Independent secular students are scoring major victories in elections across Lebanese universities. University elections in Lebanon have long been a weathervane indicating the direction in which the winds of national parliamentary elections could blow. For anyone seeking a power shift in the country, these elections merit special attention.

At the Lebanese American University (LAU), the American University of Beirut (AUB), and this week the Université Saint Joseph (USJ), among others, students who identify as secular independents have won unprecedentedly large shares of seats in student councils. These students have chosen “secularism” as a political identity that contrasts with the sect-based, or “confessional,” Lebanese political system that is based on a power-sharing agreement between the major religious communities in the country.

Within this sectarian system, the president of the republic is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker a Shi‘a Muslim, who presides over 128 parliamentarians, also apportioned by sect. Furthermore, all personal status issues—marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance—are governed by an individual’s religious community.

The secular students believe that the sectarian system is at the root of the ongoing political and economic decay that Lebanon is facing, and view secularism–which they define as separation of religious matters from the state–as a path toward reform. One of the slogans these students have chosen for themselves is “resisting the system,” which they blame for the country’s economic collapse as well as the massive explosion that destroyed Beirut port and dozens of the capital’s neighborhoods on August 4.

In addition to the size of the electoral victories by the secular students, it is revealing that many of the establishment parties withdrew from several student elections before they were held. At the USJ, one of Lebanon’s oldest educational establishments, founded by Jesuits in 1875, the independent secular campaign Taleb was able to claim 39 seats out of the 101 that were being contested even before the votes were cast, simply because nobody stood against them. In previous years, these seats would have been fiercely fought over. Taleb ended up winning 85 seats and securing council presidencies in the twelve faculties they contested.

At the AUB, the student wings of several establishment parties released communiqués declaring that they would boycott the elections this year. The excuses they gave included the irregularity of the academic year because of Covid-19 and doubts about the validity of engaging in an online electoral process. However, the fact that secular parties won seats by acclamation and the boycott decisions strongly suggested that many youths had simply rejected the establishment parties. Even though these parties have historically looked to universities as a source of future cadres, the boycotts may have been a strategic choice to avoid humiliation as the parties have failed to convince enough students to publicly join their ranks.

Establishment political parties do care about student elections. Their importance lies in the fact that university elections have historically reflected the shifting winds of Lebanon. Going back to the spring of 2005, a popular protest movement, the Independence Intifada, played a major role in the withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon after the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. By summer, a pro-independence opposition had won national parliamentary elections, defeating pro-Syrian forces who had dominated domestic politics since the end of the war in 1990.

Signs of this parliamentary victory were there a few months earlier for those paying attention to university elections. In November 2004, a pro-independence coalition at the AUB won a majority of seats in representative council elections. At the time, the vice president of the University Student Faculty Committee (USFC), the highest elected position for students, was an outspoken Free Patriotic Movement activist. This was the first time that the then-anti-Syrian group had won the seat, and thus secured a victory, at the university.

After 2005, student elections became even more polarized. The sharp divisions between a coalition of pro-independence, or so-called March 14, parties and a coalition of pro-Syrian, or so-called March 8, parties, took hold of domestic politics, and university elections, for almost a decade. Brawls would occasionally break out around election time between student supporters of either coalition. This was the case in 2009, for example, when a fight broke out at the USJ.

This year, it happened again at the university. However, it failed to derail the victory of secular independents for the council presidency at the Faculty of Law and Political Science. This was an unprecedented success at a faculty that Lebanese Forces students had labeled “the university of Bashir Gemayel.” Gemayel, who had studied there, was the head of the Lebanese Forces and was elected president in August 1982, before his assassination three weeks later.

A decade after their antagonism in 2005, the March 8 and March 14 coalitions joined together to form alliances of establishment parties on university campuses. However, today, the anti-establishment movement for change seems to have become the primary game for young independent secular students. In addition to their victory at the USJ, secular students again won the USFC vice president seat at the AUB this year, while at the LAU, which held elections on October 9, independent students won every seat for which they ran, unseating representatives of the establishment parties.

These victories bring hope for anyone who wishes to dispose of the establishment parties. However, it remains to be seen how the students will translate their victories into a national movement capable of capturing a parliamentary majority. In elections in fall 2017, secular university students had also made significant gains. Despite the optimism, these gains were not translated into victories when parliamentary elections were held a few months later in 2018.

The young secular students remain optimistic, however, that the upcoming years will be different. As they see it, “What comes after October 17 is not the same as what was before it,” a reference to the start of the uprising in 2019 against the political order in Lebanon and the country’s sectarian leaders.