BEIRUT: Two weeks ago, the Internal Security Forces rushed to break up a brawl near Beirut’s Monnot area, known for its nightlife. But this was no alcohol-fueled personal dispute: It was a fight between students at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, in broad daylight, over upcoming student elections.
With electioneering, rallies and the occasional scuffle, Lebanon’s student elections are serious business a microcosm of the country’s fractious and sometimes violent politics.
Saint Joseph University, the site of the earlier melee, was the last to hold elections this Saturday, as the American University of Beirut, Lebanese American University and Notre Dame University held theirs earlier in October.
Students represent national political parties and tensions run high as candidates fight to prove their party’s weight, both at the university and symbolically, in the country.
Dynamics largely depend on the university’s location. Christian-dominated areas mostly witness competition between the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, so other parties with smaller reach run as their allies or as independents, FPM Youth Commissioner Jihad Salameh explained.
In contrast, AUB hosts the largest and most diverse student population, featuring shifting alliances and intense competition during elections.
“Tensions are inherent to the elections period. Sometimes these tensions are because of external pressures,” said Fouad Maroun, the USJ secretary-general.
PARTISANS AND INDEPENDENTS
Although universities do not allow official political presence on campuses due to their apolitical stance; national parties usually form clubs under different names and missions, with which they coordinate their presence in universities.
“When [political parties] first started appearing in the ’90s and early 2000s, they were not a part of student elections. But they slowly consolidated their status in universities,” said Rabie Barakat, media studies professor at AUB.
Political parties make alliances to maximize their seats on councils. Most universities see two opposing lists of March 14 and March 8 coalitions, while other independent students run with lower odds.
The Secular Club, an independent student organization that bills itself as an alternative to the status quo, started running candidates in AUB in 2012 and USJ in 2017.
“Political parties go to universities to strengthen their presence inside. We started at universities and we are trying to strengthen our presence outside and it’s working,” said Karim Safieddine, the president of the Secular Clubat AUB.
In the 2017 elections, the club secured six seats on AUB’s University Student-Faculty Council and won six faculties in USJ the highest number of seats the club ever gained in the councils.
This year, though, they earned three seats.
The Secular Club isn’t represented at NDU or LAU, yet both are seeing more independent candidates.
Factors contributing to the rise of these independent movements include the trash crisis and civil society action in response.
“There was an anti-establishment context coming from outside, which helped us on campus,” Safieddine said.
Independent candidates in student elections are an increasingly common phenomenon that undergoes periods of fluctuating significance, said Mark Daou, a communication professor at LAU and an independent candidate in the May parliamentary elections.
“Now is a very powerful period [for independents], especially after the activism that happened post-garbage movements. However, it remains to be seen if such movements can create new types of political parties that would become mainstream and start representing people effectively,” Daou added.
But election results don’t reflect these anti-establishment sentiments. In the 2018 elections at all four schools, most seats were won by politically-affiliated parties, while independent and secular candidates secured around one-tenth of the councils’ seats.
Students can run through political parties, as allies to parties or even as independents.
Some students who don’t have enough people to run for their party make alliances for a list. Other students with good platforms who are not necessarily politically affiliated also join parties to gain seats, Salameh explained.
Alliances can secure a candidate many votes, but other factors also contribute. Some resort to underhanded methods, such as offering old exams in exchange for votes.
Many also secure votes due to their popularity, according to AUB Dean of Students, Talal Nizameddine. Although alliances are usually announced before elections, some are declared afterward.
When the AUB elections concluded on Oct. 13, one of the Secular Club’s winning candidates was filmed celebrating with students from the rival Amal Movement while holding the party’s flag.
The Secular Club requested the candidate, Ali Zeineddine, step down from the University Student-Faculty Council position after rumors circulated that he had allied with Amal to garner more votes.
Zeineddine announced he would leave the club shortly after the video was leaked, though he claims the two incidents are unrelated.
He told The Daily Star the video was a celebration with friends that was taken out of context, and he left because of longstanding disagreements with some members.
“Coordinators in the [Secular] Club knew the numbers of votes I would receive, and it was clear that no deals or alliances were made,” he said.
ALLIANCES FROM THE OUTSIDE
Political issues definitely influence student elections, according to Salameh. In AUB’s 2017 student council elections, FPM students surprisingly decided to join the March 14 alliance.
“The students had bad experiences with the March 8 coalition and the coalition has not been adhering to the terms of the agreement they had with FPM before the elections,” Salameh said.
However, the FPM-March 14 alliance, after winning six seats on the 19-seat council, failed to reach consensus on many issues, according to Future’s Youth Private Universities Coordinator Baker Halawi.
The FPM thus rejoined March 8 in this year’s elections, with this coalition earning eight seats.
The 2017 FPM-March 14 alliance coincided with an atmosphere of agreement between President Michel Aoun, who founded the FPM, and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who heads the Future Movement.
In another switch-up, the Progressive Socialist Party stayed with the March 14 alliance at LAU and USJ, but ran with March 8 at AUB and independently at NDU.
PSP forms alliances based on platforms that are closest to its own, PSP Youth Coordinator Mohammad Mansour said.
PSP tried to ally with the Secular Club; however, this didn’t materialize as the latter avoids such alliances.
“Some people approach us, and they are against [March] 8 and [March] 14, but we need someone who is committed to our values and our political ideology after they win,” Safieddine said.
WHO TO VOTE FOR
Campus parties have witnessed a shift in discourse: Recently, they’ve focused on creating strong platforms to attract voters.
Some parties have a cause, but students, especially the current generation, don’t directly identify with these causes,” Halawi said.
He noted the platforms usually address students’ concerns to garner support.
“They learned that you cannot convince people to vote [with political ideology] only,” Safieddine further said.
However, students are still part of a larger political environment, Barakat said.
Daou also agreed, saying that students typically align with existing opinions.
“[Students] are reflecting on what happens [nationally],” he said. “Even if they are not directly linked to it, they go with overall narratives that define politics and political alignments in Lebanon.”