Global protests spur questions; students seek answers

We live in a purple bubble. We know this because we can walk across our campus in 10 minutes and the most exciting news of the week often involves the latest belligerent WSO thread. Perhaps more importantly, they tell us it’s so on our admissions tours – it must be true.

In the past four weeks, big things have happened outside of what we see as our tiny bubble. Most of us know at least a little about them: With Tunisia’s success as inspiration, mass protests have blazed across the Middle East and northern Africa, a tally of countries almost too numerous to list – and there seem to be glimmerings of movements in other regions too. In places like Egypt, there have been clear and unprecedented victories, while for Libya, the world is watching at the edge of its seat as demonstrators fight for their freedom and their lives.

“About six weeks ago, no one really would have expected the kinds of results that have been seen,” said Abdullah Awad ’13, president of Students for Palestinian Awareness. “[It’s] unprecedented … protestors have overcome things that no one thought was overcome-able.”

David Marsh ’12, who spent last semester in Cairo, agreed with Awad’s description. “I was surprised, not because I thought the people loved the government by any means,” he said. “I was surprised that they came out in the numbers that they did. It was really a depressing place in many ways. There was basically no social mobility, very little in terms of freedom of speech. Any time anyone made any move towards mobilizing, they would get a knock on their door and get arrested. I didn’t think people would have the guts to come out into the streets on a large scale.” After having watched the events unfold in Tahrir Square, many people are optimistic for Egypt’s future.

“In Egypt, I think people are going to continue to protest [until their demands are met],” said Haley Pessin ’13, a founding member of the College’s International Socialist Organization (ISO). “I think people’s consciousness has really changed. They’re not afraid anymore.”

As inspiring as Egypt and Tunisia have been, the news from Libya in the past week has brought us solidly back down to earth – protests are powerful, but so too are dictators.

“I think it’s been a somber realization to see that freedom can take many different forms,” Awad said. “Now it seems as though the Libyan people are going to suffer greater losses. It’s disheartening to see a large number of people being shot at, but freedom does have a price.”

Though Libya, Egypt and the many other countries in the throes of transformation may be physically far away, these students and others challenge the idea that these happenings are actually external to our bubble.
“These kinds of issues, whether we are completely aware of it or not, affect all of us,” Awad said. He emphasized the importance of demonstrating solidarity with protestors around the world. “They will see that there are other people who support their cause – there are ramifications that go beyond a single event that we are sponsoring,” he said, referencing the recent Ephs for Egypt rally.
Particularly among those who helped organize the rally, there has been frustration with the seeming lack of public support among students for these staggeringly huge global events.

“I don’t think any of us is an expert on the issue, but I tried to tell people about my experience with the Mubarak government and I hoped that would help them understand,” Marsh said. “I thought the fact that it was 6 p.m. and the dining hall was full and people wouldn’t walk five feet says a lot about the students here.”

The complaint about apathy at the College, resonating with some and aggravating many others, is hardly new. But perhaps we are thinking about it in the wrong way, imagining apathy to be a vacuum of passion.

“If apathy exists, there is something else that takes [engagement’s] place,” Awad said. “At Williams it’s academic rigor and extracurricular involvement.”
Awad seems to have pinpointed what many find grating about the typical criticism of the College as apathetic: Anyone who knows our students knows that this campus is overflowing with passion – it just often is not directed towards politics. The question, for those who are passionate about politics, may be why the College is like this when political activism is practically a rite of passage at so many other similar colleges.

On Feb. 17, around students gathered in a small, square room in Hopkins to hear about and discuss the ongoing Egyptian revolution. As the seats filled up, some students had to stand, edging into the corners. Ashley Smith, a member of ISO’s Burlington, Vt., branch, came to speak at the event. After he finished, there was about an hour set aside for discussion. Discussion, however, turned into merely asking Smith questions.

As the adage goes, there is no such thing as a stupid question. And this is what our education is about: learning to ask questions of our books, of our teachers, of visiting experts, of all the people that we know know more than we do. Many students, even those among us most familiar with these issues, are hesitant to take a stance or make a prediction – we are all too aware that there are no right answers, but still many wrong ones, Smith explained.

“I’m no expert,” said Marsh, speaking in particular of Egypt. “I think there’s no way to know [what will happen] – it’s a really big place and really complicated.” As much as we do know, there are always others, perhaps experts, who know more. Thus, our time at the College, the wisdom seems to go, is our time to peacefully absorb and immerse ourselves in asking questions, and then later we will be to emerge from our sheltered bubble and tackle the questions ourselves.
“There’s a perception that what we do here doesn’t matter,” Pessin said, “[that] it’s a little mini-purgatory before we get to the real world. Williams is the real world.” Though some may be skeptical of the impact of rallies in Baxter Hall, as legal adults we are at least part of the “real” American political process, and presidential election season will begin in less than a year.

“What America does has a very big impact on the outcome,” Marsh said. “In America we are lucky enough to have a country where our opinions do have a chance to affect policy. The country that I lived in for four months was not a country where people had that chance.”

Do we take the opportunities we have to affect American policy, even in our little bubble? There’s no right answer to this question. There are probably many wrong ones.