Today the walkie-talkies were ubiquitous on the campus of Lebanese American University, where I teach news writing.

Everywhere you looked there were dozens of young men rushing around, talking quickly into microphones, or just standing around looking authoritative.

All were reporting to the two main factions vying for student votes, both intimately connected to Lebanon’s current ruling factions.

The March 8 alliance, featuring FPM, Hezbollah, Amal and PSP, had set up their headquarters near lower campus:

While March 14 students, featuring Hariri’s Future movement, LF and others had set up their base near upper campus:

Both campaign war rooms were barricaded by privacy panels:

… Not unlike the manner in which Lebanese parties mark their territory along the streets of Beirut, with barricades and posters:
 A number of students wore military grade ear pieces, not unlike the type used by secret service:

There were even a few James Bond types:
                                      

So who pays for all this sophisticated equipment, which is even more advanced than that used by campus security?

According to election monitor Tamim Bou Karroum, up to $15,000 is spent by individual coalitions at campuses across Lebanon.

He is one of 12 election monitors deployed at the LAU Beirut campus, while dozens more are spread across Lebanon’s other universities.

But while he and the others are able to keep a close eye on vote counting and potential acts of intimidation, a bigger problem is the political culture on campus.

The student parties act to represent the country’s ruling elite factions, campaigning on foreign policy issues such as policy toward Syria, rather than local campus-related issues.

“They are not working in a democratic way,” Bou Karroum said. “They are more interested in saying ‘we took LAU.'”

Indeed many students I spoke to from both March 8 and March 14 admitted that their parents were also members of the same parties.

Given the high cost of tuition at LAU, one shouldn’t be surprised if many of these students rise to positions of power when they graduate. Bou Karroum told me many students are already involved in campaigning during national parliamentary elections.

Beyond the campus gates, army troops and police were deployed to prevent the fighting that plagued LAU elections last year. But among those standing watch were some older men, party loyalists keeping close tabs on their younger counterparts, thirsty for a victory.

The student operatives maintain lists of phone numbers and family names, even which parts of the country they hail from. They know who voted and can mobilize those who haven’t.

A number of students told me they are fed up with process, complaining about intimidation from some of the walkie-talkie boys, often black clad, some even wearing military style cargo pants.  An independent list is also running this year, but I could not find their headquarters. One of the March 14 student operatives joked. “They don’t have any money. We told them to join us,” he added with a wry smile.

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Habib Battah
Habib Battah is an investigative journalist and founder of the news site beirutreport.com. Battah has covered Lebanon and the Middle East for over 15 years and teaches journalism and media studies at the American University of Beirut. He is a contributor to Monocle, The Guardian, BBC World, Al Jazeera and others, a former fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and two-time recipient of the Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award. Battah's investigative work was recently recognized for outstanding local reporting by the Columbia University Oakes Award for Environmental Reporting. Battah earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. in Near East Studies and Journalism from New York University.

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