sic] to be composed mostly of foreigners. Every Egyptian feels proud of the honorable attitude taken by the Egyptian Government in a question like this connected with our inheritance from our glorious ancestors." (58) What the American archeologists, and their supporters in the State Department, perceived as an opportunity for them to assist the Egyptians and advancing the cause of science, was interpreted by the Egyptians as an unacceptable bid to take--or, more accurately, keep--control over Egypt's past. The issue of the facilities in which the finds would be displayed was secondary--what was crucial to Egyptians was that they, not foreigners, be the ones to control and manage their own past.

If issues of archaeology engendered friction between Egypt and the United States in the inter-war years, the activities of the American missionaries in Egypt afforded an even more poignant illustration of the complexities inherent in the American involvement there during that period. American missionaries appeared in Egypt began in the mid-nineteenth century, and by 1920 they operated schools, hospitals, orphanages, and two institutions of higher education: the Assiut College in the south and the newly-established crown jewel--the American University in Cairo. They had come to Egypt to spread the gospel, but also to promote western education and science, and generally to integrate Egypt into a "safe and progressive world order." (59) The missionaries and their supporters back home firmly believed that their good works enhanced American reputation in Egypt and promoted good will toward the United States--a view also shared by some scholars. (60) Yet the effect of the mission on the image of the United States in Egypt was often exactly opposite, as many Egyptian Muslims felt that their faith, their traditions and their very social order was gravely threatened by Christian proselytizing. Upon reading missionary promotional literature, one Egyptian Muslim bitterly remarked: "We thought you were serving us disinterestedly, and, lo, we find you nailing our spiritual scalps as trophies upon the walls of your home churches; you glory in the breakdown of our culture and social fabric and time-hallowed traditions." (61)

The delicate and potentially explosive nature of this issue was well exemplified by an incident that occurred in April 1928 and became known in State Department correspondence as the "Zwemer Incident." The bare facts of the incident were quite simple--Dr. Samuel Zwemer, an American missionary and prolific writer on Islam and the Middle East who was living in Egypt, visited the campus of al-Azhar University in Cairo and during the visit distributed some missionary pamphlets to several students. This act, recounted a student representative, "caused a great deal of annoyance and excitement among all the teachers and the students," (62) and a violent outburst was just barely averted. For a while, reported the American legation, "the situation looked threatening, if not dangerous." (63)

The next several days saw an outcry in the press denouncing Zwemer's behavior as dangerous, provocative and inflammatory. The students of al-Azhar themselves published a fiery public letter in which they warned of the grave consequences of behavior such as Zwemer's. "Yes, the al-Azharists were able, yesterday, to control their excitement and feelings," they wrote, "but is it possible for any person to always control his excited feelings?????" (64) In the Egyptian parliament deputies sharply attacked the government for its laxity toward Christian proselytizing. The Egyptian minister of foreign affairs urgently called upon the American charge, who expressed his "sincere regret for the said unfortunate incident." (65) A year later, R. M. Graves, the British acting director of the Egyptian ministry of the interior, received information to the effect that Dr. Zwemer had once again been observed distributing pamphlets in cards in Alexandria. Graves, mindful of the British interest in public order, promptly suggested that "the indefatigable Dr. Zwemer should be invited to abstain from this kind of propaganda in the future." The reports turned out to be exaggerated and a second Zwemer Incident was thus averted. (66)

Nonetheless, the public attacks on the Christian missionaries grew more frequent and vehement in the early 1930s. (67) Muhammad Haykal reported in his memoirs of the period that
   the activity of the Christian missionaries suddenly
   emerged in a very frightening light. The newspapers
   reported at the time that the American University in
   Cairo is the source of these missionary activities, and
   that it houses the war councils that organize these
   activities.... The newspapers told of the methods used
   by the missionaries to tempt the simpleminded to
   embrace Christianity, and to convert the innocent
   children of the poor Muslims. (68)

Haykal himself testified that his deep concern over missionary activity in Egypt played a major role in his own intellectual transformation in the 1930s from liberal secularism to a greater emphasis on Islamic tradition. His 1935 book on the life of the prophet Muhammad was written, as he explained in the introduction, "to counter the invective of the Christians." The need to resist Christian proselytizing and to defend Islamic traditions played a major role in "the return of Islam to a primary position in Egyptian intellectual discourse and public life" in the 1930s. (69)

The official policy of the State Department toward American missionaries in Egypt vacillated between the need to protect their interests and activities in Egypt and the desire to avoid antagonizing the Egyptians, with the latter consideration increasingly winning out as the Egyptians grew more assertive. The missionaries repeatedly prodded the State Department to insure the safeguarding of "religious liberties" in Egypt, (70) but the American government, like the British authorities, was well aware of the delicate nature of this issue and quite reluctant to afford the missionaries concrete support. Already in 1930 the secretary of state instructed the American minister in Cairo that the missionaries "be informed that the United States Government expects them to refrain from such activities as might give rise to anti-American feelings." (71) In the course of the 1930s it became clear that though the Egyptian constitution guaranteed "religious liberty," the official Egyptian interpretation of that phrase differed crucially from the American one. For the Egyptian authorities it meant liberty to practice freely the religion into which one was born, but not the liberty for a born Muslim to change his or her faith. (72) The State Department, despite going through the motions of heeding the missionaries' pleas, did not in the end afford them any effective assistance. When the Egyptian government finally outlawed all missionary activity in 1941, the United States, after having several tepid protests rebuffed, decided to acquiesce. (73)

In July 1954, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was asked whether he thought the United States was an imperialist country, he replied that "the United States, having aided imperialism in our country, and in others, has lost a large part of its reputation as a country that defends the liberty and independence of nations." (74) This statement was made only two years after the Young Officers had come to power--Nasser was still hoping to receive American assistance for his fledgling revolution, and though some friction was already developing in Egyptian relations with the United States, this statement was made before a full fledged conflict broke out over the signing of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 and later over the financing of the Aswan High Dam.

So what was on Nasser's mind when he accused the United States of "having aided imperialism"? It is, of course, most likely that he was thinking of then recent events, such as America's recognition of the State of Israel or its overbearing attempts to involve the Arab states, and Egypt among them, in a regional security alliance against the Soviet Union. Yet it is also possible that Nasser's historical memory went further back, and that the American abandonment of Egypt in 1919-20, its longtime acquiescence to British domination there and the involvement of Americans in imperialistically-tainted cultural endeavors--such as archaeology--and in Christian proselytizing also contributed to Nasser perception of American complicity in imperialism. Obviously, we cannot know for sure whether this is so. Nevertheless, when we seek to understand post-1945 American-Egyptian relations we should be aware that the relationship did possess historical depth and context and keep that historical perspective in mind.

In the inter-war years, and despite their generally accommodationist posture toward the British domination of Egypt, many American diplomats believed that the United States enjoyed a favorable reputation in Egypt and good will among its leadership and public. They often strove to protect and cultivate these sentiments, which they saw as beneficial for the United States within the context of the bilateral relationship, and they thought that they were quite successful at this task--a perception also shared by subsequent scholarship. Yet the reputation of the United States in Egypt as a benevolent, disinterested, anti-imperialist power was marred repeatedly, first by Wilson's "treachery" in 1919 and later by conflicts over cultural issues such as archaeology and, far more acutely, Christian proselytizing. Although the United States indeed was "on the sidelines" with regard to Egypt during most of the inter-war period, the American quest for good will did leave some bitter feelings in its wake.


(1) See for example Matthew F. Holland, America and Egypt : from Roosevelt to Eisenhower (Westport, CT, 1996); Peter Hahn, The United States, Great Britain, and Egypt, 1945-1956: Strategy and Diplomacy in the Early Cold War (Chapel Hill, 1991); Geoffrey Aronson, From Sideshow to Center Stage: U.S. Policy Toward Egypt, 1946-1956 (Boulder, 1986). Interestingly, Egyptians historians also adopted this historically foreshortened perspective--a study in Arabic dealing with American-Egyptian relations devotes only a few pages to the pre-1939 period. See 'Abd al-Ra'uf Abroad 'Amr, Ta'rikh al-'Alaqat al-Misriyyah al-Amrikiyyah [The History of Egyptian-American Relations] (Cairo, 1991).

(2) John A. DeNovo, American Interests and Policies in the Middle East 1900-1939 (Minneapolis, 1963). This study devotes fifteen pages to American policies and interests in Egypt in the inter-war years, making it the most comprehensive coverage to date of the relationship during that period.

(3) A partial exception is Holland, America and Egypt, which does give the Egyptian perspective in some detail, though apparently using only English language sources.

(4) See John A. DeNovo, "On the Sidelines: The United States and the Middle East Between the Wars, 1919-1939," and Barry Rubin, "America as Junior Partner: Anglo-American Relations in the Middle East, 1919-1939," both in Uriel Dann, ed., The Great Powers in the Middle East 1919-1939 (New York, 1988), pp. 225-51.

(5) Meyer, Egypt and the United States, p. 37. These assertions were apparently regarded as so uncontestable that no sources are cited to support them.

(6) See 'Abd al-Khaliq Lashin, Sa'd Zaghlul wa-Dawruhu fi al-Siyasah al-Misriyyah [Sa'd Zaghlul and his Role in the Politics of Egypt] (Beirut, 1975), pp. 126-7; The American University at Cairo, Special News Bulletin, 1 July 1919, p. 1.

(7) Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Mudhakkirat fi al-Siyasah al-Misriyyah [Memoirs of Egyptian Politics] (Cairo, 1977), 1:67. Haykal's memoirs were originally published in 1951.

(8) Lord Lloyd, Egypt since Cromer (London, 1933), 1: 283.

(9) Lashin, Sa'd Zaghlul, pp. 127-129.

(10) The Zaghlul telegrams are reproduced in George E. Noble, "The Voice of Egypt," The Nation, 3 Jan. 1920, pp. 861-4.

(11) A representative batch of four such telegrams sent by Egyptians is enclosed in Gary to the secretary of state, 24 March 1919, SDDF 883.00/128. The American agency was also sent detailed reports about incidents of British brutality--one such report included photographs of Egyptian villagers with whip marks on their exposed torsos. See enclosed in Gary to the secretary of state, 20 April 1919, SDDF 883.00/166. The agency was specifically instructed by the State Department to transmit such telegrams and reports on to Washington.

(12) Enclosed in Gary to the secretary of state, 26 March 1919, SDDF 883.00/135.

(13) Gary to the secretary of state, 17 April 1919, SDDF 883.00/118.

(14) Lashin, Sa'd Zaghlul, p. 236, quotes on this point the unpublished memoirs of Egyptian delegation members 'Abd al-Rahman Fahmi and Muhammad 'Alawiyyah.

(15) Lloyd, Egypt since Cromer, p. 342.

(16) On Zaghlul's own faith in Wilson's principles and his surprise at the United States' recognition of the protectorate see Husayn Fawzi Najjar, Sa'd Zaghlul: al-Za'im wal-Za'amah [Sa'd Zaghlul: The Leader and the Leadership] (Cairo, 1987), p. 66-7.

(17) Haykal, Mudhakkirat, 1:81. The repeated occurrence in the sources of the "bolt of lightening" metaphor to describe the effect of the American decision on Egyptian nationalists implies that the recognition decision not only gravely disappointed the Egyptians but shocked and surprised them as well--a further indication that Wilson's fourteen points and America's anti-imperialist posture were taken quite seriously by Egyptians at the time.

(18) From the testimony of William C. Bullitt before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 12 Sept. 1919, cited in Noble, "The Voice of Egypt," p. 864. Upon hearing that the .. decision to recognize the protectorate "took only a few minutes," Senator Philander Knox, himself a former secretary of state, remarked: "We never chewed them up that fast."

(19) Gary to the secretary of state, 26 April 1919, SDDF 883.00/162. About the general context and repercussions of the American decision see also P. J. Vatikiotis, The History of Modern Egypt, fourth ed. (Baltimore, 1991), p. 268.

(20) Gary to the secretary of state, 26 April 1919, SDDF 883.00/162.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Tuck to the secretary of state, 28 April 1919, SDDF 883.00/151.

(23) Enclosed in vice consul in charge to the secretary of state, 29 April 1919, SDDF 883.00/179.

(24) Enclosed in Gary to the secretary of state, 5 May 1919, SDDF 883.00/181.

(31) Davis to the secretary of state, 26 Nov. 1919, SDDF 883.00/213.

(32) Mahmoud to the secretary of state, 26 Nov. 1919, SDDF 883.00/214 (33) Haykal, Mudhakkirat, 1:83; 'Amr, Ta'rikh al'Alaqat, p. 30. As to Congressional support for Egyptian independence see exchange between Senator Owen and Secretary of State Lansing, FRUS, 1919, 2:207-9; also BDFA, Part II, Series G, 1:320-1. For support of the Egyptian cause in liberal circles, see Noble, "The Voice of Egypt," pp. 861-4.

(34) The sharp decline in Egyptian expectations for American support is reflected in the paucity of Egyptian petitions in the SD files protesting British conduct following Stack's assassination, as compared with the deluge of such petitions during the Egyptian upheavals of spring, 1919. Howell's reports from Cairo, which strongly advocated for American support of Egypt, did not sway SD policy. See Howell to the secretary of state, 30 Dec. 1924, SDDF 883.00/540.

(35) Hughes to Cummins, 5 Dec. 1924, SDDF 883.00/511.

(36) J. Morton Howell, Egypt's Past, Present and Future (Dayton, OH, 1929), p. 218; for a further sampling of Howell's accusations against the British see also pp. 25,128,139, 143-4,168,173, 178-9, 268, 296. Howell's book was published two years after he left Egypt, but he had also criticized British conduct frequently and publicly during his term as minister. For an example see Howell to the secretary of state, 30 Dec. 1924, SDDF 883.00/540. For the effects of an anti-British interview he gave to the Egyptian press see Winship to the secretary of state, 26 July 1927, SDDF 883.00/616.

(37) Howell, Egypt's Past, p. 12.

(38) Ibid., p. 327.

(39) Ibid., p. 4-5; DeNovo, American Interests, p. 369 and note 97 therein; Breasted, Pioneer to the Past, p. 388; the secretary of state to Howell, 8 June 1926, FRUS, 1927, 2:558-9.

(40) For an example of such a use made by feminist and nationalist activist Huda Sha'rawi see Winship to the secretary of state, 26 July 1927, SDDF 883.00/616.

(41) New York Times, 7 July 1927, p. 6.

(42) New York Times, 3 July 1927, p. 4.

(43) Wadsworth to the secretary of state, 5 Sept. 1929, SDDF 683.11241/11; New York Times, 12 Sept. 1929, p. 11; DeNovo, American Interests, p. 370.

(44) Gunther to the secretary of state, 10 May 1929, FRUS, 1929, 2:952-3.

(45) Breasted, Pioneer to the Past, p. 348.

(46) Ibid., p. 367.

(47) Ibid., p. 369. This passage is also cited in Donald Reid, "Nationalizing the Pharaonic Past: Egyptology, Imperialism, and Egyptian Nationalism, 1922-1952," in James Jankowski and Israel Gershoni, eds. Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East (New York, 1997) p. 133.

(48) Quoted in the Egyptian Gazette, "The Deadlock at Luxor," 18 Feb. 1924. This passage is cited in Reid, "Nationalizing the Pharaonic Past," p. 135.

(49) The president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the secretary of state, 15 Jan. 1923, FRUS, 1924, 1:714-5.

(50) The secretary of state to Howell, 29 Jan. 1923, FRUS, 1924, 1: 715-6; The secretary of state to Howell, 23 Feb. 1924, FRUS, 1924, 1:718; The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the secretary of state, 20 May 1924, FRUS, 1924, 1:719-20.

(51) The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the American legation, 27 May 1924, FRUS, 1924, 1:722-3.

(52) The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the American legation, 26 May 1926, FRUS, 1926, 2:75.

(53) Howell to the secretary of state, 26 May 1926, FRUS, 1926, 2:73; The president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the secretary of state, 26 July 1926, FRUS, 1926. See also Breasted, Pioneer to the Past, pp. 370-3.

(54) Kellogg to American legation in Cairo, 3 March 1926, SDDF 883.4061/la.

(55) The terms of the offer are laid out in Belknap to Dulles, 31 March 1926, SDDF 883.4061/5. Also see the New York Times, 6 and 7 April 1926.

(56) See report by American charge d'affairs George Wadsworth, 9 March 1926, SDDF 883.4061/8; Breasted, Pioneer to the Past, p. 388.

(57) Breasted, Pioneer to the Past, p. 390. Another source of opposition to the project was the French director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Pierre Lacau, for whom it represented a malicious scheme to oust him and bring Egypt antiquities under American control. See Reid, "Nationalizing the Pharaonic Past," p. 135.

(58) As quoted in the Egyptian Gazette, 10 April 1926, enclosed in Howell to the secretary of state, 8 April 1926 [sic], SDDF 883.4061/12.

(59) The American University at Cairo, Special News Bulletin, 1 July 1919, p. 1.

(60) Gail Meyer, for example, in a passage already cited in the text above, claims that because of American "educational, missionary, and philanthropic endeavors" the United States "stood high in the esteem of the average Egyptian citizen." Meyer, Egypt and the United States, p. 37.

(61) DeNovo, American Interests, p. 375.

(62) Abd al-Qadir Yusuf, for the students of al-Azhar, in a letter sent to the newspaper Kawkab al-Sharq, enclosed in the legation report to the secretary of state, 20 April 1928, SDDF 883.40418.

(63) Wadsworth to the secretary of state, 20 April 1928, SDDF 883.404/8.

(64) Yusuf, in letter to Kawkab al-Sharq.

(65) Wadsworth to the secretary of state, 20 April 1928, SDDF 883.404/8.

(66) Wadsworth to the secretary of state, 28 Aug. 1929, SDDF 883.404/12.

(67) Gunther to the secretary of state, 16 June 1930, FRUS, 1930, 2:762-3 reports of "fanatical attacks" against the mission. Also see "Anti-Missionary Fire Sweeps Egypt," The American University at Cairo, Special News Bulletin, 28 Dec. 1933, p. 1; DeNovo, American Interests, p. 374-5.

(68) Haykal, Mudhakkirat, 1:271-2.

(69) Ibid.; Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski, Redefining the Egyptian Nation, 1930-1945 (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 66 and 54. For a detailed account and analysis of Haykars intellectual shift to Islam and the role of the Christian mission in the "return of Islam" in Egypt in the 1930s see Gershoni and Jankowski, chapter 3; also Nadav Safran, Egypt in Search of Political Community (Cambridge, MA, 1961), pp. 169-175.

(70) Acting secretary of state to the ambassador in Great Britain, 21 April 1930, FRUS, 1930, 2:758-9; Fish to the secretary of state, 10 March 1936, FRUS, 1936, 3:20-4.

(71) Stimson to Gunther, 12 May 1930, FRUS, 1930, 2:761.

(72) The minister in Egypt to the secretary of state, 10 March 1936, FRUS, 1936, 3:20-4.

(73) See series of exchanges on this issue in FRUS, 1941, 3:320-31.

(74) Press conference at the officer's club in al-Zamalik, Cairo, 24 July 1954. Cited in Ahmad Yusuf Ahmad, ed., al-Majmu'ah al-Kamilah li-Khutab wa-Ahadith wa-Tasrihat Gamal Abd al-Nasir [The Complete Collection of the Speeches, Interviews and Declarations of Gamal Abd al-Nasir], Vol. I: 1952-1954 (Beirut, 1995), p. 259.

Erez Manela, Department of History, Yale University
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