At Lebanon's university elections, a small change signals a brighter future

In student elections, new youth parties are challenging an entrenched political order

Students sit together under the shade of trees at the American University of Beirut, one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East, on June 1, 2020. - Since it was founded in 1866 by Protestant missionaries from the United States, AUB has become one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East, producing generations of leaders, artists, and intellectuals. But AUB president says with Lebanon's economy tanking, the university is facing "perhaps its greatest crisis", and plans to dismiss up to a quarter of its 6,500-strong workforce. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)
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Malak Laza’s eyes looked focused above her Covid-19 mask as she intently listened to her phone on loudspeaker.

Sitting around a blue table with friends, the 19-year-old biomedical engineering student was streaming the live results of the student elections at Rafik Hariri University.

When her name was called out as one of the winners, Ms Laza clapped and banged the table with excitement as her friends cheered. The moment was captured on a short video clip and widely shared on social media.

Each autumn, elections in Lebanese universities, usually dominated by traditional political parties, are closely monitored.

In the absence of accurate political polling and often sporadic national or municipal polls, they are seen as a trustworthy indication of national sentiment and specifically of how the youth may vote at the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2022.

This year, something unusual happened. Independent candidates emerged as a strong political force in three of Lebanon’s biggest universities: the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University and Rafik Hariri University.

Students The National interviewed all said that the reason was clear. Anti-government protests that spread across the country from October 2019 instilled a deep feeling of rejection of traditional political parties.

Alarmed by Lebanon’s dire economic crisis, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to reject corruption and demand accountability from their leaders.

At Rafik Hariri University, the election of four, or five – depending on who you talk to – independent candidates on a student council with nine members was perhaps the most surprising result.

“Having an independent list win for the first time in our small and not so diverse university was something new and very challenging,” said Ms Laza. “The feedback I got from people was overwhelming.”

The university is named after an influential late prime minister who founded the Future Movement, Lebanon’s strongest Sunni Muslim political party.

Political parties in Lebanon are divided along sectarian lines – leaders spend more time defending their religious group’s interest than presenting economic and social programmes for the country.

The Future Movement is now headed by Rafik Hariri’s son and prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, who resigned late October 2019 in the face of the protests but is now set for a comeback after his successor’s government collapsed.

To this day, the Future Movement holds sway over Rafik Hariri University, which is chaired by Mr Hariri’s widow, Nazek Hariri.

Ms Laza is a firm believer in the “revolution” of October 17, 2019, which rejects Lebanon’s entire political class – but has yet to present a unified alternative.

At the American University of Beirut, one of Lebanon’s oldest and most prestigious universities, students echoed her views.

“I don’t think the revolution is dead,” said Lara Sabra, the 22-year-old head of AUB’s Secular Club which won 9 seats out of 19 in the student council elections on November 13.

“These university elections are a first step to having a strong political movement and an alternative for the 2022 elections,” said Ms Sabra, a Master’s student in anthropology.

Six other seats were won by another independent list at AUB called Change Starts Here. It aligned itself with the same demands as the Secular Club but with a more moderate approach, said one of its successful candidates, Mounzer Tabbarah.

But some remain sceptical of the nascent student movement.

“A change in the youth’s political behaviour has occurred but I’m unsure how radical it is,” said Yorgo Kleib, a member of AUB’s Freedom Club, which is affiliated to the Free Patriotic Movement, a party founded by Lebanon’s Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun.

Mr Kleib, a 23-year-old Master’s student in energy studies, pointed to the fact that student participation in elections at AUB decreased by roughly 15 % this year with a total turnout of 50 %.

To Khalid Zaatari, a 23-year-old student at Rafik Hariri University, cutting ties with Lebanon’s traditional political parties could be dangerous.

"I believe that internal opposition is better than taking the country to destruction," he cautioned.
The Future Movement at Rafik Hariri University considers Mr Zaatari to be part of its bloc, but he positions himself as an outsider.

Mr Zaatari’s biggest fear is chaos. “I was afraid for the university and that students would lose the bond they have. There were rumours that the university would collapse if the Future Movement lost,” he said, adding he was worried about clashes between students.

While there have not been serious clashes recently in Lebanese universities, violence flared up during rallies in the past year between supporters and opponents of the anti-government movement.

But, for his colleague Ms Laza, participating in student elections have had one undisputable positive result.

“It taught me to think of voting as something very important and wider than just student elections,” she said.

“People should know that their voices really matter and that they can make change.”