Student politics mirror Lebanon’s dilemmas

It would seem that for AUB students, and Lebanon as a whole, the weight of the confessional system is too great to shrug off.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Students lie down in front of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs building at the American University of Beirut. (AP)
Political Petri dish. Students lie down in front of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs building at the American University of Beirut. (AP)

Student elections at the American University of Beirut (AUB) are often described as a microcosm of Lebanese national politics. This year, the analogy rings depressingly true.

There is a grim irony that, as Lebanon waits wearily for a cabinet to form, AUB students wait for the University Student Faculty Committee (USFC) to establish its own cabinet -- and the power balance is much the same in both.

2018 promised to be a year of change for Lebanon. The thrice-postponed general election arrived. For the first time in the country’s history, proportional representation was to be instituted in 15 electoral districts, a move heralded by many “as a step in the right direction.”

Since 1943, the confessional system has allocated political power among Lebanon’s religious communities according to their percentage of the population. The problems with the system are well-documented. The electoral law of 2017 would, as one British newspaper put it, “allow space for more independents and reduce the power of establishment blocs formed by the country’s multi-confessional political system.”

More changes were afoot. For the first time, Lebanese expatriates were invited to vote. In theory, the overseas electorate was several million but the state-run news agency recorded the number at 82,970.

Excitement grew around the civil society alliance Kulluna Watani, a secular coalition of 11 groups, many connected to campaigns born of the protests of 2015. However, the results were disappointing for the pioneering alliance. It won one seat in the 128-member parliament.

An obvious comparison can be drawn between Kulluna Watani and AUB’s Campus Choice, the grass-roots secular student coalition that garnered well-deserved attention last year for gaining six seats in the USFC’s 19-seat house, just two years after its inception. This year, Campus Choice won three seats and lost another through a resignation.

It would seem that for AUB students, and Lebanon as a whole, the weight of the confessional system is too great to shrug off but Talal Nizameddin, dean of student affairs at AUB, said the issue is more complex. “Campus Choice gained much goodwill at first. It was a homegrown party that argued that traditional parties have failed us,” he said.

“Then the problems started. Alumni and outsiders started an external party and dominated the on-campus party. Meanwhile, a radical faction won over the moderates. For example, in 2016 during another peak of the Syrian war, the radical elements didn’t like the idea of standing with democracy and liberalism. They argued that the fear of Russia and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad was a Western conspiracy. In the end, Campus Choice came away with no stance on Syria, making them less approachable to students.”

Nizameddin said the AUB elections are unique. “Unique is not just a platitude,” he stated. “The AUB elections are unique because of Lebanon’s history. We are the only university where you have a real mix of people from different regions. This diversity reflects Lebanese society.”

But there is a paradox at the heart of AUB politics. Like Lebanon itself, AUB contends with the spectre of the civil war, a legacy that lingers in student politics as much as it does in national politics.

“Before the war there was a student council. It was European in character, broadly inspired by the 1968 uprisings and shared many characteristics of the region such as opposition to Israel," Nizameddin said. "AUB was, like Lebanon to a large extent, mainly Christian-represented. We have a chapel here -- missionaries set up our university. At the time, Christians tended to be better educated.”

AUB is in Hamra, an area in West Beirut controlled by Muslim militias during the war. “One can’t exclude AUB from its milieu. The campus was occupied by several armed groups before eventually the [Palestine Liberation Organisation] became the dominant force. In 1983, an off-site campus was set up in Achrafieh specifically for Christians,” Nizameddin said.

The Achrafieh campus closed in 1996, six years after the official end of the war. “People need time to feel safe. In reality, Lebanon only began to pick up after 1993. However, many Christian professors and even my secretary Therese stayed here on the main campus throughout the war,” he continued.

A Google search yields no results about the temporary campus in Achrafieh. Asked about its absence, Nizameddin said: “It was not a pleasant episode in the history of this country. For AUB it is very important to keep message that we are unified.”

For the same reason, after the war, AUB decided to ban political affiliations for campus clubs and societies. “We cannot and do not wish to forbid politics. This is a very specific ban. The university simply doesn’t want party X or Y to get a foothold,” Nizameddin said.

Naturally, there is one party of which the university is fearful, although Nizameddin does not name it. “AUB is officially registered in New York. US policy started to get more stringent during the Obama administration but now we must tread very carefully,” he said.

Much like AUB, the country is in a tight bind.

Can it forever allude to Hezbollah without really acknowledging its presence?

With recent US sanctions on Hezbollah, it seems like the national cabinet is further than ever from forming. On October 23, the Trump administration informed the Lebanese government that its cabinet selections, which gives Hezbollah control of the Health Ministry, crossed a “red line.”

Whether AUB’s politics is a useful barometer for national politics is the subject of academic discussion. Since the civil war, scholars have noted trends in AUB’s student politics because, Lokman Meho, librarian and historian at AUB said, “the inordinate number of AUB graduates in positions of national, social and political importance is a reason why the actions and attitudes of today's student politicians and their electoral results are worth noting.”

Meho’s study of post-war student politics at AUB can be found in the Arab Studies Quarterly from 1996 under the title "The War Generation and Student Elections at AUB."

When asked to expand on his point, Meho declined, stating: “I have been away from Lebanese politics for more than 20 years and have not been following it at all as I consider it a waste of time.”

What about the other universities?

The Lebanese American University (LAU) had elections in October but Nizameddin said the elections there do not carry the same weight, pointing to the use of online voting. “They can vote on their phone, in a group of their friends. Is that a real election?” he asked

Perhaps most important, LAU has two campuses, which reflect the political geographies of Lebanon. Omar Doughan, who ran the campaign for the March 14 alliance at LAU, admits that “the Byblos campus is much more strongly pro-March 14 because of the historical popularity of the Lebanese Forces, whereas in Beirut, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement has more sway.”

However even here, a common theme emerges: In LAU, the secular party Tghir failed to live up to expectations, winning only three seats. The March 14 alliance remained dominant in both LAU campuses, a sign that, like AUB and Lebanon itself, the confessional system will not be shaken off in a hurry.