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Usman Ali

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A Lesson in Courage

Posted: 13/04/2012 00:00

7 April 1976 is a day unfamiliar to most of us, but one that created shockwaves in North Africa. On that date 36 years ago Colonel Gadaffi delivered a crushing blow to the first uprising to his regime - students at universities across Libya bravely stood up before anyone else to demonstrate against the tyrannical regime. This week I had the privilege of being invited by the Libyan government on the first anniversary of the 7 April uprising since the removal of Gadaffi's regime.

Their protest for free expression and for a civilian-led-democracy was met with brutality, and many of the students lost their lives as a result. Year after year, Gadaffi and his accomplices used this date to imprison, torture and kill (including by public hanging) those dissidents that they feared. Brutality aside, students lives were made difficult; political activism on campus was effectively banned, and combined with economic conditions, families were more concerned about individual survival than being the voices of change.

I travelled to the sports hall at the University of Tripoli where Gadaffi's military machine-gunned students 36 years ago. At a meeting with revolutionaries in Al-Zawiya, Tripoli, students spoke proudly of their aunts and uncles who lost their lives by speaking out. But I also met students such as Ibrahim. He studied political science in Oxford in the UK and the USA, and upon his return to Libya he was imprisoned for half a decade before the revolution. Students like him are a far cry from the perception of angry teens; rather, intelligent and driven, articulate with a vision for Libya. Strikingly Ibrahim told me "I am not meant to be here today - I was meant to be murdered by the regime".

I was also reunited with an old friend and student by the name of Abdul Aziz Belhaj - formerly an Economics student in Manchester exiled from Libya due to his family's opposition against the Gadaffi regime; in the uprising he helped coordinate Libyan Youth through twitter and returned to travel with revolutionary fighters to independently film the liberation of Tripoli. The revolution never felt closer to home.

In Britain, our student political battles, in comparison, can feel a little boring. Stepping outside and engaging with other students internationally is healthy - the NUS is an organisation with a global reach. My time in Libya reminded me that students have always been the courageous force of change - which is precisely why Gadaffi targeted them. It hit me when I realised that to be a student in Libya, is not just to be a student in education. To be a student is to be a force for social justice.

As I stepped back onto British soil, my perspective evolved. Our government has dismantled the accessibility of a generation from university with the raising of tuition fees. If I was a student trying to access university today I would consider it impossible. The greatest effort in a generation by students and academics has not prevented the Coalition's reforms to divide rich and poor through education. But from my travels I realise there are various lessons to bring home.

First, we must realise that the revolution in Libya did not begin in February 2011, but April 1976. And students led in bringing down a government that was in place for over 40 years, which cost them their lives. We are seeking to bring down an education policy that has been in place for months. Our fight for ultimately an education system accessible to all is a goal that we patiently must never lose hope of, and we must not be content with lesser goals.

Second, a responsible democracy requires responsible citizens. Westminster is no shining light of how a democracy should be run: Murdoch-gate, the expenses scandal and the manner in which the student fees fiasco was concluded behind closed doors demonstrate this (where Lib Dem MPs broke promises and the government ignored a national outcry). Just today, a shady sudden change to UK Border Agency policy is preventing international students from coming here to study. It is upon students to remind citizens to fight against unjust policies and reform the unjust system that creates them. MPs should be embarrassed out of positions when they falter and the hand of the lobby groups should be exposed.

Finally, we must remember, students remain the most powerful demographic in the world today and in Britain we must again be a force that is feared and respected. We should never belittle the impact of wins we gain at a policy level in education. But as students in Britain we have underestimated our potential - of seven million students - and we must be courageous once again. To do this the student movement must radically reform its shape and direction. Its shape must be accessible and reflect all of its members - for the first time - not perpetuate the status quo that excludes and disconnects students from non-traditional backgrounds.

Our direction should take us out of campuses and engage and fight for the communities that have been impacted the most and that need us the most right now. Students must envision the education system that we desire for this country. If clashing tribes in Libya can unite, so can diverse students irrespective of political affiliation, background or ideology; unity is not uniformity; our arguments should take place indoors; but as we step outside we must unite towards our common goal.

I had the honour on my final day in Tripoli of addressing hundreds of Libyans who looked up to the National Union of Students and our work, and was asked to provide campaign training to those in political parties that were being newly formed, and advise on setting Student Unions. However, I soon realised that, though I had a lot to offer, students in Britain that have just as much to benefit from our counterparts in Libya - if not more. I have already begun to arrange exchange trips with the British Council but this is only the beginning - the time has come to connect students in Britain with those around the world. The wind of courage that characterised movements like those in 1976 needs to now blow home.

 
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