While observing the protests staged by students of the Faculty of Sciences in Damascus, and the Faculty of Arts in Aleppo, lining up with those demanding reform and change, I said to myself that I was fortunate to be tackling the issues of Higher Education, particularly the role and influence of universities, and their impact or lack thereof on society at large.
Young people usually enter university at the age of 18, after having many of their thoughts, behavioral patterns, and temperaments shaped and molded by their childhood. Yet it goes without saying that universities are capable of reshaping and rebuilding all those elements, in accordance with a different set of criteria. This is due to thought-provoking and theorizing professors, student activities, and wider social interaction, all of which are factors that can mold a personality. Each student stimulates their colleagues in some way, and effective blocs gradually form, although not necessarily positive.
In a previous meeting with Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, the Cultural Attaché at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, which coincided with the January 25 Revolution in Egypt, I asked him: What engages 30,000 male and female Saudi scholarship students in the US, other than their academic affairs? Here, I was particularly alluding to the pioneer scholarship students during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, who interacted with the political scene and intellectual transformations taking place at the time, with great enthusiasm and zeal. Some of them would attend the lectures and events organized by Pan-nationalists or Leftists, either out of admiration or curiosity. They would compliment fellow colleagues hailing from other countries, by participating in their partisan activities. Furthermore, a lot of early scholarship students took to the streets in 1979, whilst cheering in celebration for the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. I wanted to know whether scholarship students of the new millennium possess the same inclinations.
The Cultural Attaché asserted that generally speaking, things have changed considerably. The new youth generation shows no political or ideological interest like earlier generations. Their knowledge in that domain is not shallow, but they are not engrossed in the idea of focusing sharply on it. Today’s youth are more inclined toward building social relations, whether real or virtual, via social networking sites, and they focus on developing their skills in handling modern technology. Most of the problems encountered by the Consulate in Washington fall into the category of marital discord, between scholarship students and their spouses. The Consulate endeavors to resolve those complaints, especially if they are formal ones. Yet such issues are expected to arise due to the large number of scholarship students.
What Dr. al-Issa said is quite true, and is not limited to his students in Washington. It applies to the Riyadh students as well. Actually, this change has not affected Saudis alone, because societies unite under their youth’s interests, even if they differ in the details.
Students of the Faculty of Sciences in Damascus, and the Faculty of Arts in Aleppo, did not take to the streets in defense of an ideological belief, in allegiance to intellectual slogans, in response to partisan calls, or in expression of love for a political leader, as was the case with students of Syrian universities during the 1950s and 1960s. What mobilized the crowds today was their protest against poor economic and developmental conditions, as well as physical and moral repression. They took to the streets in protest over their conditions even though they knew that the State regime was a ruthless security intelligence apparatus, and that social and cultural figures had disappeared from their homes years ago for just writing a message or comment, a far cry from the mass protests and demonstrations witnessed today. To put it simply, the amount of pent-up anger was more than anyone could bear.
As happened in Egypt, the youth’s revolution opened the doors for obscure Arab satellite TV stations broadcasting opposition party leaders no one had ever paid attention to or hosted before, even though they had been opposing the regime for decades. Those TV stations shook the dust of these figures and established them as fundamental participants in the revolution’s outcome, even though they had actually failed throughout their political career to spark such an uprising.
I just hope President Assad doesn’t believe the story fabricated by his security apparatus, claiming that external powers are mobilizing the Syrian masses, such as the Zionists, America, or Arab figures at odds with Syria’s regime. Such stories are remnants of the past. Besides, this is a tired recipe in Arab countries currently in a state of revolution. It is the duty of the Syrian president, who is not much older than the revolutionary youth of Damascus, Daraa, Baniyas and Aleppo, who confronted the riot police’s gunfire with their bare chests, to open up to them and listen to their claims and demands. The president had previously pledged to meet a lot of those demands, yet he has since postponed any meaningful action.
The Algerian street has displayed substantial cohesion in the face of the wave of Arab revolutions, in spite of the fact that Algeria was the third candidate for a popular uprising after Tunisia and Egypt, in accordance with the “domino effect”. Thanks to the Algerian government’s swiftness in implementing reformative steps, the youth anger was eventually absorbed. Those steps included lifting the state of emergency, raising salaries, subsidizing commodities, pardoning a number of prisoners, and offering land for reclamation and cultivation. The initial reforms are just a prelude to greater promises, which the Algerian people are waiting for before deciding to embark on mass protests.
The remedy to all this popular discontent is no secret. The causes of the illness are well-known and the symptoms are clear. The problem lies in miscalculations, underestimating matters, refusing to admit being wrong, and not correcting one’s mistakes in a timely manner.