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The Student Movement in 1968

[Students assembling at AUB in 1971. Image from May 25th 1971 issue of Outlook (AUB).] [Students assembling at AUB in 1971. Image from May 25th 1971 issue of Outlook (AUB).]

A couple of weeks ago on Jadaliyya, Jessica Winegar reported on some of the stories she heard from the older men and women she met in Tahrir Square in Cairo. A number of them spoke of being leftist student activists in the 1970s but in the years since had to watch, as Winegar writes, “their youthful dreams of creating a just society crumble before their eyes.” While analysts have listed historical antecedents to the current events, such as the 1919 Revolution in Egypt and the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), little mention has been made of the student movement to which she refers, the one that erupted in 1968 across the Arab world and lasted until the mid-1970s. The conditions giving rise to that movement differ from those of today, but the excitement engendered by youth empowerment resonates quite vividly across the generations. Just as with today’s youth, their predecessors demanded that they be considered valid actors on the political stage. In the case of the earlier generation, the arena on which they chose to focus was, first and foremost, the university campus, but they also articulated demands that called for change at the political level throughout their countries and the region at large. They identified university and national authoritarian structures they believed needed to be overthrown so that the just society older participants reminisced about in 2011 could come into being. If today’s youth can be considered a “generation in waiting”, to use the term coined by Navtej Dhillon, Tarik Yousef and others, due to the poor economic prospects young people face after graduation, the generation of 1968 saw the 1967 war expose fundamental problems in the region’s educational systems, societies and polities.

To examine the Arab student movement in 1968, Egypt and Lebanon provide the best insight because both countries saw the most sustained student activities of the era while also proving influential throughout the region because their universities enrolled students from all over the Arab world. Students in both countries also had a long history of opposing their school administrations and governments so when their successors began protesting again in 1968, they had precedents to follow. The first recorded action by Arab students took place at the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut (AUB)) in 1882. The catalyst was the forced resignation by a popular chemistry professor for his support of Charles Darwin’s theories; it quickly expanded to a semester-long protest against the limited course offerings in the medical school. In Egypt, starting with the 1919 Revolution and lasting all the way into the early 1950s, university and secondary students joined workers and labor unions in massive street demonstrations to oppose continued British control over their country. In Lebanon, protests against the 1948 war ushered in a decade of powerful student protests on behalf of Arab nationalist goals. Students clashed repeatedly with Lebanese police when they went out into the streets to oppose the Baghdad Pact and US influence in the region and when they supported Egypt during the Suez Crisis and Algerian revolutionaries fighting the French.

The mid-1960s represent an aberration in this long history of student activism; in the years prior to 1967, students at Egyptian and Lebanese universities engaged in little organized political activity concerning campus or national political issues. After 1954, Gamal Abdul Nasser successfully diverted student action into state-sponsored events. In Lebanon, AUB professors became so concerned with what they called “student apathy”, they held a series of conferences to see how the problem could be rectified. When the students did come back out in protest in 1968, they not only broke the lull in student activity that had marked much of the 1960s, but presented more extensive demands to their governments and university administrations than ever before. Arab students, along with their counterparts all over the world in 1968, sought to determine who had the authority to decide the parameters of their educational and political lives.

The loss of 1967 alone did not immediately generate this new style of organizing by the students. When the war ended, the initial university student response across the Arab world provided no indication that students would use this opportunity to alter their identities, at the campus or national levels. Students held conferences and political forums to discuss the role they should play in educating those around them and abroad about the Palestinian question. In Lebanon, students organized events to raise funds for Palestinian students cut off from their homes in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, just as they had done in 1948. As these events indicate, the war generated action by the students for the first time in several years, but it did not push them to articulate a new political role for themselves. They focused instead on the intellectual and humanitarian dimensions of the crisis.

For a new type of student activism to emerge from 1967, a catalyst had to be added to the frustrations felt by the loss. By spring 1968, the shift occurred when students came to recognize that the leaders who had led the defeat were consolidating their positions around the new political realities. In Egypt, the spark was a strike called on February 21, 1968, by workers in Helwan, to oppose the lenient verdicts meted out to Egyptian Air Force leaders for their failures in June 1967. The action continued for the next week as students from all of Cairo’s universities and many more workers joined the initial participants. As Ahmed Abdalla reports in his study of student politics in Egypt, demands went far beyond the initial catalyzing event, as evidenced by a statement sent out by students at the Engineering Faculty (Polytechnic) of Cairo University. Student leaders called for the establishment of freedom of expression and of the press, a truly representative parliament, and laws allowing political organizing. In Lebanon, students came out in protest in spring 1968 when the Lebanese and Jordanian militaries attacked the Palestinian fedayeen in their countries. Over the next five and six years, students continued to go out into the streets to protest against Anwar Sadat’s postponement of his attack against Israel (and then to support him when he did attack in October 1973), Israeli attacks against Arab targets throughout the front-line countries, Jordanian destruction of the Palestinian fedayeen camps in September 1970, visits by US government officials to the region, and the US-sponsored Rogers Plan for peace between the Arabs and Israelis. Students announced their positions through such media as wall-magazines in Cairo and the weekly Speaker’s Corner on the campus of AUB. In both Egypt and Lebanon, students volunteered for military training in preparation for the upcoming Egyptian war with Israel and to defend Palestinian and Lebanese civilians from repeated Israeli attack in southern Lebanon.

The participants simultaneously used their political actions as tools for renegotiating their rights specifically as students. Students fought against the common administrative belief that school was a place apart from the world outside the gates, that student-hood should be considered a time away from political engagement. As a professor at AUB described in the early 1960s, campus should be considered a haram, a sanctuary free from political action, a place for the students to acquire the maturity and skills necessary for successfully negotiating the political and economic realms later. In this iteration, educational exchange should ideally be about discussing all possible political positions, not acting upon their precepts while a member of the campus community. Arab students all over the region put forward the counter-argument that they were citizens of a campus just like they were citizens of a nation; they had the right as such citizens to fight for political rights within the school’s walls. Campus was not a place where they should passively follow their elders in preparation for a political life lived later, after graduation, but as a civic space for their specific concerns as student citizens. To put forward their claim, students continually petitioned school authorities to institutionally accept their participation in discussions about the content of their courses, fee increases, and the parameters of political debate to be allowed in campus life.

In terms of some of the actions staged in this era, Egyptian students in 1968 protested when the state raised the qualifications for university entrance without consultation with the students themselves. Police forcibly broke up the resulting demonstrations and sit-ins and killed and arrested participants. Egyptian students also demanded that their Student Unions have more power to lobby on behalf of student issues and that freedom of expression be protected by their university administrations. In Lebanon, students established their own “free universities” so they could teach courses they considered more valid for the era than those offered by their professors. When administrations threatened to raise fees, students occupied campus buildings in protest. Students from all the Lebanese universities demonstrated for improvements in state education.

In their petitions and speeches, student leaders equated the authoritarianism wielded by their separate university administrations with those of the reactionary governments ruling outside the schools’ gates. The earlier generations of student activists had also taken on the authority figures in their lives, but the international student movement of 1968 was unique in that students posited a wholesale rejection of older authorities in favor of new ones proposing revolutionary plans. In the Arab world, the 1967 war provided the ammunition necessary for discrediting the old guard. Halim Barakat found in a survey of students at Lebanese universities in the early 1970s that the leftist and progressive trend wanted “to change the whole network of structures and value orientations”, with the demand that humanity be liberated from “domination, exploitation, and deprivation”. Governments such as those in Jordan, Lebanon, Sadat’s Egypt, and the United States came to represent, along with university administrations, everything the students did not want to be: lackeys of imperialism and thus obstacles to change generated from the bottom. In contrast, the students anointed new groups, such as workers’ unions, leftist political parties, the Palestinian fedayeen and themselves, with all they wanted to achieve: the return of Palestine and the transformation of the Arab regimes from bottom to top. The former could only perpetuate oppression, while the latter represented freedom of action, of speech, and of political influence, all in the service of those disadvantaged by imperialist policies. Destroying the authoritarianism in these arenas would pave the way for new leaders, like the students themselves, to define the socio-economic parameters of their respective civic polities.

In the years after 1968, students in Egypt and Lebanon largely maintained their ideological cohesion; their mobilization efforts brought students out in repeated protests against their university administrations and state governments. However, outside pressures destroyed these movements by the mid-1970s and the next generation of students faced conditions that were not conducive to the kind of organizing their predecessors had achieved. In its heyday, student action on Lebanese campuses proved sufficiently influential that administrations expanded the curriculum and allowed student governments to have an institutional voice. Over time, though, the realities of Lebanese sectarian politics fragmented the student movement and then the outbreak of the Civil War in 1975 cut short its momentum. Students and administrators had to work together just to keep their universities functioning. Protests against administration policies largely disappeared. In Egypt after 1970, Anwar Sadat manipulated the fears generated by the increasingly powerful student movement as one method for consolidating a power base separate from that of Nasser’s followers. He fought against this primarily leftist movement, in part, by supporting Islamist student groups on university campuses. Over the next years and decades, the latter groups came to dominate university discourse and organization, with little room for the leftist position of the 1968 era. As a result, this earlier group of students faced the dissolution of their movements because of war and the consolidation of authoritarian regimes. The excitement of the current protesters and the success of their organizational efforts have strong parallels with the actions of their student predecessors 40 years ago. While that movement eventually lost momentum, the outcomes of the 2011 events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries are still being decided as the anti-government protesters maintain their pressure and as the remnants of the regimes try to hold on to power.

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1 comment for "The Student Movement in 1968"


thank you Betty this is an excellent piece which helps put current movements in a longer time perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

giuseppe caruso wrote on March 10, 2011 at 06:18 AM

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