Are American students more ‘Arab’ than their Arab counterparts?

Feras Abu-Helal

Democracies — with all their faults and shortcomings — generally tend to allow their citizens the right to protest. Even if the authorities use violence to break-up protests, which we have already seen on some US university campuses, or incite against those taking part, as has been seen in the UK and Europe, protests are still allowed, and are often vindicated if and when the issues in question are brought out in open court.

In the Arab world, however, the issue of the legitimacy of the regimes and their very nature has yet to be resolved. The Arabs have not gone through the wars and unrest that produced the nation states in Europe and North America resulting, eventually, in democratic governments which, ironically, prop up the regimes in the Arab world which deny their citizens the rights of protest and freedom of speech that Westerners claim to be sacrosanct in their own countries. If Arab students tried to replicate what is happening on US campuses, the blood would be flowing in no time at all.

We know this from the crushing of the first wave of Arab popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring, which saw the counter-revolutions increase the brutality of the Arab regimes against their own people.

The “nightmare” of freedom for the Arab world was banished. Nevertheless, those occupying the thrones fear the return of this nightmare, so crack down on any popular protest whatsoever in case it turns into a protest against the regimes themselves. This makes the price of protest very high; protesters, quite literally, put their lives on the line. In many Arab countries, if they survive the police and army volleys, they face sham trials that don’t meet international standards of justice, and long prison sentences, or even execution. Young people lose their future no matter what happens, and step into the unknown if they organise or take part in demonstrations.

American students are not more “Arab” than their Arab counterparts. They simply know that the price that they are likely to pay for taking part in pro-Palestine protests is not so prohibitive. Arab students, meanwhile, do not know what high price they will have to pay if they carry out their duty towards what is supposed to be the Arab world’s main cause: Palestine. Nevertheless, students in Lebanon have staged a “rare” anti-Israel protest. It will be interesting to see where this leads to.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the US has been a fertile environment for social movements. Indeed, the culture of protest in the US and Europe dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. Protests contributed to the emergence of labour unions and social reform. In the US from the 1950s onwards the civil rights movement emerged to defend the rights of African Americans, and the stars of the great Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Jr rose and shone brightly before being cut short by assassins’ bullets. Then various social movements prospered, such as the women’s rights movements, to the point that “social movements theory” emerged in America before it spread to Europe.

This theoretical framing and accumulation of experiences led to the creation of models of protest that can be conveyed from one generation to another and developed according to the tools of each era, but with a long and sustainable legacy of protest movements.

The Arab countries did not go through such a process. Yes, there have been massive demonstrations over the years, addressing Palestine and other Arab issues, as well as national matters such as the hunger uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries, and then, of course, came the Arab Spring. However, no permanent and continuous protest movement has ever emerged, or been allowed to emerge, with legacy or historical experience that generations could benefit from and build upon.

If we look at the UK as another example, we see anti-war and pro-Palestine movements founded in the early years of the millennium which have been protesting and campaigning continuously ever since. They have formal structures and employees and work constantly to mobilise and advocate for the issues they espouse. Experience has accumulated and been passed on to younger generations.

Almost no social movements have flourished in the Arab world except the Islamic movements.

These are now suppressed, though, often with great brutality, with members and leaders imprisoned or worse. They are no longer able to lead in matters of social reform and protest in Arab states.

Arab students do not love Palestine less than their Western counterparts, nor are they less “Arab” in any sense, but they do not have the experience accumulated by protest movements in the West, nor do they have the organisations or structures to drive these movements forward. Protests need organisers and leaders to frame their demands. Demonstrations without leaders are simply mobs, and the Arab world now lacks such leaders. The authorities in the Arab countries have seen to that. Leaders and potential leaders are either in exile, in prison or in their graves.

The problem, then, is not the Arab students’ Arabism and their love for Palestine, but the absence of leaders to guide them and lead their protests and campaigns.

Is it possible to change this situation? Of course. Social media is playing a hugely important role in raising awareness and organising. Networks thus developed can be an alternative to traditional hierarchical organisations and social movements in creating a mass movement in support of Palestine. This can present a legacy that inspires a new experience for Arab students, not only for the sake of Palestine and its people, but also for the freedom of the Arab nations themselves.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.