In Beirut, the American university, melting pot of the elites of the Middle East, is in turmoil

The main entrance to the American University of Beirut on May 7.
The main entrance to the American University of Beirut on May 7. AZIZ TAHER / REUTERS


She resisted the great famine of the beginning of the XXe century, the two world wars, the civil war of 1975-1990, the Israeli bombings of 2006 and the countless political crises which marked the history of Lebanon. But of all these tremors, the one that is shaking the American University of Beirut today is, according to its president, oncologist Fadlo Khuri, "The most serious" since its founding a century and a half ago.

Known as "AUB", its English acronym (American University of Beirut), this prestigious institution, incubator of the political, scientific and cultural elites of the Middle East, paid the price for the calamities that fell on the country of the Cedar. The collapse of the national currency, the Lebanese pound, against the dollar, unemployment already rampant, that the measures to combat the Covid-19 have further aggravated, and the global recession that this epidemic has triggered siphon the budget of the university.

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Already facing a shortfall of 30 million dollars (27 million euros) this year, the administration expects its revenues to fall by around 60% in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. A level of losses impossible to absorb without drastic austerity measures. These could result in the closure of certain departments, a wave of departures, the downward revision of employee benefits, and the almost complete cancellation of trips and conferences abroad.

Like all of Lebanon, AUB is playing into this crisis, which nobody knows how long it will last, a large part of its future and its aura.

Emancipatory role

Located on Bliss Street, in the Hamra district, on a vast tree-lined campus, with a majestic panorama over Beirut Bay, the university is home to 9,000 students and 1,200 professors. The directory of his former students, deceased or still alive, resembles a social directory in the Near East and its surroundings. There are a plethora of presidents (the Afghan Ashraf Ghani, in office since 2014), heads of government (the Lebanese Selim Hoss, in office three times, between 1976 and 2000), and diplomats (the Iranian Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic, from 2010 to 2013).

The big family of Bliss Street graduates also includes captains of industry (the Palestinian Saïd Khoury, co-founder of Consolidated Contractors, the Bouygues of the Near East), revolutionary leaders (the Palestinian Georges Habache, founder of the Popular Liberation Front of Palestine), big names in literature (the Syrian Ghada Al Samman) and architecture (the Iraqi Zaha Hadid) and even an idol of the rock scene and the Arab LGBT movement (the Lebanese Hamed Sinno, singer of the group Mashrou 'Leila).

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