Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

The War Generation and Student Elections at the American University of Beirut

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

The War Generation and Student Elections at the American University of Beirut

Article excerpt

On the eve of Lebanon's civil war in the mid-1970s, the American University of Beirut (AUB) was the scene of a powerful protest movement headed by students who controlled the Student Council. Calling for social and political justice, recognition of the country's Arab roots rather than its particular identity, and rejection of Western and Zionist imperialism in the Arab World these mainly-Muslim activists often skirmished with conservative Christian students and led strikes and demonstrations against university policies and administrative actions believed to favor one side over the other.(1) Campus disruptions became so grave that after a 41-day protest against tuition increases was broken up by the police, AUB's president finally suspended the student association in 1974. Nasr and Palmer, who studied student activism during this period, reported that "a general mood of defiance of authority prevails among the active students, checked only by the fear of expected physical injury."(2)

In retrospect, these events seem relatively mild compared to the excesses perpetrated by AUB students during the 1980s when the Lebanese conflict seemed to have degenerated into little more than ruthless turf fights on both sides of the "green line" separating the Muslim and Christians sectors of the capital. As the local power balance shifted during the years of civil strife and the university came under the "protection" of one armed group after another, affiliated students used their political connections to threaten and coerce classmates, professors and university administrators for personal advantage.(3)

It is against this chaotic setting, bred by the destructive turmoil in Lebanese society that we can understand the factors shaping student political attitudes and behaviors today. In the past, AUB's student activists reflected national sentiments and traditional patterns of behavior in their campus interactions. Now that the university arena has re-opened in a modified political climate, will the generation born during the war play the political game in the same way? On the theoretical level, it is essential to learn more about the complex interaction between a society's entrenched values and norms and the sources of change within it. First, the proposition that violent experiences such as civil war affect political learning and may therefore disrupt traditional patterns of political behavior and foster new attitudes must be explored. Simply put, the major question is whether, during the course of the January(4) and December 1994 elections, student activists in AUB's largest faculty, Arts and Sciences (A&S),(5) conformed to the agendas of their political parties as they had before a government of national reconciliation was formed, or whether, they adopted attitudes and codes of behavior at variance with Lebanese political socialization patterns in order to win votes. A word of caution is necessary however: We cannot validate a direct causal relation between war experiences, political changes and electoral behavior empirically, but we can suggest an association between these variables if the evidence warrants it.

Material on the difficulties individuals encounter in abandoning societal norms and values in favor of new trends and ideas no matter how emotionally appealing the latter may be, often occurs in the literature on political socialization.(6) Scholars note that well before the student enters university, he or she has undergone formal and informal conditioning which reinforces the socio-political status quo. In addition, and especially in developing areas, playing the political game by the rules tends to be an important precondition of socio-political mobility. Yet, there is also substantial evidence that a considerable portion of what a person knows and believes comes from incidental learning through reference groups, experience and observation.(7) Sigel, in fact, points out that national crises may play a particularly critical role in the political socialization process as they promote awareness of system flaws and of reprehensible political conduct leading to pressures for system change. …

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