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Lebanese Student Election: a Microcosm of the Nation’s Conflicts

BEIRUT—A Lebanese university temporarily closed its business school this week after violence broke out following student elections that reflected wider political rivalries within the country.

The business school at the St. Joseph University in Beirut closed on both Monday and Wednesday, after student supporters of Hezbollah and the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces reportedly came to blows following fiercely contested student elections won by the latter party and its political allies.

Monday’s incident was reportedly sparked by graffiti depicting the man who assassinated Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel, drawn alongside a heart, while Wednesday’s seems to have broken out between two students from either side.

Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman urged students to accept the results, saying “elections at universities must remain an example for what democracy should be like in our country.”

By Friday the faculty was open again but only to first-year business students. A heavy army presence, in place since the elections on Nov. 22, was maintained outside the university’s gates.

Lebanon’s student elections have long been a microcosm of its wider political scene, rather than a means for student lobbying, and drawing the involvement of the country’s main political parties. Members of the Lebanese Parliament from both Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces have made statements over the fallout from the student elections, with both blaming the other side. At the Lebanese American University elections this year, external political parties were said to have contributed thousands of pounds to fund campaigns for their student counterparts, doing so against regulations, according to a report earlier this month in The Daily Star.

The war in neighboring Syria has exacerbated tensions between Lebanon’s political camps, with Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian  president Bashar al-Assad, leading the March 8 coalition, in opposition to the anti-regime March 14 coalition. Tensions have erupted into violence on repeated occasions in the city of Tripoli, and the country has seen four major bombings this year, with the latest one at the Iranian embassy this month, killing 25 people. Such tensions have been reflected on the country’s university campuses.

“The overall situation, the security stand off and the situation in Syria have further aggravated sectarians divisions in Lebanon,” says Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Nonetheless, he believes such incidents are an inevitable feature of the way student politics plays out in Lebanon’s universities, with blatant and aggressive campaigning along party political lines. He says it’s time for universities to scrap such elections, or provide stronger mechanisms to prevent the country’s politics being played out on campus. Although St. Joseph introduced proportional representation in 2009 in a bid to minimize divisions, universities have proved unable to stop the wave of Lebanon’s politics hitting campus every year.

“[Student elections] are meant to improve the quality of college years so students can enjoy their environment,” he said. “Instead, what has happened is that university has been transformed into yet another arena of political confrontations.”

Hiytham Mokdad, a business student at St. Joseph, agrees, though he voted in the elections and says he understands the frustrations of those who were involved in the violence.

“If we want to stay here [like this], we will fight, many times – of course, it will happen again,” he said. “We told the university to cancel the elections, so we don’t vote. We don’t want elections.”

Meanwhile, students who take a back seat on the country’s traditional political rivalries say they feel unfairly targeted by outcomes like those seen at St. Joseph.

“It’s like a prison here now,” said another business student, who asked not to be named for fear of backlash on the campus. “We can’t go in and out freely now. We’re not able to stay at university after class.”

She blames the involvement of the country’s politicians. “They are making students hate each other,” she added. “We are brothers and sisters in this university. We came to study, not to do politics.”

Others bemoan the lost opportunity.

“If anything one would expect the college years to bring the Lebanese together so they can discover each other and … compromise and openness,” said the American University of Beirut’s Khashan. “What’s happened is exactly the opposite.”

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