Lebanese riot police on Saturday scuffled with students protesting against a decision by top universities to adopt a new dollar exchange rate to determine tuition fees – which equates to a major fee rise.
Protesters had gathered for a “Day of Student Anger” in front of the American University of Beirut, the largest by far in a series of demonstrations organised by independent student groups from across Lebanon.
They united forces earlier this month to fight a 160 per cent hike in fees and oppose a political elite they say is compromising their future, but further violence may undermine the momentum of their cause.
"We won't pay the tuition even if we have to drop out," Wissam Chahine, a 22-year-old student told The National. "How will we eat or pay rent?"
Student groups condemned heavy military and police presence as well as the use of violence against those who were attempting to protest inside the university.
“We are not against the army, but they’re attacking us. Our government is corrupt and we have many demands,” protester Nivine Khazaal, 18, said.
Footage of demosntrators attacking banks late on Saturday evening circulated online. Lebanese banks have become a target for protesters since last October after they banned depositors from accessing their accounts freely.
“When students wanted to enter the university to protest there, they were recurrently met with beatings and tear gas, indiscriminately used to punish them,” the AUB Secular club wrote in a statement.
“We hold the AUB administration fully responsible for what happened on the ground.”
AUB President Fadlo Khuri blamed the violence on “infiltration and deliberate disruption of what had been a peaceful demonstration,” in a statement released on Sunday, denying that the university had any role in directing security forces to crack down on the students.
Earlier this month the AUB, Lebanon’s foremost university, decided to price tuition fees at 3,900 Lebanese pounds or lira per dollar, as opposed to the largely abandoned official rate of 1,500 lira to the dollar, effectively multiplying fees by 2.6 for the Spring semester.
The Lebanese American University announced a similar hike shortly after and other universities are expected to follow suit. The new pricing is unaffordable for many Lebanese struggling to cope with the effects of an economic crisis that struck the country for the past year, pushing nearly half of the population below the poverty line.
The local currency has lost 80 per cent of its value on the black market, in part due to a shortage of foreign currencies in the country, diminishing the purchasing power of Lebanese.
Mr Khuri said the hike was necessary for the “financial survival of AUB” in a statement earlier this month. But student representatives say they have not been consulted on that decision and that many cannot afford the new fees.
Karim Saadeh, treasurer of AUB’s Student Faculty Committee says that if the hikes are allowed to pass, many young Lebanese will lose out on their education.
"If nothing changes 40 per cent, if not more, of all students will be unable to afford an education," he told The National last week at a student event. "We have to fight this as a unified front."
For decades, political life on campuses has been dominated by the sectarian parties that rule the country. But this year independent and secular candidates won an unprecedented number of seats in university elections, their victory bolstered by a mass protest movement that began last October against the ruling elite, deteriorating living conditions and for clean governance.
Karim Safieddine of Mada Network, a youth political advocacy group supporting independent student clubs, says protesters want to end tuition hikes and be involved in decisions that impact them in their universities.
“The end-goal is to reverse the decision of pricing tuition fees at 3,900 lira per dollar, and for students and administrators to be able to sit at the same table to discuss and openly negotiate the best solutions forward.”
The student groups will meet tomorrow to decide the next steps, but Mr Safieddine says the use of force in yesterday’s protest is a turning point for them.
“With the added element of militarisation and repression that we witnessed yesterday, there is going to be a different attitude from the student body.”