'If we don't, who will?': Lebanon students skip class to join protest movement

'If we don't, who will?': Lebanon students skip class to join protest movement
Students in Lebanon are rising up against the elite for a better opportunities, an end to unemployment and a brighter future.
10 min read
08 November, 2019
Students in Lebanon are rising up for a better future [Nicholas Frakes]
"Revolution! Revolution! The students' revolution," the crowd of several hundred university-aged students shouted in unison!

For two days, secondary and university students have refused to go to classes and joined protests throughout Lebanon with a major epicentre for these student demonstrations being outside of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Beirut.

These protests came following years of discontent by the country's youth, who argue that they are not able to have any future in Lebanon due to a lack of job opportunities and, according to several protesters, a lack of basic rights.

Mohamad Bissar, 18, is in his first year of studying economics at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and he said he came to the streets because he and the others are looking for a more prosperous future.

"We're asking for our normal rights. We're not asking for something complex," he said. "We're seeking a better future because the politicians are corrupt, and we cannot continue like this. There's a need to change."

Sylvana Ayoub, 19, studies economics and the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) and argues that all of the university students know that their degrees mean little to nothing in Lebanon, whether it comes to finding a job or starting a future.

"The fact that we know is that when we graduate we know that we're not going to find jobs and we're not going to be able to marry someone who is Lebanese and live with him quietly and peacefully because it takes us 10 years at least just to have an amount of money in the bank," she said. "It takes us a lot of time."

For many Lebanese, in order to continue their education or to find work they have to go abroad. Eighteen-year-old speech therapy major at Saint Joseph University (USJ) Mira Ajram plans on doing just that after she finishes her bachelor's degree, as she believes that she has more opportunities abroad - despite her preference to remain in her home country.

"I was planning on studying here [in Lebanon] for my first three years and, then, continue in London," she said. "But if the situation will get better, of course, I will stay in my own country. So, that's why we are all in the streets. For our basic rights. And we are seeking for a better future."

Economics major at USJ Nourhan Kaj, 19, also wants to remain in Lebanon so that she can stay with her family.

"All Lebanese students want to travel abroad to continue their studies," Kaj said, "And I don't want that. I don't want to leave my family. I want to stay and study here and continue my life."

For Kaj and Ayoub, their friends are already abroad and, if the situation in Lebanon does not change, then they too will be doing the same.

While schools closed for the first two weeks of the anti-government protest movement, they have since reopened. But students have continued to come out to the streets, instead of attending their classes. While USJ has tried to accommodate students when it comes to protesting, going as far as to cancel midterm exams, others have not done the same.

"We have midterm exams next week," Bissar said. "My exams weren't postponed. Yesterday we knew that we have an exam next week. It's really a big issue. We need like two weeks minimum to prepare ourselves.

"We have to make a smooth entrance after the protests because it was really confusing, and no one was studying because we need to fight for our rights here. There are things that are more important than just studying. If we study and get a degree and, then, there is no chance in Lebanon. So we've been studying for what?"

Even though USJ has tried to accommodate students who want to protest, some professors have told the students that their education is what needs to come first.

When confronted with this, Ayoub questioned why they should go to classes when they cannot use their education after, unless they leave the country.

Blog: From hookah to yoga: Five reasons why Lebanon's protests are actually a 'millennial revolution'

"Today, our teacher told us that our priority should be to continue our studies," Ayoud said, "So, we asked them, 'What is the meaning of the diploma that we're going to get if we're not going to use the diploma?' We're just going to hang it in the living room."

"Or in the kitchen," Kaj added laughing, "It has no meaning."

Click here to enlarge

Even though they are missing classes and could fail the semester, both Ayoub and Kaj believe that it is more important to be in the streets protesting.

"We can be in classes next year," Ayoub said, "We can fail our semester and we can redo our semester. But the thawra, the revolution, doesn't stop. I don't care. Even though we pay money and my parents are [struggling] to pay my tuition, but it's fine. We're doing this for our small brothers, our small sisters or future generations. We're not doing this just for us."

"We need sources for financial stability," she said. "We have nothing in Lebanon. We have no electricity, no water. The basic needs that we have, we're not asking for something extraordinary. We’re asking for our rights."

For the protesters, being in the streets is not about fixing things immediately, but, rather, finding a long-term solution that will benefit future generations.

"I see that it's far more important to be here on the streets," Ajram said, "Because, even if we will not see results now, we will see them in the long term."

With the thousands of students leaving class to protest, this has filled students like Bissar with a sense of pride and hope that they will be successful in forcing the government to listen to their demands and take action, rather than just giving empty promises.

"It's a big move," Bissar said, "I feel proud for all of the students because we are all uniting no matter what religion we are or what our profile is, we are all Lebanese wanting the same goal."

The demands being made by the protesters in Lebanon are also part of a larger, global movement where university students have taken to calling for the resignation of their government due to massive amount of inequality and discontent.

In Chile, for example, secondary school students started to refuse to pay to take public transportation following the announcement that the prices would increase which eventually led to the spontaneous taking over and occupation of major train stations in the capital Santiago just days before the protests broke out in Beirut.

Following several days of this, the protests evolved from discontent with the prices for public transportation to massive demonstrations of a million people across the country, calling for changes due to the country having one of the largest wealth gaps in Latin America, and a vast amount of the population living in poverty because of high costs of living and healthcare.

It is unclear if any of the protesters' demands will be met as demonstrations are ongoing with the government and police receiving criticism for the extensive use of force on protesters.

If it is not the Lebanese people who will make their country better then who will?

Similarly, in 1989, students from all over China gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to call for the end to corruption by the people in power and for more freedom when it comes to their lives.

The protests quickly expanded from a few thousand students to around one million people gather in the square to demand change with some protesters camping there and refusing to leave until there is change. Other protesters utilised hunger strikes to try to force the government to pay attention to them and meet their demands.

In the end, the government sent the military to the square and use extreme methods to clear out the protesters, including the use of live ammunition.

Another major protest occurred in France in 1968 when the country experienced nearly two months of unrest caused by demonstrations, strikes and the occupation of universities and factories.

The protests started following several months of conflict between university students and authorities that saw the university shut down. This caused other protests to appear as they wanted to see the university reopened and those who had been arrested released without charge as well as the removal of police from the campus.

However, when these demands were not met, more protests erupted throughout the country and saw various institutions go on strike in support of the protests. Factory workers and people from all corners of the French economy also began to protest alongside the students despite their differing objectives which eventually lead to a million-person march through Paris.

Students in Lebanon are rising up for a better future [Nicholas Frakes]

This all came to a head in an early snap election that saw the President Charles de Gaulle's party win a majority. However, the following year saw a new referendum rejected that would have seen the government decentralised and changes to the Senate. De Gaulle eventually resigned.

Read also: 'The revolution is female': Why feminist issues are driving Lebanon's protests

Protesters are continuing to use tactics learned throughout history when it comes to staging massive demonstrations.

Riad el-Solh and Martyrs Square in Beirut have seen dozens of people pitch their tents and refuse to leave the squares in order to keep a constant presence in the streets even when everyone else has gone home to sleep. For several weeks these people have refused to leave and, even when they were destroyed by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, they came back and set up camp again.

Similar to France, various institutions have held an open-ended strike in solidarity with the people in the streets. The culture sector has temporarily closed many of its prominent institutions and major art events like Home Works are being postponed indefinitely.

The student protests have ignited a fire for those protesting in Beirut. While other cities, such as Tripoli, have seen daily demonstrations garner protesters numbering in the thousands, after the second week of protests, the number of people coming out during the weekdays have significantly decreased. This had to do with schools opening once more and people returning to work.

Earlier on the second day of the students' protest, Caretaker Education Minister Akram Chehayeb urged the pupils to return to school in a televised statement.

"That's my opinion," he said, "Students and those moving them will have another opinion."

However, despite the possibility of having to repeat a semester and advisement from Chehayeb, students have stated that they will not return to class until their demands are met.

If enough students continue to protest, then the Education Ministry may have to announce that schools will be closed again.

Schools might have to follow in the footsteps of USJ and cancel any upcoming exams since many students have decided to stay in the streets rather than study.

If too many students fail their exams and have to repeat their courses then it could cause harm to the universities' global rankings and see fewer international students deciding to study in Lebanon.

Due to the amount of people that continue to leave Lebanon to immigrate and work in another country, it has created the potential for a "brain drain", where the smartest and most talented Lebanese will leave the country due to lack of opportunity and see Lebanon miss out on possible developments.

The Lebanese, after 30 years of sectarian rule, are uniting in a way that the country has never seen before in order to take back their country from a group of people that protesters say have gotten rich through corrupt uses of their power. In the eyes of the protesters, it is up to the Lebanese people to make this change because no one else is going to do it for them.

This is something that Ajram firmly believes.

"If it is not the Lebanese people who will make their country better," she said, "Then who will?"

Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist who reports from London, the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram to stay connected