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Lebanon: Sectarianism & Student Elections | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al Awsat – The intense political turmoil in Lebanon is clearly reflected in the country’s university elections, particularly in the private universities. During the student council elections, the extent of the political divisions reached a point that made the two March dates [March 8 and March 14 were the two dates in which elections were held to determine the political affiliations, the former was for the opposition groups while the latter was held between the pro-government parties] a clear indicator and the most pronounced symbol that signifies the students’ partisan affiliations and the political tracks they follow. Alliances are distributed between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions; the first group includes: the Future Movement (FM – Tayyar al Mustaqbal), Lebanese Forces (LF), Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), Phalange Party (PP – al Kataeb Party), among other affiliations; while the second group includes Hezbollah, Amal Movement, in addition to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which cannot be precisely classified and which is affiliated with the March 8 coalition. It is widely known that these elections are of significance to political parties by virtue of their indicative nature, albeit slight, still, it helps gauge their popularity or lack thereof amongst the university student circles.

What is compelling is that the candidates rely on the political speeches of the leaders they are affiliated to in order to attract and gain votes, rather than preparing any serious programs to address student needs and academic concerns – of which none exist except the FPM’s single request for student ID cards.

Lately, events at universities have been steadily escalating as one university after another held its elections, events in which great anticipation and suspense reigned. The latest surprising event in the series was when the American University of Beirut (AUB) suspended its vote count for two days, citing ‘security reasons’ as the cause, which in turn led to inconclusive results as of yet. With both alliances, the oppositional March 8 coalition and the pro-government May 14 coalition, declaring their victory, each group adopted the representatives from the victorious running ‘independents’ as a way to announce their respective conflicting victories. Following the May 14 coalition’s announcement of their victory by 44 votes against the pro-government’s 32 and 19 independents, the next day saw the March 8 coalition declare its victory by 41 votes against the pro-government’s 18 and 15 independents.

Parallel to these events was the shift that took place at the small Anthony University wherein the habitually won seats by the FPM were taken by the LF [Samir Geagea’s party aka the Lebanese Forces militia] that gained victory by six votes and four over the FPM [the Maronite General Michel Aoun’s party]. Weeks earlier, the elections at the Lebanese American University were cancelled and a council of representatives was formed for the various political parties and movements with the purpose of considering establishing a new electoral system for the student council. The administration’s decision was met by huge protests regarding the distribution of seats as had been announced in terms of participation and sectarian distribution, which resulted in canceling out some parties such as the Armenian Tashnag Party and the independent leftist group.

Weeks earlier, St Joseph University, with a Christian majority in the student body, saw a number of elections held in the various faculties at the university in which the FPM scored a sweeping victory despite results revealing the decline of this popularity in some faculties such as the school for business administration where the FPM has 10 seats as opposed to the LF’s 10, however the former won the presidency. General Aoun’s victory in the university is an intriguing one especially amidst allegations about the decline of the movement following the signing of an agreement of understanding with Hezbollah.

Head of the Committee of Youth and Student Affairs for the FPM, Fadi Hanna (26 years old) spoke of the map that indicates the distribution of the different movements and trends in universities and said, “Despite purports of our decline in popularity at St Joseph University, the results reveal the overwhelming victory we have achieved. We won the presidency of the economics faculty with a 97 majority vote whereas last year we won by 30 votes.” Responding to rumors of alliances formed to ensure that Hezbollah doesn’t win the seat at the business administration faculty, he said, “I dislike talking about sectarian distribution; however I will not evade your question. With the majority of Christian students at the faculty of economics, we were able to gain all 10 seats.” He added, “We ensure that our elections are always self-financed and that they have modest budgets because we depend on our political dialogue, which has remained unchanged for the past 15 years, to attract the student voters. We do not approach them to request their votes, they come to us. We face a problem of people buying votes here at the university, distributing free textbooks and mobile phone recharge cards. Last year a student was apprehended while distributing free cards to students in return for their votes. The action was later justified by claims that the cards were specifically for the purpose of campaign related calls.”

Hanna stressed that the movement urges the government to issue free student ID cards. “The student is king in all countries except Lebanon. For years now, we have been suffering the migration of minds … We will prepare a proposal to submit to the parliament that can enable the formulation of a law that entitles students to acquire long-term loans so as to resume their studies in private universities since there are disciplines that are unavailable in Lebanese public universities. There are also cases of students facing financial hardships and a loan would enable them to continue their education. This requirement is essential for everyone. It would also facilitate entry and enrollment for students in some places, offering discounts on certain purchases.” He also believes that, “the present alliances are formed at the roots, leaders do not impose their inclinations on us, rather it is the opposite – their alliances crown what is integrated and woven at the root.” He also indicated that, “our closest ally is the independent student.”

On the same subject, Hussein Youssef, head of the educational department at Hezbollah said, “elections at St Joseph University took place under sensitive circumstances and some tried to prove the decline of the movement in the Christian arena, but the results prove the falsity of such claims. The truth is, allegations about the movement’s decline in popularity are used to compensate and justify the defeat of our political opponents.” Moreover, Youssef adds that, “the accusation against the March 14th coalition importing Syrian ‘guardians’ to help is inaccurate. Figureheads from the coalition call for foreign support and visit embassies. I think their end is to instill a fear of us in the public and a fear of forming effective partnerships with us. There are attempts to create provocative and wordy headlines to steer people’s attention away from the real problems related to the government and the Israeli enemy. I do not claim that student elections can determine status quo, but they can convey the level of awareness that students have.” Youssef added, “the main contributing factor behind attracting student votes is our clear program and in the mutual and complete confidence that we share with our acquaintances. Some of our student supporters were martyred during the Israeli war on Lebanon, they were fighters … Our program in universities is not based on offering student services; our campaigns are financed by the students themselves”. Regarding the party’s popularity in universities, he said: “our largest presence is focused in the Lebanese University, and of course, our presence in the American University does not equal it, because the fees are high. Our popularity is also affected by the demographic distribution of the population.”

Head official for Youth and Sport at Amal Movement, Dr Hussein Lqais said, “we have a work team in every university that tries to attract and recruit students by helping them register and through guiding them. Our active members hold exhibitions and other types of activities, or collect membership fees from the affiliated students in order to raise the necessary funds. But in general, no large sums of money are allocated, as we do not offer bribes. Regarding alliances, he said, “partnerships exist in all universities and we have no problem in dealing with the FM in some cases if it guarantees our victory. We have affiliations with the March 8 and March 14 coalitions and we have not severed ties with anyone. Pacts and alliances made by politicians do not indicate the alliances in universities.”

Speaking from another perspective, Samir al Ashy, the public relations official for the FM, said, “elections at St Joseph University, which are a gauge for the Christian street have indicated a decline in the popularity of the movement, whereas the March 14 coalition has achieved an evident progress that rose by 50 percent. It is true that the March 8 coalition won the main seats, however the March 14 coalition won half the seats. The remarkable thing is that the Christian youth have voted for the rules of the movement, the only exception that didn’t vote were the Hezbollah candidates, which indicates the lack of sound alliances in the movement. I do not claim that they have lost their standing, it just points towards a decrease in representation.” Regarding the extent of the prevalence of the FM in universities, al Ashy said, “We have a presence in 30 universities between Beirut, Sidon, the north, and in Beqaa. Our presence is not limited to Islamic universities, but also the Christian ones, our movement is above sectarianism and is composed of 12 percent Shia, 8 percent Christian, 5 percent Druze, and the rest are Sunnis.” He added that, “Those who want to place their bets on the state project and the Lebanese army must join us in the fight against corruption, the authority’s rule and regional interferences.” Addressing their presence in universities, he said, “In the Lebanese American University we won all the seats; there are 10 of them in the Beirut campus. In Jubail, where the majority is Christian, we were still able to penetrate the majority with one candidate. At Notre Dame University we have an active cell; and at the University of Balamand we have a strong base.” Al Ashy believes it is natural that the politicians’ alliances reflect on the universities because the latter are an integral part of the Lebanese society and youth are the backbone of life who will become part of the political game. He is quick to mention that, “the crucial matter is that the tension existing between leaders does not get transferred to the university students because we believe that they are the future hope, and should at least be left with a rational outlook, the logic of dialogue, and an acceptance and tolerance of one another. This is the main problem we endure.” On the matter of funding electoral campaigns in universities, he said, “each work team is self-reliant in terms of raising funds through organizing activities and competitions, however, what is being rumored about bribes at universities to buy votes is part of the propaganda launched by the March 8 coalition, which is outdated and backwards, as loyalty cannot be bought or sold. The funds were evident in the large sums paid by Hezbollah after the 12 July wars. This shows that the movement [Hezbollah] has the money and is using it in the street, which is not the case with us.”

For his part, student leader from the Lebanese Forces, Daniel Spiro, said, “our results at St Joseph University reflect an important development and progress, the number of our representatives has risen from 20 percent to 50 percent, while the movement attained the presidential seats indicating that its candidates have strong relationships with the student body – which is what we strive to achieve. He pointed out that, “the elections in some of the university’s faculties had adopted an academic approach, while others were of a purely political inclination, especially in law school where we won six seats. Overall, in the north we gained seven seats and in Beqaa we got five and the presidency. These are results that point to an improvement for the LF over last year.”

The student official at the PSP, Zaffer Nasser, said that the decline of the movement’s popularity in St Joseph University was, “a clear message that confirms a miscalculation in its alliance. I do not claim that those who refrained from voting joined the March 14 coalition, still, we managed a clear improvement.” He had the same opinion as al Ashy regarding funding, he said, “There were rumors about the FM, which is one of the assaults that the March 14 coalition was subjected to. The total outstanding cost of the electoral campaign at the university was US $120, which was raised by the student youth. Nasser added that political dialogue is the basis for attracting the student body, which is a result of the classification taking place in the country. He said, “Therefore we do not focus on student services, nor do we believe in it as a method for running an electoral campaign in universities. It is the student council’s job to handle this issue and to honor its responsibility towards the students.”

The head of the students department at the PP, Jan Antnious, attributes the FPM’s ability to maintain its stature at St Joseph University to the fact that a portion of the Lebanese people are yet to understand the nature of the alliances that they made. He said, “The March 8 coalition is trying to take us back to the time of the Syrian ‘guardians’. He expressed surprise at the results achieved, stressing that his party does not try to tempt people into joining by offering services, but rather through spreading ideas and principles, pointing out that the candidate’s personality and character plays a major role in the outcome of the elections.