Lebanon crisis

Lebanese secular groups give hope for future with student election wins

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Running for student council elections in Lebanon as an independent has long been a move considered as going against the tide, with students sticking to the banners of established political parties. This year, the tables turned.

Broad public discontent with traditional political parties has emerged over the last year as the country’s economy worsens and the old parties become more synonymous with corruption and mismanagement.

In Lebanon, student council elections at universities hold a certain type of significance, as big and diverse campuses are widely seen as a microcosm of Lebanon’s political arena.

While the sectarian elite still rules in Beirut, on Lebanon’s campuses, a new scene is playing out.

“Student’s aren’t being fooled by the programs of the sectarian parties anymore,” said Charbel Chaaya, the President of the Secular Club at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.

‘Ashamed’ to run, political parties try to go undercover

“This year [elections] were different because political parties were not as present,” Leen el-Harake, a co-manager of the independent election campaign at the Lebanese American University, told Al Arabiya English.

Read more: Lebanon’s student elections were a victory, but will not save the nation

“It wasn’t because they [political parties] chose not to be present, but because they simply couldn’t, as they felt students were not going to vote for them this year,” she said.

Independents at Lebanese American University (LAU) this year gained 52 percent of the popular vote across the two campuses in Beirut and in Byblos north of the capital, an unprecedented result.

“They [candidates of political parties] even tried to disguise [themselves] as independents and run under that cover to get votes and seats,” Harake explained.

Using sectarian rhetoric, once the cornerstone of electoral campaigns of political parties in universities, was not an option this time, during what marked the first student election after the October 17 nationwide mass uprisings against the entire ruling elite in Lebanon last year.

Protesters primarily demanded the abolishment of the sectarian political system that has been a breeding ground for corruption and incompetence, which ultimately led the country to its current state of economic collapse.

Independent groups at LAU and at other universities are starting to dismantle sectarianism, at least on campus.

At the American University in Beirut (AUB), independents once again registered landslide victories with the Secular Club – established in 2008 – and a newly formed independent campaign called Change Starts Here, clinching 65 out of 82 faculty seats and 15 out of 19 student government seats.

Read more: Expecting the collapse: Meet Lebanon’s young political party ready to take power

The same scenario played out at AUB, with established parties ducking out of the elections.

“I think the real reason why they [political parties] didn’t participate in elections is because they didn’t have the numbers,” Lara Sabra, president of the AUB Secular Club, told Al Arabiya English.

The Free Patriotic Movement, Future Movement and Hezbollah students – all of which represent well-established Lebanese political parties – were noticeably absent, boycotting the elections which were held online this year due to coronavirus, claiming it was “un-democratic.”

Change in political attitude

Student elections this year were held as a test of whether a new political reality could take hold in Lebanon, and they were closely followed.

“This year we noticed more political awareness among the student body, we didn’t feel the need to convince people on why they should vote independent, and why they shouldn’t be supporting candidates with political affiliations,” Harake said.

People walk outside the American University of Beirut (AUB) medical center in Beirut, Nov. 9, 2020.(Reuters)
People walk outside the American University of Beirut (AUB) medical center in Beirut, Nov. 9, 2020.(Reuters)

Independent movements and clubs have long been present in universities across Lebanon, but they were never the popular choice.

“The Secular Club has been demanding the same demands as the October 17 mass protests since its inception in 2008,” Sabra said.

Sabra also noted that many young people had left their political parties, an increasingly common occurrence after the reckoning of the October 17 uprisings.

At Rafik Hariri University – named after former prime minister and founder of the Future Movement – it was the first year independents even ran for seats, clenching 4 out of 9 seats.

The university has been widely known to be of one color, and a conservative space. Many students took the risk and insisted on running as independent candidates – much to the dismay of their parents who still hold on to their sectarian and political loyalties.

Coming on the heels of three major wins for independents in other universities, the elections at Saint Joseph University (USJ) were no exception.

While students from political parties brawled outside the campus, the independent Secular Club candidates were busy winning all the seats they contested for, 85 out of 101.

“We don’t think like this, we are seculars. We don’t care who heads our list,” Chaaya the USJ student said explaining that their lists were not headed exclusively by candidates belonging to a certain religion like the national system in which prime government posts are divided among sects.

“They want an independent student council that defends their rights, they don’t care if the candidates are atheist or Christian or Muslim or whatever,” he said.

Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) carry flags and a picture of Christian politician and FPM founder Michel Aoun in October 2016. (File photo: Reuters)
Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) carry flags and a picture of Christian politician and FPM founder Michel Aoun in October 2016. (File photo: Reuters)

Chaaya, a student at the Faculty of Law said that his faculty was for decades dominated by March 14 Christian parties, namely Lebanese Forces and Kataeb Party, and this year independents were able to win it for the first time, with an extra 100 votes.

An October 17 win

The October 17 mass uprisings failed to materialize into concrete change. The sectarian system remains in place, banks illegally hold people’s money, inflation and poverty rise, and a horrific explosion at the Beirut port – a result of negligence by the ruling powers – left hundreds dead, thousands injured and many more homeless.

But in the student elections, the ripple effects from the protests were seen.

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“Because LAU was the first university to hold the elections, we didn’t know what to expect, but after our results it sort of executed a ripple effect throughout other universities and really set the ground for a good year” Harake said.

Chaaya said if it weren’t for the nationwide uprisings last year, they would not have achieved these results.

A small battle in a long war

The historic results of student council elections around Lebanon provided a glimmer of hope in an increasingly hopeless country, but this is just a small battle, in what will be a long war for the independents to challenge the old guard.

Amira, a board member of Beirut Madinati, a civil society campaign that challenged political parties in the Beirut municipal elections in 2016, said that grassroots movements are organizing ahead of upcoming municipal elections and the 2022 parliamentary elections.

“Our main priority is to lobby for a new electoral law,” she said, as the current electoral system favors the sectarian parties, where people vote in accordance to their sectarian loyalties in heavily gerrymandered districts.

However, she cast doubt that a new law that would allow independents to win more seats would be accepted by the current ruling elite. Despite this, she remains hopeful that substantial change was still possible.

Sabra also acknowleded the difficulties of translating their wins onto a bigger stage.

Indeed, the youth and especially those who attend these private universities only represent a portion of voters in Lebanon, and most of them are not even of age to vote, with the legal voting age in Lebanon being 21.

However, Sabra remained optimistic.

“Our slogan this year was ‘Bukra Elna’ (tomorrow is ours) which is based on the idea of reclaiming our future….I don’t want to emigrate and leave, and what gives me hope for a better future is this type of change.”

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