Sects impact Beirut student polls

In Lebanon’s universities, there is no escaping the country’s divisive politics.

The American University of Beirut, where student politics follow national trends [ANDERSON]

Ghina Ali Harb is too young to remember her country’s civil war, but wise enough to understand its legacy of political and sectarian divisions which persist in Lebanon today.

Harb, who was elected to the student council at Lebanese American University (LAU) in elections held last year, was backed by the youth wing of the Future Movement, the prime minister’s party.

Nevertheless, she says she hopes that one day both student and national elections will be divorced from sectarian and outside political influence.

“Party representation among students in Lebanon is really important. They target the youth, and once they have their support, they know they will have it later,” says the 20-year-old aspiring politician.

This year, March 14 Alliance, a coalition of political parties, won the student elections at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and are expected to win in LAU’s December 11 vote.

Reflecting society

Student elections in Lebanon are serious business. All of the major political parties have student representatives, and when university elections come around, the backing of one of these parties is practically essential for these young candidates.

Like the parties in mainstream politics, Shia students tend to support Hezbollah and Amal, who form the opposition March 8 coalition, while Sunnis back the Future Movement, which is part of the governing March 14 Alliance. The Christians nearly evenly divide into smaller parties between the two coalitions.

The campaigns and the results are front-page news in the national press, and the winners are seen as indicators of the major parties’ popularity. Even the syndicate elections for dentists and other trade unions are closely followed.

“Unfortunately student elections in Lebanon are largely a reflection of the sectarian and ethnic cleavages of broader Lebanese society,” says Firas Maksad, the Washington director the Beirut-based Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, a civil society group.

“Rather than offering new approaches to old problems the majority of Lebanon’s educated youth has been co-opted by the mostly feudal political establishment.”

Civil war impact

Political sectarian divisions in Lebanon’s student elections can be traced back to the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

From the beginning of the war until the late 1990s, Lebanon’s major universities suspended their student elections, and it was during this period of instability and weak government that the country’s various political parties became havens for the different religious sects and communities.

The elections in Lebanon are not about the students or their needs”

Layla Kabalan, student

“Naturally this was a by-product of the civil war, which not only destroyed the country but also immobilised the various ideological parties and their platforms,” says Makram Rabah, an former AUB student council president and author of A Campus at War: Student politics at the American University of Beirut 1967-1975.

“The elections in Lebanon are not about the students or their needs,” says Layla Kabalan, who studies international relations at LAU.

“They are rather a ‘demo’ or ‘prototype’ of the grand scale elections that happen every four years. The political turmoil and alliances that are present in the political world portray themselves in student elections. I mean, I cannot imagine in the US that Democrats and Republicans are running candidates in student elections.”

Indoctrination from birth

Lebanon’s indoctrination of sectarian politics practically starts at birth. Parents typically marry within their own religious sect, raise their children in their community’s neighbourhood or village, and even before they begin school, many parents register their children in their respective sect’s Boy Scout troupe.

By the time they reach university, their political allegiance to their religious sect is a natural result of their environment and upbringing.

“It starts at home,” says Tarek Na’was, dean of students at LAU. Na’was himself has been an advocate of holding student elections void of outside political interference.

“Kids see their parents involved, and they want to be involved, too.”

He says that many students want to see change. “We have a high percentage of students unhappy with student elections. We’re hoping to change things. We want to hold workshops and get student representatives together to suggest ways to change the system.”

But the dean admits that his goal is not without challenges. In this small Mediterranean country with a weak government but strong social networks, student candidates go to great lengths to make sure they campaign to their respective communities.

Students say it’s not uncommon to receive campaign mobile text messages and emails targeting them for their religious affiliation.

“During elections, you can feel the tension building up between students,” says Kabalan. “And since our political alliances are greatly based on sectarian identities, you feel that students on that day tend to identify with people of the same sect.”

Military involvement

Talal Nizameddin says political engagement is positive. 

To make sure these tensions do not get out of hand, every year on election day university security services coordinate with Lebanese military and surround the campuses to prevent any outbreak in violence between students of competing political parties.

They are also there to prevent any potential conflict from spreading to other neighbourhoods.

In 2004, a fight broke out at LAU between members of Amal, a Shia political party, and the Progressive Socialist Party. The army arrested the 10 students involved and the university expelled them.

“The parties tried very hard to bring the students back, but the university stood its ground,” recalls Imad Salamey, an LAU assistant political science professor.

A secularist who sees universities as “trying to teach understanding and tolerance,” Salamey believes that “the political parties are trying to manipulate the situation.”

Interestingly, despite all of the flaws in Lebanon’s student elections, in some ways they are more progressive than those in mainstream politics.

For example, this year St. Joseph University changed to a system of proportional representation, something Lebanon’s regular political system has yet to implement. 

In addition, this year, even though March 14 won by a landslide, AUB’s independents can boast of having some relative success. In fact, in their Faculty of Medicine, independents won more seats than either of the two coalitions.

Still, independents’ success has still been very limited. This is because they lack the backing of the major political parties that are so familiar to student voters.

Some students question the genuine independence of these candidates, especially in a country where everyone has distinct sectarian and political identities.

Learning skills

But for some people, Lebanon’s intensely polarised student elections aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s tough. Ultimately, there’s a high participation rate here, and that’s a good thing,” AUB’s associate dean of student affairs Talal Nizameddin points out.

“People feel passionately about who they support, and who are we to stand in the way of the will of the people?”

Also, he says that the election process teaches students skills such as lobbying, organising, deal making and negotiating.

As for the strong influence of Lebanon’s sectarian parties on student elections, Nizameddin says, “Maybe because I’m not an idealistic person, if you look at other countries, do most people really vote on enlightened thinking? I think people try to make enlightened choices.”

But there’s at least one student who sees a day when her compatriots will set aside their ideological differences.

“I hope one day the Lebanese can overcome their sectarian attitudes for the sole purpose of benefiting Lebanon. I’d love to see that change,” says Harb from the LAU student council.

Harb, who hopes to continue her political career after university in Lebanon’s foreign ministry, is already thinking ahead and knows who she is matters as much as what she has achieved.

She said: “If I apply to the foreign ministry, there are only a certain amount of seats allocated to my sect.”  

Source : Al Jazeera

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