The Tripoli branch of the Lebanese University’s faculty of economics and business has been rocked by recent protests. But the demonstrators were not demanding lower tuition fees or higher standards at the state-run university, which provides almost free education for more than 70,000 students.
Instead, the protesters were mainly drawn from civil society groups and rival Sunni political parties, including supporters of the Future Movement and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
They were objecting to a decision by university President Adnan Sayyed Hussein to appoint a non-Sunni as director of the Tripoli branch. The Future Movement viewed Sayyed Hussein’s appointment of Christian Professor Antoine Tannous as the final straw in what they view as ongoing sectarian discrimination in the appointment of directors. Tannous is close to MP Sleiman Frangieh’s Marada Movement.
The group alleges that Sayyed Hussein has ignored the tradition of maintaining an equal number of Sunni and Shiite LU directors, a norm which had prevailed in previous years.
They also complain that Sayyed Hussein, a former minister close to Hezbollah, does not discuss the appointment of Sunni directors with parties which represent the sect, whereas he confers with Shiite parties on the nomination of Shiite director.
According to Amer Halawani, head of the Future Movement’s education office in Tripoli, Sayyed Hussein is applying a double standard in his selection of new directors.
“The president discusses the appointment of Shiite directors with Shiite leaders, but appoints Sunni directors without consulting the political parties which represent Sunnis,” he told The Daily Star. “The weakest Sunnis are then appointed so that they will obey orders.”
Halawani added that in many cases, the opinions of Christian parties were also not being taken into consideration before the appointment of Christian directors.
“This has been the case for a long time, but it is only receiving media coverage after [the protests] in Tripoli,” Halawani alleged.
Halawani added that neither the dean of the faculty of business and economics nor the directors of its six faculty branches across the country were Sunnis.
“All what we are asking is that all groups be dealt with fairly. If the president wants to use solely academic criteria to govern appointments, and to ignore sectarian and political affiliations, then let this apply to all groups.”
“If he chooses instead to confer with political parties before making the appointments, then he must do so with all of them.”
Sayyed Hussein has strongly denied the allegations.
“I do not discuss appointments with any political leader. I choose the director of the branch from three candidates selected by all the branches [of the faculty],” Sayyed Hussein told The Daily Star.
Eleven of LU’s 16 faculties have several branches across the country.
He added that this procedure was stipulated in Law 66, which was amended in 2009.
“It is the university president – rather than the minister, sheikh, or party leader – who appoints directors,” Sayyed Hussein said. “When I meet Speaker Nabih Berri, I meet him in his capacity as speaker rather than as a Shiite leader. I discuss decrees and draft laws with him [related to the Lebanese University].”
“I also meet Prime Minister Tammam Salam as part of running the affairs of the university – because he is the prime minister, not because he is a Sunni leader.
Halawani complained that Sayyed Hussein had ignored the norm of a sectarian balance in the number of directors, stating there were now 13 Shiite to 11 Sunni directors across Lebanon.
But the LU president contended that there were actually 12 Sunni directors. “Rawiya Majzoub, director of the Lebanese University’s Restoration Center, is a Sunni, but they [the Future Movement] don’t count her because she is not politically affiliated with them,” Sayyed Hussein said.
He added that according to Law 66, sectarian balance is not the only consideration of appointment.
“It depends on the sects of the candidates presented to the president. Muslims might number more than Christians, and Sunnis more than Shiites, but there are always directors from various sects.”
Sayyed Hussein added that he has appointed 38 directors to replace those whose terms expired this year, adding that 11 others have yet to be selected, and that upcoming appointments would help address the issue of balance.
“If Shiite directors outnumber Sunni directors by one, this does not warrant calling for protests and accusing the university president of sectarian bias,” the president said.
“It is not my job to distribute equal shares to political parties. I am disgusted when the issue is raised as such,” he said.
In light of the Tripoli protests, Sayyed Hussein suspended Tannous’ appointment and tasked Ghassan Shlouq, the dean of the faculty, with managing the Tripoli branch.
The move angered Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, who stated that the Christian director should not pay the price for altering the level of Sunni representation.
He claimed that Sayyed Hussein was addressing the issue irresponsibly, and was mishandling other LU affairs as well.
Bou Saab alleged that Sayyed Hussein did not properly consider the appointment or subsequent dismissal of LU directors, saying such behavior intensified sectarian tensions.
He also warned of a worsening crisis at the university in coming weeks.
Sayyed Hussein contended that he decided to suspend the appointment of Tannous after the issue took on a sectarian dimension, and gunmen joined the protests in Tripoli.
“Stability is more important than any one appointment, and Dr. Tannous can head another branch in the north,” he said.
Responding to Bou Saab’s criticisms, Sayyed Hussein said: “I will not bicker with the minister. He knows very well that I have to appoint one director out of three candidates. Appointing directors is in line with my powers. Anyone who advocates the independence of the university should help me implement the law and achieve independence for the university.”
© Copyright The Daily Star 2015.