Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 11 Table of Contents
MEIB Main Page

November 2003 

Student Politics in Lebanon
by Gary C. Gambill


Lebanon's annual round of university student elections, held by most schools in mid-November, offers revealing glimpses of what democracy in Lebanon might look like after Syrian troops depart. Like their counterparts at the national level, Lebanese student groups compete vigorously for power and are prone to coalesce into rapidly shifting, often ideologically incoherent, electoral coalitions. What is different is that the hand of Syria is not directly felt in the process. While the climate of university politics is compromised to varying degrees by outside influences, there is no "invisible hand" that dictates who controls student councils - a critical distinction underscored by the tendency of electoral fortunes to rise and collapse from year to year. At the end of the day, winning votes is the name of the game in student politics - an imperative that is propelling the country's future leaders to learn democratic "habits."


Lebanon's universities have a long tradition of academic freedom and exposure to Western cultural influences dating back to the nineteenth century. By the turn of the century, according to one historian, the Syrian Protestant College (renamed the American University of Beirut in 1920) and Saint Joseph's University (founded by French Jesuits) "were the leading universities of the Near East," attracting political thinkers and literati from across the region.[1] Nineteen signatories of the United Nations charter in 1945 were graduates of the American University of Beirut (AUB). The golden years of Lebanese democracy from 1943-1975 were made possible, in part, by the secular liberal atmosphere in which the country's technocratic elite was educated.

As in the West, Lebanon's universities became hotbeds of political activism. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a radical group advocating union between Lebanon and Syria, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) were founded by students at AUB. According to sociologist Muhammad Faour, Lebanon's student movement in the late sixties and early seventies was "far more radical and influential that its American and European analogues" - an exaggeration that nevertheless speaks volumes.[2] In 1970, students at the state-run Lebanese University (LU) occupied several school buildings to protest the educational policies of the government, which ordered security forces to evict the students by force. A similar protest took place at AUB in May 1971, when the Student Council, led by Maher Masri (a future minister of economy and trade for the Palestinian Authority), took over a number of university buildings, prompting the university to suspend 103 students.

Lebanese universities remained open during the 1975-1990 civil war, but the country's fragmentation into militia enclaves made it impossible for many students to continue their studies and attacks on Western targets drove most foreign faculty to leave the country. Under the Syrian occupation from 1990 to present, Lebanon's universities have become one of the few areas of protected public space in a country where political elites own all major media outlets.

The Universities

The nature of Lebanese student politics varies greatly across the country's major universities, depending on the extent of government control over each school and the demographic profile of its student body. While tuition in private universities ranges from $3,000 to $20,000 per year, annual tuition in the state-run Lebanese University (LU) is under $200 and the entrance requirements are much less restrictive. Consequentially, most students at private universities are from middle class, urban families, while LU students tend to come from poor, rural families. LU, which has branches throughout the country, has an enrollment of 72,000 - roughly 60% of the all university students in Lebanon.

LU is also distinguished from its private counterparts by the fact that the government appoints its administrators and heavily influences the selection of faculty members. Both are chosen less on the basis of objective qualifications than on their political affiliations. Indeed, LU went several months without a president in late 2000 because of what the university's acting president called "a political struggle between government officials."[3] State control over staff appointments is felt indirectly in all aspects of student life curriculum to freedom of expression.

During the 1975 civil war, when security concerns prevented many students from traveling to the university's main campus in West Beirut, LU faculties opened secondary branches in predominantly Christian east Beirut and its suburbs. This division continues today and has clear implications for student politics - at the predominantly Muslim main campus, freedom of expression is more tightly restricted and groups affiliated with pro-government parties dominate student life, while students at the secondary branches are more vocal and critical of the government.

Students at the main LU campus in West Beirut who decline to join pro-government student groups have complained that they face systemic discrimination. A former student, Muhammad Abbas, recounted his experience with the Amal movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri after arriving on campus. "I was offered [copies of] previous tests and higher grades on my exams if I joined them," he told a local newspaper. After refusing the offer, Abbas briefly toyed with the idea of forming a student movement independent of Amal, but quickly reconsidered. "Amal told me 'don't even think about it, or else.' Since then, I could not even go to classes where seats are reserved for [Amal] supporters."[4]

In 2001, the government announced plans to merge the secondary branches of LU into the main campus, a move condemned by opposition groups as an assault on academic freedom. The first concrete step in this direction came in July 2003, when the English department at the LU branch in Fanar, a Christian suburb, announced that it was closing, forcing all LU students studying English to attend the main campus.

The atmosphere at private universities is very different. Most administrators and faculty at private universities are strongly committed to academic freedom and universal standards of ethics, making it much more difficult for pro-government parties to extend their patronage networks among students. Anxious to attract qualified students, private universities have been less willing to restrict freedom of expression and organization. Whereas universities such as Saint Joseph (SJU) and Notre Dame (NDU) and the Jbeil campus of the Lebanese American University (LAU-Jbeil) attract a largely Christian student body, AUB and the main Beirut campus of the Lebanese American University (LAU-Beirut) have a more balanced confessional mix.


In April 2000, mass student protests against the Syrian occupation erupted at private universities throughout Lebanon, leading to dozens of arrests and injuries at the hands of the security forces, and have continued intermittently for over three years. Although the authorities have been reluctant to intervene directly on campuses, private universities have came under considerable pressure to restrict student freedom of expression. In April 2001, AUB's board of faculty deans issued a ruling prohibiting the university's student magazine, Outlook, from publishing articles that reveal the "political beliefs" of students. The decision came in reaction to an issue of the magazine dealing with Syrian-Lebanese relations that had been printed and was ready for distribution. The student publishers were forced to rip out a two-page article, entitled "Student parties debate Syrian presence," before it hit the stands.

The Players

Broadly speaking, prominent student groups in Lebanon fall into three categories, mirroring to an extent the constellation of political forces at the national level.

Pro-government Groups

All of the main non-Christian political factions represented in the Lebanese government have affiliated student organizations - most notably Amal, the SSNP, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's Future Youth Movement (FYM) and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). Although not represented in the Lebanese cabinet, Hezbollah is a pro-government party in the sense that it has a major stake in the current political order - its armed presence in south Lebanon. However, there are no significant pro-government Christian student groups. Christian power elites in Lebanon do not have a common ideology that can attract young minds. Moreover, whereas most non-Christian power elites earned their place in government by establishing political dominance within sectarian constituencies (often by force of arms during the war years), Christian figures entered the government by appeasing Syria and never developed sophisticated party institutions.

Nationalist Opposition Groups

In largely Christian private universities, two groups dominate student politics - the Free National Current (FNC) of exiled Prime Minister Michel Aoun and the banned Lebanese Forces (LF) movement, a political successor to the largest Christian militia during the war years. Although both groups have long demanded that Syrian troops leave Lebanon, the former is secular and militantly opposed to traditional elites, while the latter is more Christian in orientation and coordinates with traditional Christian political and religious leaders. In addition, the legacy of bloody conflict in 1989-1990 between LF militia forces and Lebanese army units under Aoun's command continues to fuel bitter acrimony among students. Two smaller Christian opposition factions represented on campus are Amine Gemayel's Phalange Corrective Movement and Dory Chamoun's National Liberal Party (NLP). Their influence in student elections is mainly felt when they align themselves with either the LF or the FNC.

The New Left

The last six years have witnessed the rise of a "new left" among Lebanese university students, fueled by disillusionment with established leftist groups. Although Amal and the PSP are ideologically leftist and once challenged the political establishment, both have become little more than pro-establishment patronage networks (the same is true, to a lesser extent, of the Lebanese Communist Party). Anxious to maintain close relations with Syria, mainstream leftist groups have not only been unwilling to challenge the crony capitalist political order of Syrian-occupied Lebanon, but have become part of that order. Although former MP Najah Wakim's People's Movement and dissidents within the LCP have staunchly opposed the establishment (from the political fringe), the idea that all national party affiliations should be avoided gained currency among leftist activists in the universities.

In 1997, students at AUB established an "independent" leftist group called No Frontiers. The organization has no single leader or president - different committees exercise authority over different aspects of the group's activities and no member may serve on more than one committee. Within a few years, similar leftist groups were established at other schools, such as Pablo Neruda at LAU-Beirut, and Direct Action at Balamand University. These groups coordinate loosely as the Independent Leftist Groups (ILG).


Although outcomes of student elections vary greatly from university to university, and from year to year, several generalizations can be made. To begin with, all major universities use a "list system" for elections. That is, students cast votes for all seats on their student council, or for all seats allotted to their particular faculty or grade level. For example, if eight seats at a certain faculty are at stake, students vote for eight candidates and the eight candidates with the highest number of votes win seats. Under such as system, it is not advantageous for any group to instruct all its supporters to vote for an 8-member slate of party candidates - often this will not ensure the election of any candidates. Forming a joint slate with other organizations allows the group to ensure that a smaller number of its candidates receive the votes not only of its own members, but also those of its coalition partners.

This dynamic is similar to that of the national electoral system, in which all voters in a given district vote for all of its allotted seats. In parliamentary elections, outcomes are often decided before election day - negotiations over the composition of coalition slates largely predetermine the distribution of seats among the leading political factions. The same is true at the universities. For example, at the private Christian universities, elections usually boil down to a contest between the FNC and the LF. When one of these main groups forms a coalition with the much smaller Phalange and NLP factions, it typically wins big over its rival. In short, the number of seats won by a particular group is determined less by the number of its members who vote on election day than by its success in negotiating coalition agreements with other groups prior to the election.

Student groups that are affiliated with national political organizations, whether pro-government or opposition, have tended to strike official alliances that reflect the considerations of their off-campus patrons. Likewise, disputes between leaders of national political groups frequently result in tensions between their affiliated student groups, occasionally even violence.[5] The PSP and Hezbollah, for example, often oppose Amal in student elections (a continuing reflection of turf wars by their respective militias in the 1980s), but both have formed joint slates with their rival when relations between their national leaders were warm. In elections where the FYM is competitive, however, the PSP and Hezbollah usually find themselves on opposite sides because Jumblatt is an ally of Hariri, while Hezbollah has long been a vocal critic of the prime minister. This year's elections at LAU-Beirut, for example, saw Hezbollah and Amal unite (along with the SSNP) against the PSP and FYM.

Although national politics strongly condition the formation of official coalitions in the universities, student groups often negotiate tacit agreements even with their archrivals when it is expedient to do so. Under these agreements, supporters of both parties are secretly instructed to vote for a slate of mutually agreed upon candidates. Independents who run in student elections are often, in reality, compromise candidates who have the tacit support of more than one party. During this year's elections at the AUB School of Business, some students claimed that there was a secret "exchange of votes" between the FNC and the SSNP.[6]


The rise of the new left in the late 1990s had a profound impact on student politics. Bolstered by widespread disillusionment with establishment parties and coordinating closely with the FNC, the new left gained control of the student council at AUB and made strong showings at elections in other universities. To varying degrees, pro-government parties have responded by strengthening their student wings and allowing them greater independence. The PSP went the farthest in this regard, establishing an ostensibly independent student organization called the Progressive Youth Organization (PYO). The PYO's secretary-general and eight other officers are selected by its student members, not the PSP leadership. Although the PYO exercises a considerable amount of freedom in forming coalitions with other groups, it is clearly subservient to Jumblatt and functions as a recruitment vehicle for the PSP (last year, outgoing PYO Secretary-General Abu Faour, became a member of the PSP Command Council). The resurgence of pro-government parties in the latest round of student elections is partly a result of these kinds of changes.

This year's student elections also witnessed electoral setbacks by the FNC, which had established hegemony in most private Christian universities in recent years. Aoun's endorsement of US sanctions on Syria at a time when anti-American sentiment is on the rise made the FNC's leftist allies more reluctant to openly coordinate with the movement and encouraged Christian opposition groups to unite against the FNC. While FNC activists complain that Gemayel and Chamoun discouraged their student organizations from coordinating with them,[7] some concede that the movement's focus on supporting Aoun's stance at the expense of coalition building is partly to blame.


  [1] Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1993), p. 61.
  [2] Muhammad Faour, The Silent Revolution in Lebanon: Changing Values of the Youth (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1998), pp. 1-2.
  [3] The Daily Star (Beirut), 7 December 2000.
  [4] The Daily Star (Beirut), 31 October 2002.
  [5] In April 2002, for example, five students were hospitalized after PYO and Amal activists attacked each other with knives and sticks. In January 2003, three students were hospitalized after FNC and LF activists clashed at the Fanar branch of LU.
  [6] The Daily Star (Beirut), 20 November 2003.
  [7] Aoun's endorsement of US sanctions on Syria led the Lebanese authorities to threaten opposition figures with criminal indictments on charges ranging from treason to embezzlement if they openly expressed support for the legislation (Aoun himself was formally indicted earlier this month). In light of LF leader Samir Geagea's imprisonment since 1994, Christian leaders do not take these threats from the regime lightly and most have gone out of their way to express disapproval of Aoun's stance.

2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

MEIB Main Page