From the Editors
For over a week now, the debate on a draft law proposed by Lebanese Minister of Labor and former presidential candidate Boutros Harb has been heating up. If passed by the Lebanese state, this law would make it illegal for a period of 15 years for Christians to sell land, apartments, houses or commercial property to Muslims, and vice versa. The draft law has won the support of the Maronite Patriarch, Samir Geagea, Amin Gemeyal, and Future party MP Ahmad Fatfat. Harb has stated that the law is meant to preserve sectarian balance and harmony in Lebanon. Geagea has said that it is meant to protect the “multicultural” character of Lebanon. If it is illegal for Muslims to buy real estate in Christian areas, the “nature” and “character” of those areas will be protected, which will in turn ensure that Christian emigration from Lebanon will be dampened. While this logic may seem at the very least obtuse and at the most an expression of legal apartheid, it is also a very logical articulation of the ideology that the Lebanese state was built on and continues to be amended according to: Separate, But [kind of] Equal.
Behind the outrage (read Khalid Saghieh and Fawwaz Traboulsi for thought provoking analysis) of those who oppose Harb’s draft law is an unacknowledged and uncomfortable truth. In Lebanon, it is becoming common practice to not sell real estate to citizens (or foreigners) of another religion, and in some areas (particularly the Sunnite-Shiite divide in West Beirut) not to sell real estate to citizens from different sects. My sister is trying to buy a house. She and her fiancé have been looking for an apartment in Beirut for months now. Like most young upper middle class working Lebanese professionals, they are slowly but surely being priced out of the city that they grew up in, work in, and now rent in. In fact, the inability of citizens to afford to buy homes in Lebanon is a much more pervasive type of discrimination because economic disparity and injustice affects all Lebanese citizens. Last week, my sister and her fiancée got lucky. Miraculously, they found a small apartment in need of repairs in a desirable neighborhood within their budget. Nobody could believe it. When my parents went to see the apartment that their daughter was about to buy, the owners of the building balked. They (rightly) “read” my father as a Sunni Moslem, and were confused because my sister’s fiancé is a Maronite Christian. At first, they wanted to make sure that in fact it was the Maronite buying the apartment, not his Muslim fiancée or her father. Then they raised the price. Although unsaid, it was clear that the owners were judging this Maronite man for marrying a Sunni Moslem woman. This did not happen in Mount Lebanon, Metn or Keserwan. This happened in West Beirut, in the “cosmopolitan”, “liberal” and “mixed” area known as “Ras Beirut.”
This is not an isolated incident. Many friends have had to deal with the overt biases of real estate agents, landlords and neighbors who want to make sure that their neighborhood, street, or building will remain Christian, or Sunni, or Shiite. A (nominally) Christian friend of mine was recently reassured by a real estate agent that the owner of a building in East Beirut “only rents to Christians, so don’t worry about the area. It is clean [of Muslims]” Another friend of mine, a Palestinian Muslim refugee who has called Lebanon her home for over 40 years, was able to take over the lease from a friend on a an apartment (and pay a years’ rent up front), only to be summoned by the owner of the apartment who wanted to inspect her to make sure she wasn’t a member of “Fath al Islam.” Both of these friends fumed at what they (rightly) perceived as an ethnicized and racialized discourse of sectarianism. But my friends and many of those who oppose Harb’s law are neglecting another uncomfortable truth; many Lebanese citizens support this draft law. Moreover, these sentiments and practices are not (always) new. Many people, haunted by memories of inter-sectarian violence and plagued by fears (and beliefs) that their community’s presence in Lebanese is threatened, want to keep “their” areas “pure”, or again in the words of the real estate agent in East Beirut, “clean.” These people are conforming to what is, in many ways, expected of them as Lebanese citizens within a system of political sectarianism. This system of political sectarianism, in turn, has been posited by the state and its supporters as both the cause and, at different times, the solution to the ever-present threat of sectarian articulated civil war.
A law that would criminalize selling real estate between religious groups in Lebanon is dangerous because it licenses and normalizes a sectarian practice that has already been taking place, to different degrees, across Lebanon and across that country’s history. However, we should be weary of our own (often times overly righteous) outrage at Harb’s proposal. There are many people who are against this draft law but support the indefinite extension of the Tai’f Accord’s “troika system” that splits political power between Sunnites, Shiites, and Maronites. They are against the law, but not the logic that engenders it. Harb’s draft law is a symptom, not the disease. Scrutinizing and treating the symptom will not cure us of the syndrome all Lebanese citizens share: a system of political sectarianism and its logic of “Separate But [Kind of] Equal.” If this root cause is left untreated, over time more symptoms, each more severe than the next, will develop.
 For some reason, everyone seems to agree that it is much more tragic for a Lebanese Christian to emigrate than it is for a Lebanese Muslim, although most times they are both emigrating for economic reasons
 When pressed, many of these citizens and leaders say that the troika system should be maintained until "circumstances on the ground allow for it to be dissolved" or until "the Lebanese people are ready". They rarely elaborate further.
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