The student revolution

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 7 May 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said reviews his personal experience of the Arab-Israeli conflict


I was eight years old when I heard of the student demonstrations that erupted around the world to condemn the joint Israeli, British, and French attack against Egypt in 1956. The protests were one of the causes of the aggressors’ retreat. Other reasons were the Egyptian resistance, massive Arab moral and political support, and Khrushchev’s ultimatum that it would strike London with an atomic bomb if it did not withdraw its forces. But perhaps the most decisive cause was US president Dwight D Eisenhower’s opposition to the Tripartite Aggression. Whether this was an anti-colonial stance in principle or a calculated step to pave the way for the US to replace the traditional colonial powers, Eisenhower remained adamant on their withdrawal from Sinai, which was completed in March 1957.

I was eighteen when the 1968 anti-war student movement protesting the war in Vietnam swept college campuses in the US and other Western capitals, before spreading to other countries. Many people were startled and confused by the students’ sudden zeal, which persisted until the US withdrew its troops from Vietnam. French president Charles de Gaulle, the “saviour of France” by leading the resistance against the Germans in World War II and founding the Fifth Republic, was swept out of office along the way. Some at the time suggested that the real purpose of the student uprising was to oust the World War II generation from political and, more importantly, economic, and social leadership. It was also observed that technological advances played a major role. The 1960s brought mass consumption of the television, transistor-radio, and faster and more frequent jet-powered intercontinental travel.

Our generation was shocked and amazed that a superpower would wage such a brutal war against a country of the Global South like ours and our astonishment grew as it broadened the war from Vietnam to encompass Cambodia and Laos, bringing the whole of Southeast Asia into its crosshairs. Just as today we hear and read of the atrocities Israel is perpetrating against the Palestinians, back then we followed the details of the My Lai Massacre of 16 March 1968. In that war crime, Lieutenant William Calley and the other soldiers from his company raided the village, rounded up the unarmed civilians, set fire to their homes, and then massacred an estimated 500 of them. The student uprising in the US was instrumental to Washington’s decision to pursue peace and to withdraw from Vietnam in 1974. Calley was brought to trial on war crimes charges and sentenced to life imprisonment, though he was released the following day after a pardon from president Nixon.

In February 1968, my generation of university students had their own rebellion. Our movement demanded, firstly, the investigation and punishment of those responsible for the defeat in June 1967 and, secondly, the liberation of Sinai. We were the exception among the young people of the world. We were calling for war while, globally, youth were calling for love, peace, and harmony. Their movement inspired new intellectual and cultural trends, including many new styles of music. It also inspired some radical, violent currents who attacked the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. At the same time, the opposition to the war fused with the campaign to end the draft and the civil rights movement protesting discrimination against Blacks and other minorities. For us, the war of retaliation and liberation was all that mattered. Our movement may have helped launch and support the war of attrition against Israel. But it was characterised by political criticism, as epitomised in the music of the duo, Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam Issa, whose lyrics spoke of the revolution in Egypt, the region, and the rest of the world. In this and other cultural currents in Egypt at the time, you could find inspiration not just from the anti-Vietnam War movement but also from the revolutionary Che Guevara. In South America, where he hails from, students today are also rising up in solidarity with Palestine.

The student revolution is now raging across the US and Europe, as well as in countries of the Global South. The protesters are condemning Israeli massacres and Western complicity in them. They are demanding that their governments cease sending arms to Israel and to divest from the Israeli economy. The spread and force of this movement took the US by surprise, despite the powerful and tightly organised pro-Israel lobby with its extensive network of relations and influence in both the Democratic and Republican parties and among innumerable other liberal and conservative bodies. It also challenges the traditional strategic and cultural alliance between Washington and Israel that exerts such a hold over US governmental institutions and preserves the special status and treatment Israel continues to receive as it prosecutes the fifth Gaza war.

 The student uprising in the US has spread to forty major universities (there are around a thousand of them in the country) including the members of the prestigious and influential “Ivy League.” The protests at Columbia University in New York have dominated the headlines. But similar actions are taking place in Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Tuft, Berkeley and elsewhere from the Atlantic to the Pacific seaboards, where the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is most prevalent.

Yet, despite the movement’s growing momentum and widespread coverage, greater attention needs to be given to Palestinian and Arab views, especially given the fierce backlash by right-wing forces prepared to use violence and other illegal acts against the protesters and the pro-Zionist lobby’s constant attempts to link the student movement to “terrorism.”

Today’s student uprising is informed by conditions similar to those that shaped the 1960s student movement. The first and most important is a massively destructive and murderous war whose horrors inspire worldwide sympathy and support for the victims. The second is technological advances and, specifically, the advances in communications technology that makes it possible to follow the news and the events as they unfold in real time. These two factors combine with a new one, which is that the influence of Arab and Muslim students in US universities today is as strong as that of pro-Israeli groups. But this raises a fourth factor, which is the problem of Muslim Brotherhood groups whose influence on the current protests undermines the movement’s broader humanitarian vision and its power to transcend barriers and build bridges towards peace.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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