As protests enter their fifth consecutive week, thousands of students across Lebanon have refused to attend classes. They prefer to demonstrate in the streets as part of a protest movement demanding the ouster of the governing class and despite concerns about threats to the current school year and the future of their own education.
After an earlier announcement that institutions could decide on their own whether to resume studies, the minister of education backtracked on Tuesday and suspended study in all schools, institutes and universities in the light of the continuing protests and calls for a general strike throughout Lebanon. “This decision comes in order to preserve the safety of students and respect for their right to ‘democratic expression,’” the minister, Akram Hussein Chehayeb, said in a news release.
Schools, institutes and universities were almost completely suspended for at least two weeks in various cities after the protests erupted on October 17, before some resumed classes. (See a related article, “Lebanon’s Universities Have Emptied Out Into the Streets.”)
In the past week, however, school and university students have intensified their presence in sit-ins and marches in front of public institutions, expressing fears about the deteriorating situation and its impact on their future.
“I don’t think my academic year is under threat, because my case is right,” said Sarah Molham, a 17-year-old student from a public school in Tripoli. “I have left the class with all the students for our rights and the rights of our parents, which we will not get if we do not fill the squares and shout loudly in the face of corrupt authority.”
She added that participating in the demonstrations was an irreplaceable opportunity and that she would not return to study until the protesters’ demands were fulfilled, including “changing our curricula that have become outdated and do not meet the needs of the labor market.”
Public Debt and Crumbling Services
Since October 17, Lebanon has witnessed a series of mass protests against a sharp decline in the standard of living, economic conditions, and the poor services provided by the state, such as electricity, water, waste removal, health care and social security. The country is struggling with debt that stands at $86 billion, equivalent to 150 percent of GDP and one of the highest national debts in the world. (See a related article, “In Lebanon: Sect Vs. Sect Turns Into People Vs. Politicians.”)
In late October, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced the resignation of his government “in response to the will of many Lebanese who took to the streets to demand change.”
The protests did not stop, especially with the delay of the start of parliamentary consultations to appoint a new prime minister, but most of the roads that had been closed for weeks by protesters were opened. Some universities and schools also opened back up for students.
“I have left the class with all the students for our rights and the rights of our parents, which we will not get if we do not fill the squares and shout loudly in the face of corrupt authority.”Sarah Molhm
a 17-year-old student from a public school in Tripoli
The demonstrations took a dark turn recently when a local politician was shot and killed by a soldier who tried to disperse a crowd of protesters in Beirut by firing warning shots. The shooting is being investigated, but it has inflamed the tense stand-off between the protesters and politicians.
Pressure on Students to Return
The decision of some schools to resume classes angered many students, who demonstrated in different parts of Lebanon to protest the decision and to denounce administrators’ efforts to prevent them from joining the protest movement.
In Beirut, protesting students stationed themselves in front of the Ministry of Education headquarters in defiance of the decision. In Tripoli and Akkar, in northern Lebanon, street protests shut down vital facilities and the headquarters of a number of banks.
In the Bekaa region, east of Beirut, high school students staged demonstrations that paralyzed traffic in some towns and villages. Students also demonstrated in the coastal city of Sidon, in southern Lebanon, refusing to withdraw from the streets and calling for “the elimination of patronage and the building of a modern country.”
“We are demonstrating out of frustration, because we don’t want to graduate and then have to travel and live away from our families,” said Abdallah Jablawi, a 15-year-old student at Al-Iman Private School in Tripoli. “I am delighted to be part of the demonstrations through which I seek to build a future I dream of.”
“We are demonstrating out of frustration, because we don’t want to graduate and travel and live away from our families.”Abdallah Jablawi
a 15-year-old student at Al-Iman Private School in Tripoli
Meanwhile, some school and university administrations are putting pressure on students and professors to return to their studies and stop participating in the protests.
On November 5, an audio recording was posted on social media in which the headmistress of the Collège Notre Dame des Soeurs Salvatoriennes-Abra, a secondary school in Abra, spoke harshly to students and threatened to expel them if they participated in the protests. The headmistress later apologized after the clip went viral, drawing a wave of accusations of repression and collusion with the authorities.
The General Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Lebanon also announced that it would resume studies on November 12, encouraging students and teachers to make up for lost classes and programs.
Potential Threat to Scholarships
At the Lebanese American University, an official who asked not to be named said that the university administration had begun to press for students to return to their classes, especially those in their last academic years who are receiving grants from outside Lebanon. Students with four-year scholarships who do not graduate this year may not find new grants to continue their studies, the administrator said.
But university’s communication office, in an email to Al-Fanar Media on November 20, said that no such action had been taken or decision been considered at the university.
Many advocates for students, however, said such pressure is futile.
“The pressure on students does not work, because they broke the fear barrier and increased their awareness in the face of all authorities,” said Samer Annous, a professor of education at Balamand University, a private institution in Tripoli. “They set the goals of the popular uprising and are very committed despite all the psychological pressure they face.” (See a related article, “Professors Start a ‘School of the Rioters’.”)
Annous plays down the concerns about threats to the academic year in Lebanon.
“What students learn on the street today is more important than what they could learn in closed rooms,” said Annous. “Their participation will affect and determine not only their own future, but their country’s future too.”
Khaled Sabbagh, a 26-year-old international law researcher and a graduate of the Lebanese Army’s Institute for Research and Strategic Studies, believes that the presence of university and school students on the street is critical. They are “a highly trusted community,” he said, “have a high level of awareness, and an indirect mandate from the society to express its aspirations and demands.”