Lebanon’s Universities Have Emptied Out Into the Streets

/ 15 Nov 2019

Lebanon’s Universities Have Emptied Out Into the Streets

BEIRUT—As Lebanon’s protests enter their second week, at least one university considered resuming operations—but that possibility has been widely rejected by students and professors.

As it stands, universities and schools are still shut down, just like banks and most businesses. Most main roads are blocked, with demonstrators switching tactics to keep roads blocked, changing from burning tires and human blockades to parking their cars in the midst of intersections and walking away.

Young people dominate the demonstrations that began on October 17. Squares across the country are flooded with people, many of whom are students or recent university graduates, asking for better living conditions, improved public services, an end to corruption and an end to the nepotism and patronage systems that determine who gets jobs, instead of awarding jobs on merit. (See a related article, “In Lebanon: Sect Vs. Sect Turns into People Vs. Politicians.”)

“We will not leave the streets and return to the university until the demands of the Lebanese people are fulfilled,” said Abeer Zayan, a 22-year-old science student at the Lebanese University who was demonstrating in Beirut. She said the conditions of higher education in general and in the Lebanese University in particular, the country’s only public university, indicate a desperate need for such an uprising.

“We, as students, are deprived of our most basic rights, basic needs, infrastructure and equipment,” Zayan said. “We lack the equipment to carry out our research as the state keeps neglecting us.”

Private university students express a similar attitude. Nasreen Chidiac, a 23-year-old scholarship student in the American University of Beirut’s Faculty of Agriculture, said her participation in the protests was essential. “My motivation as a student to take to the streets is to protest against the high living costs,” she said. “Most of us graduate from universities and cannot secure a job in Lebanon. We have to emigrate and leave our parents and loved ones in order to work and live in dignity.”

“All students are losing their future in Lebanon. We are not the war generation anymore,” Chidiac said. “We have not experienced cruelty or hate, so we have the ability to accept the other, and there is great hope for change.”

Support From Professors and Presidents

The heads of universities have posted tweets and statements praising the students’ participation and announcing the suspension or postponement of exams. “I am in awe of your passionate commitment to our country,” wrote Joseph Jabbra, the president of the Lebanese American University, in a letter that was also published on Twitter.

“We will not leave the streets and return to the university until the demands of the Lebanese people are fulfilled.”

Abeer Zayan   A 22-year-old science student at Lebanese University

A joint statement issued last week by Fadlo Khuri, the American University of Beirut’s president, and Salim Daccache, the president of Saint-Joseph University of Beirut, stated: “What Lebanon is currently living is an authentic national outcry, the largest unifying national protest movement since 1943, an outcry that profoundly expresses the sufferings and needs of our people and their immense desire to rebuild our country on new foundations.”

The presidents condemned any efforts to suppress the protests and urged the Lebanese authorities to respond to the “aspirational hopes of the people.”

Professors made similar comments. “When we found that the Lebanese people were in a phase of awareness of their rights, had taken to the streets and crossed their sects and parties, it was our duty to be at the heart of this movement,” said Youssef Daher, head of the executive committee of the League of Lebanese University Full-Time Professors.

Suzan Kahala, a professor who works part-time at the Lebanese University, the University of Notre Dame-Louaize and Saint-Joseph University, believes that the participation of professors in the protests should be a foregone conclusion. “Every day, we take to the streets and demand to be treated with justice,” she said. “When professors have real power, it will be reflected positively on their students. We want to feel respected in our country for our competence. Sometimes, we wonder in despair: Was it really worth it to go on and graduate to get a Ph.D. degree?”

Professors at the American University of Beirut also supported a general strike in harmony with the popular movement. In a statement, they called for “social and political action in line with our mission as intellectuals, educators and social critics, and expressing goals that are consistent with the core mission of the university as an institution that fosters critical learning practices that contribute to social transformation.”

Lebanese University students on the streets pledged not to attend classes and rejected their president's attempt to reopen the university (Photo: FaceBookLUstudents1951).
Lebanese University students on the streets pledged not to attend classes and rejected their president's attempt to reopen the university (Photo: FaceBookLUstudents1951).

A group of professors appeared in a video on Facebook singing a patriotic anthem supporting the popular movement. Students, professors and staff members at the Lebanese American University issued a petition, according to the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, in which they affirmed “their support for their colleagues in Lebanese universities and called for an open strike, as long as the popular movements continue.” They also called on their colleagues at the Lebanese American University to organize meetings, propose ideas, and contribute to the leadership of the popular uprising.

In fact, professors from many institutions have held informal classes and discussions on the streets and in other protest locations. (See a related article, “Professors Start a ‘School of the Rioters’.”)

A Rejected Call to Resume Studies

Last week, the president of the Lebanese University, Fouad Ayoub, called for a resumption of classes. But the call was strongly rejected by both students and professors as being premature since the protesters’ demands, including a mass resignation of all government officials, have not been met.

On social media, a hashtag that read #Aal_Jamaa_Mesh_Rayheen (#WeAreNotGoingToTheUniversity) went viral. An account of the Lebanese University Students Association tweeted: “We are not going to the university, and of course we are not leaving the streets. The decision of the presidency of the Lebanese University, just like the prime minister’s reformist paper, changed nothing! #Lebanon is rising.”

The students’ association’s Facebook page also published a statement  declaring that “there is no education until the fall of the government.”

“The protest and the disruption of lessons will not adversely affect students,” said Kahala, the part-time professor at the Lebanese University and other institutions. “The uprising is for them and for their future, so that they can learn and secure decent jobs.”

Daher, of the Lebanese University professors’ organization, believes that professors who teach patriotism, secularism and respect for human rights now have a rich opportunity. “Professors have a role in the revolution,” he said, “which will certainly contribute to the rehabilitation of the national university, as one of the most important pillars of the country besides the army and the judiciary.”

Some professors are concerned about the uprising’s future. Roula Abou Chakra, a professor in the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, in Beirut, believes that the political and social nature of the situation in Lebanon does not allow professors to play a major role. The revolution, she said, is a “‘hunger’ revolution that does not have a clear political role yet.”

Abou Chakra also wonders about the exact role that university students can play in the protests. She believes that students are usually participating as individuals and not as part of an organized group.

How long the protests will go on remains to be seen. There is no clear path to a political solution, but the resolve of the protesters seems strong. For now, academics are making a clear choice to stay out of classrooms and do their teaching and learning on the street.




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