BEIRUT— Even though many are too young to vote, Lebanese students actively campaigned for change in Lebanon’s general elections by supporting candidates who stood against a ruling political class they regard as corrupt.
But the campaign gave students a chance to show their engagement and enthusiasm individually or through organisations like the Mada Network, which helped publicise independent political parties.
The Mada Network is the first student-led political network in Lebanon. It is concerned with national issues such as political governance, unemployment and education.
“As first-time voters under such difficult circumstances, we are determined to be part of the electorate. It is very hard to build a future in Lebanon, but we are trying hard to stay.”
Aya Abou Saleh A politically active student at Saint Joseph University of Beirut
Aya Abou Saleh, a member of the Secular Club at Saint Joseph University of Beirut (USJ), promoted an independent candidate in her home district of Aley-Chouf who sought office as part of a campaign called “a Generation for Change.”
“Students are contributing to electoral campaigns in different ways,” Abou Saleh told al-Fanar Media last week, ahead of the vote. “Each in his or her region is promoting the independent candidates who are vying for change.” Students participated in activities like going door-to-door to distribute flyers and organising meetings where candidates could present their political visions, Abou Saleh said.
Students were also “very active on social media to spread awareness about the candidates and their programmes, especially among the young generation and would-be first-time voters,” she added.
Abou Saleh, who is 22, was herself a first-time voter on Sunday. Lebanon’s legal voting age is 21.
Karim Charafeddine, a 23-year-old economics graduate from the American University of Beirut, also voted for the first time on Sunday.
Charafeddine, who participates in the Mada Network, said Mada members “organised the campaigns of three electoral lists of independent candidates seeking to forge change and vote out the corrupt political class.”
He added: “Our political agenda is very clear: combating corruption, opposing militias such as Hezbollah and other sectarian parties, and advancing our vision of a new and sustainable Lebanon.”
Before the vote, Charafeddine campaigned for a former president of the Secular Club at USJ, Verena El Amil, who sought election in the Mount Lebanon-Metn district.
Though her bid was ultimately unsuccessful, El Amil, age 25, made headlines as the youngest candidate among more than 1,000 people seeking office, including 155 women.
‘Looking for Change’
Although he is not eligible to vote yet, 20-year-old Anhal Kozhaya, a political science and international affairs student at the Lebanese American University, was fully engaged in election activities.
“We are holding workshops to raise awareness about the electoral law, mostly among the youth who are going to vote for the first time,” Kozhaya, who is president of the university’s International Affairs Club, said last week. “We did tutorial videos that we uploaded on social media, because young voters have no clear idea about the law and how to vote.”
“Our political agenda is very clear: combating corruption, opposing militias … and advancing our vision of a new and sustainable Lebanon.”
Karim Charafeddine An economics graduate from the American University of Beirut
Kozhaya said he was “really excited” about the parliamentary elections “because we need progress and justice in our country. … In brief, the young generation is looking for change.”
Like Kozhaya, Adam Zorkot, 19, is not eligible to vote, but this did not stop him joining the Secular Club at USJ.
He contributed to the group’s “meet and greet” initiative, which introduces candidates to the public through encounters on Beirut’s Corniche, or seaside promenade.
“First, we carried out awareness campaigns at the university among students explaining the complex electoral law, why we need to change it, and why it is important to vote the current political class out,” Zorkot said.
He also worked on the campaign of a list of independent candidates in Beirut, handing out flyers and accompanying candidates on neighbourhood tours “to explain to people why they should vote and for whom.”
Monitoring Election Fairness
Sarah al Asmar, a 20-year-old student at the Lebanese American University, was also active in efforts to encourage young people to vote and “help forge a change” in Lebanon’s political class.
She also volunteered as an observer with the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), an independent group that monitors elections for fair voting practices.
“I will be an observer at polling stations,” al Asmar said. “Although I will not be able to vote this time, it does not stop me from working on the campaigns and monitoring possible violations.”
‘A Glimmer of Hope’
“Although I will not be able to vote this time, it does not stop me from working on the campaigns and monitoring possible violations.”
Sarah al Asmar A 20-year-old student at the Lebanese American University
Sunday’s vote was the first major electoral test since a protest movement in October 2019 thrust thousands of people, especially the young, onto the streets to vent their rage at what they see as the country’s corrupt political class.
That revolutionary fervor waned somewhat during the coronavirus lockdowns but regained momentum as the elections approached.
Even high-school students got involved in campaigning for change. A video produced by students at the Grand Lycée Franco-Libanais went viral on social media, and the graduating class at the American Community School organised a debate among candidates.
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“We see a glimmer of hope in the independent candidates,” said Abou Saleh. “… As first-time voters under such difficult circumstances, we are determined to be part of the electorate.”
Referring to surveys that show a majority of young Lebanese want to leave the country, she added: “It is very hard to build a future in Lebanon, but we are trying hard to stay. And if we leave, it will be half-heartedly.”