Posted tagged ‘Libya’

Revolution day

October 23, 2011

This day – October 23 – has been declared by the new Libyan government to be ‘liberation day’, the day on which the uprising against the now deceased dictator was completed. Although this is probably not much on the minds of Libya’s National Transitional Council, October 23 is a date with all sorts of revolutionary associations, with exactly the kind of mixed results and messages that one might expect. It is the date (at least according to some calculations) on which Russia’s October Revolution began that quickly brought the Bolsheviks into power. Ironically it is also the day on which, in 1956, Hungarians began an uprising against the Soviet occupiers, a revolution that was crushed a couple of weeks later on November 4. However, Hungary actually announced its new post-communist Republic on this day in 1989.

Purely statistically, most revolutions in history were quickly followed by dictatorships or tyrannies. What might however give the Libyans hope is that this longer historical trend may not apply in quite the same way today. The revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989 have on the whole produced working democracies, and while the jury is still out on the impact of this year’s ‘Arab Spring’, it may well be leading to much greater freedom in the region. While the bloody events of the last few days might give a little cause for concern, it is possible that the relationship between revolution and terror is being broken. Certainly Libya deserves a chance to succeed.


Tainted money?

March 20, 2011

As recent events in Libya unfolded, one story that got a fair amount of air time was the donation to the London School of Economics of money from Saif Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader. Inevitably of course further investigations by journalists have revealed other donations and grants from the region, including a research grant accepted by Durham University from the Iranian government, and another Libyan payment made to Liverpool John Moores University for developing a teaching programme for a local university.

If journalists keep sniffing around they will find more. However, we should beware just a little of the righteous indignation that this sort of story seems to encourage. As higher education in parts of Europe and America interacts much more closely with the rest of the world, it is going to come into close contact with governments without any great democratic credentials. Mostly we don’t care that much. Nobody was saying a word about Libyan links three months ago, though some of them were well known. But in fact there are teaching and research links with dozens of countries that don’t even aspire to (never mind practise) European-style liberal democracy. While it is embarrassing no doubt for the LSE to have footage broadcast on television of an event in which academics made obsequious comments to the Libyan leader, that probably could have been any university.

It is of course shocking that Colonel Gaddafi was willing to turn his guns on his own people; but rather than come over all indignant now it would be far better to have a clearer think about the appropriate response to offers of financial support from governments whose democratic credentials are in question (whether currently involved in violent attacks or not).

Considering Howard Davies

March 4, 2011

The Director of the London School of Economics (LSE), Sir Howard Davies, has resigned from his post, an unexpected casualty of the popular uprising in Libya. He had accepted Libyan money on LSE’s behalf, and had acted as adviser to Gaddafi’s government. As the Libyan rĂ©gime suddenly began to look toxic, the role played by Howard Davies in creating this link for the college became a serious problem, and he resigned.

Two issues arise from this. First, there is Howard Davies himself. He was no typical university head, having been a senior public servant as well as a businessman and business representative (he was, amongst other things, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry and chairman of the Financial Services Authority). As head of LSE he was seen as a tough manager but also a sympathetic leader, and I believe was on the whole liked and respected by the academic community. However, his business background may have contributed to the Libyan misjudgment. The debate about the best credentials for university leaders will continue, with Davies as a mixed-message example.

Secondly, what position should universities adopt in their relations with other countries? Is there a ‘liberal democracy test’ that should be applied before any relationships are forged? If so, does that imply a cultural as well as political frame of reference? Might it look as if, for a European university, it is not safe to do business with any country outside of Europe and North America? That LSE should now withdraw from all Libyan links is understandable and right. But how judgmental should we all be that these links were created in the first place? And what should other universities now be doing in reviewing their portfolio of global partnerships?

The Twitter revolution

February 21, 2011

What do TCD Provost candidate Colm Kearney and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have in common? They are both aware of the potential of the social media in winning hearts and minds. Kearney was first out of the gate in the campaign for Trinity College’s top post and had a well prepared machine up and running immediately, of which his Twitter account was perhaps the most innovative element. He also has a Facebook account, but I don’t think he has yet put that to work, and indeed may not yet know how to do so.

And Hillary Clinton? Well, she has let it be known that she wants the State Department to use the social media to create a channel of communication with young people in the current areas of turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Whether either of them will use Twitter to practical effect remains to be seen, but it is interesting that both understand the significance of the medium. For anyone following the events right now in the Arab world, doing it via Twitter is a disturbingly different experience. Someone recently suggested to me that getting your news from the BBC is like having afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel, brought to you on a trolley with a table cloth and in a silver kettle. Getting the news from Twitter is like drinking from a street fountain. It’s different, and you need to know how to do it, but you get something that is both more pure and at the same time less refined.

So for example, I have been following events in Libya on Twitter over the past 20 minutes. During the few minutes it has taken me to write this post up to here, a total of 420 tweets have come in about Libya. Some are sarcastic comments (one suggesting for example that the speech by Gaddafi’s son Saif was scripted by US far right columnist Glenn Beck), some are heartbreaking pleas by Libyan exiles hoping for news of loved ones, some are apparent comments from the current trouble spots, some are short pieces of analysis by news reporters, some are announcements by governments and agencies. Is it accurate? Well, the Twitter world is saying right now that Gaddafi has fled, perhaps to Venezuela. The major news sites seem to know nothing of that. By the time you may be reading this you’ll know, perhaps, what is true. So you cannot be sure about the precise accuracy of what you are reading, but you are getting the full force of the news, rumours and arguments swirling round the system. And you keep an eye on the source of what you are reading.

So what about the TCD election? Yes, it has its hashtag, but so far it lacks the sense of immediacy or the excitement that this should generate. Statements there are genteel rather than challenging, and in so far as the candidates are turning up (and not all of them are) they are massaging their voters rather than challenging them to think. But it’s a start, and it would be churlish of me not to say that I am quite impressed that Colm Kearney has gone out there and tried it. Maybe it’s a good sign and we can hope for a communications revolution in Irish higher education. That is what I have wanted to start, and someone needs to take it forward.