Lebanon’s sectarian political culture is embedded in all aspects of society- college campuses included. Whether at private institutions like the American University of Beirut or at the Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public university, student politics is hijacked by the establishment through multiple channels. The most direct channel is the establishment’s colonization of campuses, a space often associated with innovative and critical politics, relatively independent from the establishment. Over time, independent groups have developed on campus to counter the establishment’s narrative.
Each group has a different story, depending on the campus and its respective sectarian or political affiliations, political history, and socioeconomic class of its student body.
Students (literally) fight the establishment’s battles
College campuses in Lebanon have not been without violent clashes, sparked by establishment politics and the sectarianism, classism, and bigotry that come with it, akin to the opening of Pandora’s box. For example, in 2013, several campuses of the University of Saint Joseph (USJ), clashes broke out among students from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement with students from the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb parties. Moreover, there were fights at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in 2011 between students from the Future Movement and students from Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement, leaving four wounded.
The worst thus far occurred 2007, a year where many feared the renewal of the civil war between opposing political factions, shootings and violent clashes at the Beirut Arab University led to the deaths of four students. In addition to 150 injured, the Lebanese army interfered and even imposed a curfew.
Clashes also occur between the establishment and independent student groups, regardless of how comfortable the particular space is. Just last month on October 20 right after the elections ended, students from the American University of Beirut (AUB) Secular Club were attacked by student groups affiliated with the March 8 faction.
American University of Beirut: (some) independent political plurality
Most of the students I spoke to from independent groups on other campuses considered AUB to be the easiest space to function in.
The AUB Secular Club, though not the first independent movement at AUB, was set up after other movements fell apart after the May 7 clashes of 2008, where civil war-like gunfights took place across the country. “We wanted to create a political space where people from different social and sectarian backgrounds can unite under common principles.” says Joumana Talhouk, Secular Club president. The club first ran for student elections with its own campaign in 2012, and now has over 160 registered members with a team of about 300 who work during elections season. When it comes to on campus clashes Ali Amhaz, a candidate for the group during this year’s elections said that while violent fights have toned down, “You [still] hear sectarian chants, see people throwing water bottles and other objects.” The Secular Club has been active in the garbage crisis protests, protested in solidarity with the Syrian uprising, and have taken on an openly much more progressive stance.
On the other hand, The Red Oak Club was much more explicit when it came to their political ideology; they leaned on the far-left of the spectrum. According to former president Theresa Sahyoun, many were former Secular Club members. “There were some disputes in the beginning, but as the Secular Club became more overt in their progressive politics, we found common ground.” Unlike the Secular Club, the Red Oak continues to boycott the student elections, calling for electoral reform.
What is currently happening at AUB arguably shows what a post-establishment Lebanon could look like: multiple political parties based on ideological differences, rather than sectarian ones. It is a reminder for both those on and off campuses that independent movements come in different forms and ideologies. Unfortunately for other campuses, this political dynamic, despite being relatively mild, is considered a luxury.
Lebanese American University: hacking scandals and blank votes
Another university that enjoyed brief success was the Lebanese American University (LAU), which currently lacks an independent movement on campus. The last notable group was the Alternative Student Movement, which ran for elections in a campaign called “Take Back LAU Council.” The group was also active in protests during the garbage crisis and the parliament’s illegal extension.
This year’s elections at LAU made it clear that students deplore the lack of an alternative to the establishment, which resorted to some sneaky tactics to win votes. For the first time, LAU used an electronic voting system, where students voted through their student accounts. However, many students logged in, only to notice that someone has already voted on their behalf. Three students, who have chosen to remain anonymous, spoke to me about their experience. One of them found out that their account was hacked after constantly refusing to talk to a political party calling them to vote. Another student was openly supportive of an establishment candidate, and said that it was likely an opposition party. One thing for sure is that this is no coincidence: two of the students I spoke to complained to the administration, only to find out that other students were hacked to. All that they were told is that they will find a way to prevent this from happening next year. Factoring in the students who actively voted blank (an average of around 10% cumulatively), the students that were hacked who wanted to vote blank, and those that chose not to vote, it seems that the political discourse in LAU is shifting.
University of Saint Joseph: breaking the habit
When you hear someone refer to Sheikh Bachir’s (Gemmayel) Castle, they probably are talking about University of Saint Joseph’s (USJ) Huvelin campus for its social sciences faculty. USJ is deeply embedded in its Christian roots, especially with the Kataeb and Lebanese Forces Parties, although clashes involve Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement.
“People are scared of the term ‘secular’,” says Patrick Azrak, one of the two co-founders of independent electoral slate Safha Bayda, or blank page. “They say things like, ‘we Christians won’t be represented until a secular system.” He and fellow co-founder Nadim Abou Ali are both students at USJ Huvelin with similar progressive views, and wanted to challenge the political status quo at USJ. Abou Ali tells me that tension between political groups of the establishment on campus have led to fights, and even the cancelation of some elections.
The co-founders of Safha Bayda have reported back to me during the campaign season with positive news about the generally positive response they received from students, who they’ve been feeling are slowly moving away from establishment politics or breaking their silence regarding political views. “We are relying heavily on people that used to be politicized and then lost faith in the system.” says Abou Ali, “It’s a sign that we are all evolving and interested in creating a new political culture.”
Lebanon’s only public university: colonized from within
While independent political groups in Lebanon’s private universities have faced threats, and in some cases violence, from groups representing the establishment’s political parties, it does not get any more difficult than those students struggling at the Lebanese University (LU), the country’s only public university.
According to political analyst Bassel Salloukh, “the objective [of the Lebanese University is to create secular generations, and it was colonized from within by political entities and sects.” The conversations I had with several students, who requested to remain anonymous, confirms Salloukh’s statement. Their stories reveal how the Lebanese establishment goes above and beyond to make sure that its only nation-wide accessible university is as restricted as possible in terms of student activism.
“It’s illegal to start a student group on campus,” says one of the students who spoke to me, who then elaborated on the hostility that emerged from existing political entities on campus following the attempt of forming an informal organization. “The People’s Movement accused us being Amal Movement, the Amal Movement accused us of being funded by NGOs, and Hezbollah were the nicest ones to us.” The group had to rely on Hezbollah’s group to host events and to function with minimal hostility. Of course, these kinds of favors are a two-way street.
There have been violent clashes during previous elections, and it’s been several years since LU last had student elections. There were plans for elections to take place this year but were canceled due to yet another violent altercation that took place- this time between students and the dean. Students from the Amal Movement asked the dean at the Hadath campus for student contact info and were refused because it was not campaigning season yet. They took matters into their own hands- literally –and beat him up.
At LU’s Fanar campus, a man on a motorcycle holding a handgun shot at a student leaving a lecture by labor minister and Kataeb member Sejaan Azzi. Fortunately for her, the bullet just missed her.
Rights and Privileges
All in all, despite the sporadic but key developments and victories from alternative student groups on Lebanon’s campuses, the entrenchment of Lebanon’s only public university implies that the establishment wants to suppress any form of political opposition as much as possible. With the Lebanese working class only able to attend LU without spiraling into debt, the reality implies that political creativity and action outside the system is a privilege. Independent and empowered student movements, vital to any functioning democratic society, are one of the many societal elements that the establishment is actively trying to suffocate.
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