Beirut, Lebanon – Nagham Abouzeid did not think she would win – but she was not going to give up without a fight.
Every year since Abouzeid began attending the Lebanese American University (LAU) in 2018, the 20-year-old had supported independent candidates in student council elections – and each time, they lost to electoral lists backed by Lebanon’s establishment parties.
It was a usual affair in Lebanon, where the parties and affiliates of a small sectarian elite exert control over many aspects of public life, from unions and syndicates to business sectors and student councils.
Still, Abouzeid could not bear that the establishment was this year running unopposed at the LAU’s campus in northern Jbeil, historically a stronghold of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing militia turned political party.
“I was very disappointed students had given up to this learned helplessness,” said the psychology student. “I said, ‘OK, they may win this year, but they aren’t taking seats by acclamation.’”
Then came the surprise. Independents won all the student council seats they contested in the October 9 polls, 14 of a total 30 at the university’s two campuses in Beirut and Jbeil. They also won the popular vote with some 52 percent. Last year, they won just three seats.
And last week, independents saw even better results at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon’s most prestigious university, taking 80 of 101 seats, up from 24 in 2018 (elections were postponed last year).
Meanwhile, at Rafik Hariri University (RHU), named after the former Lebanese prime minister assassinated in 2005, independents on November 2 made their first entry and took four out of a total of nine seats, up from zero every year before.
At each university, the results were unprecedented, a reflection of the extraordinary changes Lebanon has seen in just one year.
In October 2019, massive protests broke out against the country’s ruling elite, fuelled by outrage over a deepening economic crisis and decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Suffering from massive unemployment and a bleak future, the country’s youth were a driving force of the protest movement that brought down a government but has not yet translated into a shift from the dysfunctional sectarian system many see as the core reason for Lebanon’s woes.
Now, some view the series of student election successes as the beginning of a transition from the streets of protest to the seats of power.
“The people who voted for me are the people who will be voting for the next parliament in two years, and they are very sick and tired of these political parties,” Abouzeid said, referring to polls scheduled for mid-2022, when municipal elections are also set to be held.
Bellwether or nothing special?
Students themselves will quickly point out notable differences between student polls and local or national elections.
For starters, student elections are held according to a system of proportional representation; seats are not allocated by religious sect, and this year voting was made exceedingly easy, via an online portal.
In contrast, municipal elections are held according to a winner-takes-all system, while parliamentary polls according to a gerrymandered law that allocates seats based on sect and divides the small country into 15 electoral districts tailored-made for the establishment.
To vote, citizens must travel to their place of birth – often rural areas where parties have greater control and influence. This means that more than half of Beirut’s modern-day population of up to an estimated two million is not allowed to vote where they live.
These factors make it much harder for those running on independent lists to break in. In 2018, they won just one of the 128 seats up for grabs in Parliament, though other factors – including low name recognition and uneasiness over many candidates, who were little-known – were also at play.
“We don’t expect the same kind of radical shift at Parliament,” said Nadim El Kak, a researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies and graduate student in sociology at the AUB, who won a seat at the recent elections.
“Definitely independents will do better than before, but it’s a battlefield that is still somewhat out of our reach due to the electoral system and the scale of pressure involved.”
That pressure includes the massive resources poured by establishment parties into riling up sectarian feelings through media and advertisement campaigns, as well as organising protests and other events. Other challenges include the promise of jobs and patronage, buying votes and shepherding voters to rural areas to cast their ballots.
“Elections in this country are about how to intimidate and when to do it, and a competition over resources and patronage,” said Jamil Mouawad, a lecturer in politics at the AUB.
“So when we speak of a change of mood at the student level, it doesn’t really touch on those powerful mechanisms and tools used on a national level.”
There are, however, indications that running independent in Lebanon today is a boon to candidates – and that the establishment umbrella is no longer what it used to be.
This includes the victory of an uprising-backed candidate at the influential Beirut Bar Association last year, and the fact that establishment parties are trying to style themselves as independent, notably the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
Creating a real politics
During AUB’s student elections, two broad independent lists emerged: one backed by the decade-old Secular Club, another by the newly-emerged Change Starts Here (CSH).
They ended up competing against each other, while establishment-backed lists cried foul, announced boycotts and faded into the background.
The two lists had different philosophies. The Secular Club excluded anyone seen to be politically affiliated, while CSH welcomed many former supporters of establishment parties while still maintaining a progressive platform.
Ultimately, this accommodating approach worked in CSH’s favour: The new movement won 38 seats, almost as much as the Secular Club’s 42, despite the fact that the latter has been around for more than a decade.
For independent students best defined by what they are against – namely, against sectarian parties – these elections put a new focus on what they actually stand for.
It is a reckoning process that Mouawad, the AUB lecturer, said independent groups would also have to go through on a national level.
To some degree, it has already begun with the emergence of protest-backed groups and political parties that lean more left (such as Li-Haqqi, or “For My Right,” and Citizens in a State); centre left (such as Beirut Madinati); and others on the centre-right (such as Ana Khat Ahmar, or I Am A Red Line).
These groups aim to come together under a single nationwide opposition front in 2022, allowing for political differences to play out in the composition of lists in various districts.
According to El Kak, that is the best way to ensure independents do not siphon off votes from each other with separate campaigns, while still allowing for enough diversity to capture voters with different values.
In many cases, independent political groups will be fighting on unfamiliar ground that has not been seriously contested in the years after the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990 – similarly to what independent students did at RHU, a university that has been completely under the sway of the establishment since it was founded in 1999.
“Our purpose here was to challenge the ideology everyone is used to,” said Malak Laza, a 19-year-old biomedical engineering student and one of the four successful candidates at the university’s recent elections.
“We are teaching people to get used to voting and how to think about voting, and I’m learning how to work to confront the parties,” added Laza. “From here we go to the unions and to the national elections; it starts small and gets bigger.”