“Soap football. I think that’s what they call it,” said Notre Dame University student Carlo Mouzannar. He wasn’t referring to any campus-sponsored festivity. He was talking about the “Social Club” - followers of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) - and their latest event in the run up to the hotly-contested student elections. “It’s fun…they bring this giant inflatable mattress covered in soap. The sun is up, people are out playing barefoot,” said Mouzannar.
In Lebanon, anyone familiar with the local political scene knows that November is student elections month and the nation’s campuses are thrust into the forefront of local politics.
As early as late September, students are already being showered with chocolate, invited to dance parties, and even given the chance to bungee jump. It is through such organized events, academic counseling and other, less transparent means, that politically affiliated student clubs attract potential supporters.
To many Lebanese, the stakes in these “junior” elections are high. But given all the fuss both inside and out of the schools, how exactly, both practically and monetarily, do these youngsters accomplish their mission? Whereas in the US, candidates market themselves through academic or on-campus related campaigns, their Lebanese counterparts are known for their brand of politics.
Mario Abou Zeid, however, president of the secular club at the American University of Beirut told NOW Lebanon his club does not want external politics to be reflected on campus. “We want the Student Representative Council (SRC) to be an active council representing the demands of all the students, regardless of their political, religious, or national background.” He also said “many of the candidates are concerned about the following day’s headlines in the newspapers or on blogs rather than the actual work they are supposed to do in SRC.”
Lebanese universities are a microcosm of the country’s wider political scene.
But according to most representatives NOW Lebanon spoke to, official parties provide support from a distance and only provide ‘minimal’ funding for their student delegations.
“Candidates usually fund the campaign;” stated FPM representative Marc Sassine; and if they are running short, “we help pay the difference.” It also depends on the campus, he noted, declining to provide any specific figures.
Assistant to Amal’s head of the Youth and Sports division Youssef Jaber argued that his party’s role is more emotional. “We give them moral support. Monetary contributions are insignificant,” he said. “We are a popular movement, and individuals choose to help out of their own will,” he added.
Charbel Eid, the Lebanese Forces’ director of student delegations, echoed that students invest their own time and money into campaigning. When asked whether the LF offered economic support, he insisted the LF students were successful because of their political discourse, “which promotes dignity, sovereignty, the principles of the constitution,” and not because of “expensive campaigning,” events or other promotions.
Though political party representatives themselves didn’t give official figures, some of the candidates provided estimates.
AUB’s Abou Zeid said voters have the right to vote freely and independently from any political financial or social pressure. “This is why every one of us is contributing from our own pockets. So far, we gathered a total of $500 from the club members and candidates,” he said.
Rey Baliki, president of LAU Jbeil’s Lebanese Student Front (LSF), which combines the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb and Future movement, said his alliance had an overall budget of $18,000-20,000 per year. The money is used to fund two main events: an extreme sports day as well as a desserts and candies event, “$5000 worth of sweets,” boasts Baliki. “We also help on the academic side, distributing notes, extra sessions for large classes, and so on,” he said.
LSF’s competitor, the Campus Life Club-Social alliance also provides academic support, said Mazen Abi Saad, the Social group’s former vice-president at LAU Jbeil. “We invest in making flyers, shirts and hosting events such as the Lebanese Day, BBQ day and the ‘all you can eat day’.” To him, it’s more about creating an ambiance. “Right now for example, we are all dressed in black and white T-shirts,” he said during a phone conversation four days before LAU’s election. Each color represents a different camp.
But as passionate as most undergraduates may be, some look at the entire process with either a critical eye or plain indifference. Universite Saint Joseph’s Brahim Najem, a second year student in Economics said he feels it’s more about showing off. “March 14 offers all these free food stands, and then March 8 responds by distributing flyers that read ‘don’t be bought by food’” even though he said they do have electoral programs, with proposals to reform USJ’s system, request more networking events, and more. He supports neither camp.
Saad Kurdi, who finishes his undergraduate studies at AUB this year said, “no one really knows in terms of money and funding, but I remember back in 2008 when there were rumors that the Future Movement had paid for students’ phone bills or recharge cards, but they all do this type of thing,” he insisted. He has even seen people get driven from their homes to school on Election Day, courtesy of the party for which they are voting.
Sayf Diab, President of the Future Movement at LAU Beirut said that lately, there had been fewer events on his campus, probably due to more restrictions, but that the goal behind these events is to show that “we are capable of organization, that people can have fun, regardless of their background, and that the main point is not about politics.”
But his counterpart, Nadih Fawaz, president of LAU Beirut’s Amal Group believes otherwise. “The campaign’s focus is political rather than academic, because we can’t change anything in the institution,” he said. When asked about how much money his alliance invested in the campaign, he said he had no figure though insisted that some parties invest up to $50 000. “It’s just known,” he said.
The statement of Mohammed Ghotmeh, member of the Secular Club, was retracted and replaced by an official statement from the Secular Club’s president, Mario Abou Zeid.