Asharq Alawsat (The Middle East), UK
Dec 1 2006

Lebanon: Sectarianism & Student Elections

01/12/2006
By Maya Meshlib

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 Awn'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 Awn'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.

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