The Age of Revolution

This article was originally published in Impact Magazine in May 2011. Visit http://www.impactnottingham.com for more details.

On 17th December 2010, in the small rural town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, a street vendor set fire to himself. It was an act of defiance and despair at his poverty, his government’s corruption, his humiliation at the hands of the municipal police and his daily struggle in life, and was to become the catalyst for what is already known as the Arab Revolution. After generations of oppressive and autocratic governments in the Middle East and beyond, and years of apathy and helpless cynicism at the Recession and incompetent governments in the West, we are finally entering a new era: an age of revolution.
 After Bouazizi’s act, protests erupted all over Tunisia, and after weeks of unrest and pressure, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country with his family on 14th January 2011, after 23 years in power. The Tunisians rejoiced and the world was stunned: the people had fought the government, and the people had won. Elsewhere in North Africa, other nations under despotic governments were stirred and inspired, while the despots themselves shifted warily in their thrones. In Egypt, dissent was growing at the President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, as well as at the high rate of unemployment, lack of freedom of speech, corruption, inflation, police brutality and countless other social and political problems. Protests organized through Facebook and Twitter snowballed into revolts, and on 11th February, Mubarak officially stepped down.

Suddenly, in a matter of weeks, the Arab world was ablaze with revolution and its people were fighting for democracy. World leaders, media organizations and ordinary people from all four corners of the globe watched on in wonder at the progression of events that unfolded daily. The people’s revolution spread almost virally, from Jordan, whose King Abdullah II has sworn in a new cabinet and replaced his prime minister after violent clashes between protesters on 18th Feb, to Yemen, whose President of 32 years Ali Abdullah Saleh announced on 2nd February that he would not seek another term in office, after violent protests and deaths. There have also been protests in countries right across the Middle East and North Africa including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Oman, Bahrain and Algeria, and there is no indication of when they will abate.

Libya’s protests have so far been the most bloody because its infamous dictator, Col. Gaddafi, refuses to step down, despite international pressure, and says he will “fight to the last man and woman”. At the time of writing, there are over a thousand dead and countless injured since the protests began on 16th February, after Gaddafi has used troops, tanks, bombs and even air strikes on his own people. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of the Libya Revolt, the people have achieved the unachievable, and Dr. Adam Morton, from the University’s School of Politics and IR, notes that ‘the so-called “state of the masses”, or al-Jamahiriya, as Libya has been eulogistically termed under Colonel Gaddafi’s rule is now, after 40 years, experiencing a social uprising by the Libyan people over whom the state once ruled with no regard for human rights’.

                The Arab Revolts are clearly historical, but how have they been so successful and why have they arisen now? All of the aforementioned country’s rulers, regardless of their individual political ideologies, are inherently corrupt, and nepotism is rife. These leaders are all harming their citizens in various ways and in varying degrees, whether economically, through greed, as in Tunisia; whether through lack of free speech in the heavy censuring of media as in Saudi Arabia, or through violence and torture to create a ‘barrier of fear’ as in Libya.

This ‘barrier of fear’ is what the Arabic despots relied on for so long to keep their people in check: if the public are scared, then they will never collectively be able to rise up against oppression. Ignorance of the public also plays a critical role in a despot’s power, controlled through insufficient education, a state-run media and minimal contact with the rest of the world. The reason why the revolutions are occurring now is because of the seismic shift in the demographics of the Arab world, which has completely transformed both the barrier of fear and the ignorance of a nation.

The Arab Human Development Report of 2009 (a UN project) reports that out of the 360 million Arabs in the world, the median age is 22, nearly 60% live in urban areas and 65m Arabs live below the poverty line( >$2 a day). However, the literacy rate in the majority of the countries experiencing unrest is in the 70-90% bracket, with some countries, such as Jordan, boasting a 92% literacy rating. What we have here then is a generation of people across the North Africa and Middle East region who are young, urbanized, poor and intelligent, and as their despots grow older and richer, the public are getting younger, more numerous, poorer, more globalized and more angry, which is surely what created this ticking  time-bomb of revolution.

Obviously, in the U.K., thanks to the democratic society in which we live, we don’t have the need to oust entire governments through marches and revolutions, but I do, however, feel that the 2010 student protests against the tuition-fee rise was revolutionary because it marked an end to student apathy and a new era of activism.

The 10/11/10 protests in which 50,000 people marched through London was the largest student protest since 1998, and marked the beginning of a series of protests, rallies and occupations held throughout the rest of 2010 in various locations around the country. Throughout Europe there has been growing dissent and protests about government’s austerity measures, especially in countries such as Ireland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Portugal and notoriously France, which ground to a halt after a series of strikes and protests about pension reform. Just as Tunisia’s revolution had a domino effect throughout its region, in Europe, various nationalities are emulating one another in protesting for change.

None of the recent protests would have occurred had it not been for the very real and literal technological revolution of the past two decades. The Egyptian, Tunisian, and British student protests and many others were all organized on Facebook and other social networking sites, and the internet has ‘revolutionized the revolution’. Social media has made the organization and mobilization of large groups of people infinitely easier than in the pre-internet era, and real-time media such as Twitter sustains momentum and media attention. This new technological revolution has already seen power shift from conventional authorities to individual people who possess technological knowledge, the most relevant example being the Wikileaks exposure of the U.S. government cables.

Does protesting work? Obviously, the answers are yes and no. Here in the UK, the politicians did not meet the demands of the tuition-fee rise opposition (of which students are bitterly aware), but the protesters were exercising their freedom of speech, and ultimately, the once-apathetic and disenchanted generation has finally found its voice. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, the protests have led to land-mark revolutions and a new era of democracy.

We are in an unprecedented age where, for the first time, the ‘little guys’ can take the power, whether this be a few internet whizzes debilitating a whole government, students putting immense pressure on their leaders for political reform, or citizens of whole nations breaking a long-imposed barrier of fear. The underdogs are striking out, and David is trumping Goliath. This age of revolution is a result of a new, globalized, technologically savvy generation of people- people who care about the world in which they live and believe they can change it.

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Why the Tuition Fee Increase is a Positive Change (…By a Student)

I’ll cut to the chase. Tuition fees will nearly triple from 2012, from £3,375 to between £6,000 and £9,000 per year. This is obviously not a positive change, not least because funding cuts in other public spending pale in comparison to the 80% of cuts to university funding. The fee increase puts students from a wealthier background in a better position compared to their less advantaged counterparts, and obstructs those bright students who aren’t prepared to immerse themselves in so much debt. The myriad disadvantages of the cuts to university funding notwithstanding, I feel that the tuition fee hike will bring about a crucial change in the British university culture, then leading to a societal change in general.

The classic student stereotype of students spending their entire maintenance loan in one go, drinking every night and sleeping through lectures is, unfortunately, not unfounded. This behaviour is especially commonplace in first year, when freshers will eagerly remind one another “first year doesn’t count!”, doing the bare minimum they can to pass the year, and while most students will pull their socks up upon entering second year, a large percentage of the student body continue their time at University in perennial ‘fresher mode’.

Although, one must ask, why wouldn’t they? Most students entering University are viewed as wide-eyed and breathless eighteen year olds, fresh from their A-Levels and the confines of the parental home- and in many senses they are- but they are also adults: adults savvy and mature enough to know how jammy their position is and to recognise that they’ve landed on their feet. They’ve been handed by the government a Get Out of Jail Free card for the next three years, as well as winning £100 in the crossword competition and collecting £10 from each player for their birthdays, and they are -quite literally- laughing all the way to the bank. In a nutshell, for three years students are given the chance to spend their money in any way they choose, living a life where every day is a weekend and early mornings don’t exist, before scraping a 2:1 at the end of it all and presto: here’s your degree and guaranteed starting salary, Mr. Graduate.

In addition to this there is another, albeit less extreme, type of student who is at university for the wrong reasons. I have personally experienced fellow students confessing to “hating their course”, and there are many who just don’t feel academically inclined after a certain period. These students remain in limbo, resenting their studies and the debt they accumulate for them yet continuing in the hope of obtaining the coveted degree. Obviously, some people  genuinely end up on the wrong course but many students chose university simply because they feel that there is no other real option. University has been seen by many college students as the natural ‘next step’- as natural as the transfer from junior school to senior school, and from senior school to college. Except of course, that the tuition fee debt is not taken into account, and is very much a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’, not only when choosing whether to enter university but all the way throughout. College leavers are not given enough information about what other career options are available after A-Levels, and so will go with the majority, some of whom are, unfortunately, just following each other over the cliff.

Furthermore, both the feckless-boozer-type student and the misguided, no longer academic student have seen the rise of the ‘Perpetual Student’, those minority few who drop out and start again, only to drop out and start again, either to fuel a 36 month long Fresher’s year (they do exist!) or to desperately find the course and/or institution that’s right for them. Now, however, because the tuition fees are being raised to such astronomically high levels, students and their parents will be actively seeking out every conceivable option to make an informed decision about the future, not just taking the automatic ‘next step’, and those who are at university will certainly be much more likely to make their money worthwhile, thus eliminating both the freeloaders and the wanderers. To employ yet another stereotype, one notable category of hard workers is that of the international students, which is unsurprising considering that their tuition fees are four or five times the current national undergraduate tuition fee.

I’ll get the article disclaimer out of the way now: of course there are thousands and thousands of students who get to university, appreciate the position they’re in and work very, very hard. And of course the difference between the party animal and the high achiever is never black and white.   But already, even without the Recession, graduate jobs are few and far between because degrees are worth ten-a-penny. The once prestigous degree has now been diluted so much because every Tom, Dick and Harry can get some form of a degree, with 83 graduate applicants for every graduate job.

Admittedly, I’m playing Devil’s advocate slighty, because what’s good for society isn’t neccessarily beneficial to individuals, and just as I believe the tuition fee rise will change the existing University culture for the better, it’s still affecting me personally. My painfully bright younger sister, who would have been among the first batch of students paying the increased fee, is now taking a year out to decide if she can commit to so much debt (a heady decison for any seventeen year old to make), and she leaves another, equally bright sibling in her wake. It seems so unfair that what was laid out on a plate for me will literally be about three times harder for them, yet this is the scenario being played out up and down the country.

The tuition fee increase will undoubtedly scupper the academic hopes of thousands, but in the longer term will transform the culture of those university students riding the wave of little work and all play for maximum gain , and make those who are at university ensure that their buck goes farther, while allowing those who chose other career options to find one that actually suits them. Degrees need to be made meaningful again, not just to employers but to students themselves.