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Malia Bouattia loses bid for re-election as UK student president

Supporters blame 'toxic atmosphere' as NUS president known for critical stance on Israel is defeated by Shakira Martin
Shakira Martin had been criticised for backtracking on support for Palestine and Prevent (NUS)

Malia Bouattia, the first black Muslim female president of the UK's National Union of Students (NUS) who has drawn fierce criticism for speaking out against Israel, was on Wednesday defeated in her bid for re-election.

Bouattia was defeated by Shakira Martin, who describes herself as a "black, single working class mum", in the vote at the NUS's annual conference in Brighton.

Martin, who is currently a NUS vice-president for further education, picked up 56 percent of votes (402) in the first round, with Bouattia trailing on 272 votes. A third candidate, Tom Harwood, gained 32 votes.

NUS rules allow presidents to serve for two years in total and it is unusual for an incumbent candidate to be defeated.

Supporters of Bouattia, whose family fled Algeria when she was seven, said that she had fallen victim to a "toxic atmosphere" surrounding her presidency that had been cultivated by her opponents.

"I believe that a toxic atmosphere exists where centrist factions have created a situation whereby they have continually undermined Malia in her role as national president," Gary Spedding, a NUS delegate who supported Bouattia's campaign, told Middle East Eye.

"She has faced horrendous racist and Islamophobic abuse, death threats and intimidation. I believe she lost this election because the opposition have played a carefully calculated game to oust her. It doesn't bode well for our movement in the year ahead.

"The establishment faction has won this year but we will fight back and rebuild our movement."

Martin said in a statement on the NUS website: "I take this as a vote of trust that our members believe I can lead our national movement to be the fighting and campaigning organisation we need it to be." 

"Further Education (FE) made me who I am today and I look forward to sharing stories of just how powerful all forms of education can be when we’re all given access to it."

Work with Jewish society 

Martin entered student politics as president of the Lewisham Southwark College in South London and has built a career in student politics on platforms calling for free education and supporting rights for Palestinians.

She also voted for the NUS to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in 2014 during Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip in which at least 2,100 Palestinians, 66 Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli civilians were killed according to United Nations figures.

But Martin has been accused of rowing back on some of those positions after accepting a trip to Israel paid for by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) in which she visited illegal Israeli settlements, as reported by MEE.

A UJS spokesperson congratulated Martin on her win and said on the organisation's Facebook page: "Shakira's election demonstrates a rejection of the divisive rhetoric used by the current president, Malia Bouattia, whose past anti-Semitic comments have remained problematic for Jewish students for over a year."

"Following Shakira’s recent work with UJS, which included a trip to Poland ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day this year, we look forward to seeing her continue to prioritise the interests and welfare of Jewish students amongst all students as NUS National President. We wish her the very best in her new role."

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'Pro-prevent' stance 

She has also faced criticism for working with colleges in her role as vice-president for further education to help them to implement the government's controversial Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, despite the NUS's "Students Not Suspects" campaign of non-compliance which was introduced by Bouattia and initially backed by Martin.

Martin hit back by saying that the strategy was implemented differently within further education institutions and that "Prevent is a key part of safeguarding within FE".

Delegates on Wednesday reiterated the student organisation's commitment to opposing the Prevent agenda, which was welcomed by Bouattia.

She has also come under fire for allegedly supporting the arms industry following her public support for apprenticeships created by BAE Systems: an arms company which has come under fire for building fighter jets used by Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen. 

Martin defended her support for BAE apprenticeships by insisting that "students shouldn't have to choose between ethics and food" during an accountability session yesterday evening at the NUS conference. 

Bouattia's election last year was hailed by her supporters as a victory for grassroots activism but critics have repeatedly accused her of anti-Semitism, causing stark divisions within the NUS and complaints from university Jewish societies. She denies being anti-Semitic and describes herself as an opponent of "Zionist politics".