1968: A year to remember

Walid M. Abdelnasser
Friday 8 Jun 2018

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and disturbances across western Europe and the US were echoed in events in Egypt in 1968

In the course of 2018, many people from different countries, regions and sub-regions of the world have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of 1968. Why was this year so important in the history of so many nations and peoples and in the history of humanity as a whole?

1968 witnessed many significant events and developments that have had an impact on our world. They have had a lasting influence that has stayed with us until today and that will probably remain for decades, if not centuries, to come.

In this year, the world was taken by surprise by the invasion by the former Soviet Union of the then country of Czechoslovakia, later divided after the end of the Cold War into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The invasion by Soviet troops, together with troops from other member states of the then Warsaw Pact, brought to an end a brief, yet vibrant, Prague Spring that was perceived as a threat by the Soviets in the context of the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the US at the time.

The Prague Spring was not simply an expression of the quest for broader margins of political liberty and political democracy by the Czechoslovak people, however. Just as importantly, it was an indication of the cry of the youth of that country, and of other Eastern Bloc countries, for political, social, economic and cultural empowerment.

Although the Soviet invasion succeeded and the Prague Spring came to an end, later developments proved that neither the society nor the people of Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Eastern Bloc countries had returned to the situation as it stood before the invasion.

The situation in countries party to the Western alliance led by the US was not much better. Demonstrations, protests and other activities expressing anger, frustration and dissent by young people were widespread.

France witnessed the strongest wave of such protests to the extent that a year after them French president Charles de Gaulle, a historic figure that had led France to victory in the Second World War and had established the Fifth Republic in France in 1958, had to resign.

Students played a vanguard role in the 1968 protests in France, but other sectors of the population were no less active. The ideology of the protests was left-wing, but it was not the traditional left as previously represented by the conventional Communist parties of the western European countries.

Instead, it was what came to be known as the New Left, a left that was more humane in its outlook and vision. It was also a left that was opposed to the Stalinist version of the left and was trying to elaborate a more democratic, non-violent and peaceful left that was by no means less radical in its aspirations to achieve justice, equity and equality nationally, regionally and worldwide.

The ideology of these young people had various sources, including the Frankfurt School theorists in Germany, the Dependency School theorists in Latin America, and the leftist existentialism of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.

In the US, things were more complicated because there were two other factors on the agenda: namely the momentum created by the assassination of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the growing opposition, again particularly in the ranks of American youth, to the war in Vietnam and the growing calls for withdrawing US troops. Increasing numbers of American young men were refusing to serve in Vietnam during their period of military service.

The significance of 1968 does not stop there, because it was also an exceptional year for Egypt. In that year former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser initiated the War of Attrition against Israel in order to introduce some movement in the light of the failure of international diplomatic efforts to get Israel to implement UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967 calling for the Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied during the June 1967 War.

In the same year, there were reports of the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Egypt to both Muslims and Christians in a church bearing her name in the Cairo district of Zaitoun. These were interpreted as a sign that God was supporting the Egyptian people during the difficult times after the 1967 defeat.

The third important development for the Egyptian people in 1968 was the student-led demonstrations in February and November.

The February demonstrations demanded that the commanders of the Egyptian Air Force be made to stand trial again as they had received very modest sentences from the tribunal judging them for their responsibility for the 1967 defeat.

However, other demands then came to the fore focusing on the need for a broader margin of political freedom as well as for the establishing of real democracy in Egypt.

Nasser then formulated his 30 March Declaration in which he committed himself to political reforms in the framework of the then single party the Arab Socialist Union and promised greater freedoms after the liberation of the territories occupied in the 1967 War.

Those who demonstrated in 1968 concluded that the implementation of the promises in the 30 March Declaration were not sufficient or implemented quickly enough. Some of them even saw the promises themselves as insufficient. Demonstrations erupted again in November of the same year.

1968 was an exceptional year in the history of many countries, regions and sub-regions, including Egypt. Although many studies have been published of the significance of 1968 and conferences organised to analyse its impacts, the door will always be open to more contributions in the future.

The writer is a commentator.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: 1968 — a year to remember 

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