Students at the American University of Beirut are carrying banners as they attend a pro-Palestinian demonstration on the campus in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 7, 2024. (Photo by Fadel Itani/NurPhoto) (Photo by Fadel Itani / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

The (Surprising) Silence of Arab Universities on Palestine

Over the past several months, universities in America and Europe have been at the center of protests over Gaza. So why have Arab universities been silent, despite their rich history of activism?

June 10, 2024
Mohammed Masbah

Since mid-April 2024, western academic institutions, including elite American universities, have been at the forefront of protests for Palestine. Yet, their Arab counterparts have surprisingly remained silent. The disengagement is particularly noteworthy considering that Middle Eastern universities have historically been the hotbeds of protests and engagement concerning the Palestinian cause. This absence is also at odds with the wide support of Arab public opinion for Palestine, with recent surveys indicating strong backing for the Palestinian cause across the region. According to the Arab Indicator poll from January 2024, more than 92% of citizens in the surveyed countries believe that the Palestinian question concerns all Arabs, not just Palestinians, and 89% oppose recognizing Israel. Another survey conducted by the Arab Barometer one year earlier revealed similar patterns among youth categories (18-29), with 84% opposing normalization with Israel. 


Understanding the Disengagement of Arab Universities 

So, why has university activity in the region not reflected the broad support among young people since the start of Israel’s punishing siege of Gaza, especially compared to the past?   

Firstly, universities in the Arab region have undergone significant depoliticization over the past two decades, leading to a dramatic shift in their ideological landscape. This change was particularly noticeable following the Arab uprisings in 2011, and the state repression that ensued, particularly in the universities. As a result, youth activism pivoted towards apolitical activism,” focusing on non-political issues, such as local development and sectorial demands. This contrasted with demands for social justice, institutional reforms, and fighting corruption that underpinned the Arab Spring protests.  

This is in contrast to the historical role of universities in the region. After the independence era in the first half of the 20th century until the dawn of the 21st century, universities in the Arab world were the center of political mobilization. This is mainly due to the dominance of Islamist and leftist ideologies on campuses. Both ideologies were powerful actors in the broader public sphere and adopted the Palestinian cause as one of the pillars of their activism in the university and beyond. They were also willing to take on much greater risks in confronting oppressive regimes.  

However, there has been a gradual change over the past two decades. As the strength of the Islamist and leftist ideologies has diminished at the public level, so too has the mobilization of their ideological constituents within universities declined. Consequently, political mobilization for Palestine did too. 

Secondly, the public physical space has been securitized post-Arab Spring 

The Arab Spring underscored the potential for any type of protest to become a venue for challenging authoritarian regimes, including ones on behalf of Palestine. Consequently, regimes have grown increasingly intolerant of protests, viewing them as potentially destabilizing forces. Governments across the Arab region intensified crackdowns on protests and enacted laws restricting public gatherings and demonstrations. For instance, Egypt suppressed peaceful pro-Palestinian protests in October 2023, resulting in the arrests of dozens of activists. Similarly, in Jordan, authorities have arrested at least 1,500 people since October 7, including about 500 people who were detained following large-scale protests outside the Israeli Embassy in Amman in March 2024.  

This new reality comes in contrast to the previous era when protests on behalf of Palestine were permitted in most Arab countries, including hardline authoritarian regimes such as Syria and Egypt. Pro-Palestine protests were often viewed by authoritarian regimes as beneficial. In one sense, they provided a useful safety valve to channel the population’s frustration with economic hardships and lack of freedom towards external threats, such as Western interference, imperialism, and Zionism. Pro-Palestine protests also allowed the regimes to portray themselves as Arab nationalists opposing what they framed as Western hegemony. 

Despite all of this, the situation in Gaza has provoked some protests on campus in the Arab world. However, most of it has been at universities linked with the West, such as the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut. However, these protests have lacked the intensity and scale of the past. 


Protest Fatigue 

There is a third explanation for the decrease in frequency and enthusiasm for protests on campus, even in countries where the level of state repression is less severe and the government may even tolerate pro-Palestine protests, such as Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, and to lesser degree, Morocco: fatigue.  

In Algeria, for example, protests have been surprisingly scant, both in the streets and at universities, despite the Algerian regime’s heavy support for Palestine. Algeria’s government has even been very active at the UN Security Council, drafting a proposal for Palestine to become a full UN member on April 18, 2024. And yet the lack of public activity for Palestine is likely due to the fatigue that followed the Algerian Hirak, nationwide protests that erupted in early 2019 and continued for almost a year in opposition to a fifth term in office by then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.  

A similar phenomenon helps explain the situation in Tunisia, where pro-Palestine protests have been sporadic and limited, with little meaningful activity at universities. After a dozen years of intense political instability following Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, the public sentiment is that the government is already doing what it can, and additional protests are unlikely to exert any further pressure. 


Did the Arab support for Palestine vanish? 

Amid the less tolerant physical space to engage in protests, there appears to be an increasing shift in the Arab world to social media as a platform for activism. For instance, a new movement called “Egyptian Students for Palestine” circulated an online statement on May 5 calling on students in Egypt to join. Nonetheless, both governments and social media administrators have also been repressive in policing pro-Palestinian content. For instance, authorities in Jordan prosecuted dozens of activists under Jordan’s Cybercrimes Law for social media posts expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments, criticizing the authorities’ peace agreement with Israel, or advocating for peaceful protests and public strikes. 

For supporters of Palestine, the relative silence of Arab universities amid the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza appears demoralizing. However, it is important to remember that universities are not static entities, and the current state of affairs should not be taken as permanent. A new generation of activists inspired by different ideologies and strategies of engagement can take place anytime in the Arab world. The 2011 Arab Spring is a good reminder of how the Arab street, including the campus, can erupt without prior notice.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.

Issue: Israel War on Gaza, MENA Governance, Protests and Uprisings, Regional Relations
Country: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine-Israel, Tunisia


fellow with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA)
Mohammed Masbah is the Founder and President of the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis (MIPA). He is a political sociologist whose work centers on public policy, democratization, and political Islam, with a focus on North Africa.