From the Editors
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There are over 170,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. These men, women, and children have come to Lebanon fleeing the ongoing and deteriorating violence in Syria. In addition, thousands of Palestinians have fled their refugee camps in Syria to brother camps in Lebanon. These people have no other place to go.
Since arriving in Lebanon, Syrian and Palestinian refugees (it is worth noting that Palestinian refugees in Syria and in Lebanon have suffered multiple removals and forced relocations) have been subjected to beatings, economic exploitation, and social discrimination. The treatment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon today stands in sharp contrast to the refugee crisis of 2006, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese sought shelter and found it in Syria, fleeing Israel's military onslaught. Many Lebanese civil society groups and various individuals have welcomed Syrian refugees and acted with the empathy that the crisis deserves. However, by and large, public discourse on the “Syrian refugee crisis” is one of danger. Recently, two Lebanese politicians— one from the March 8 political coalition and the other from the rival coalition of March 14—have issued public statements on these supposed dangers.
Gebran Bassile is the Lebanese Minister of Energy. His primary credential for this crucial job—in a country that is hobbled by daily power cuts of varying severity—is the fact that he is the son-in-law of Michel Aoun, the Christian strong man of the March 8 coalition. Bassile's record speaks for itself. It is defined by ineptitude, corruption, nepotism, as well as dangerous deregulation and aspirations of privatization. Lest we think that it is somehow strange that a crucial cabinet post is assigned through kinship relations, it is imperative to remember that blood ties have always been the primary vehicle for structural political power in Lebanon. After all, the inheritance of political positions is de rigueur here. A case in point is the second Lebanese politician who decided to issue her “opinions” on the current refugee crisis in Lebanon. MP Nayla Tueni inherited both her parliamentary seat and her newspaper from her father, as he did from his father. Again, her primary credential for representing her district is the blood running through her veins, and—of course (this is Lebanon after all)—her sect.
The statements issued by Minister Bassile and by MP Nayla Tueni are lessons in xenophobia and demographic paranoia. They have promised to seal the border in order to protect Lebanon from the waves of Syrian refugees supposedly flooding it, proposed placing all refugees into camps segregated from the general population, and warning of another “Palestinian problem” in today's Lebanon. This last point highlights another thread running through Tueni and Bassile's statements: demographic anxiety. The Lebanese state is structured around a system of political sectarianism, wherein pre-defined sects share power according to agreed-upon ratios. Political sectarianism is a system put into place by French colonialists in a bid to ensure that Christians would retain political power in the nascent state. To that end, statistics were crafted to “show” that Christians constituted a numerical majority in Lebanon. As it stands today, structural political power is shared equally by Muslims and Christians, and is distributed mainly between the three largest sects: Maronite Christians, Shi’i Muslims, and Sunni Muslims. Demographic anxiety has in large part fueled Lebanon's civil wars and its current political stalemate. Demographic anxiety, and the political arithmetic it inspires, has also been a central factor in defining refugees and citizens. For example, while the majority of Christian Palestinian refugees have long been granted Lebanese citizenship, the vast majority of Muslim Palestinians (with the exception of some of the wealthy families that were naturalized) are seemingly forever-refugees. Any hint of improving the awful conditions that these refugees live under in Lebanon is immediately used to level accusations of planned naturalization, a prospect that—in this logic—would seal the “numeric decline” and undermine the political influence of Christians in Lebanon. Similarly, while Christian Armenian refugees to the area that is now called Lebanon were counted in the 1932 census, and thus became Lebanese citizens along with everyone else, Kurdish refugees from Turkish violence were simultaneously disenfranchised an made refugees by that same census. It should come as no surprise that the majority of Kurdish refugees are Muslim. These naturalization and refugee-making processes should not be seen as some sort of conspiracy or the nefarious plans of a particular sect or religion. Rather, the logic behind the political arithmetic of Lebanon is the conservation of political sectarianism itself, a system which requires continuing demographic anxiety and competitiveness. Political sectarianism, it bears remembering, is the primary conduit through which elite interests and power is consecrated and reproduced within and across all sects and political factions in Lebanon. If Bassile and Tueni are demonstrative of anything, they teach us that political sectarian and the demographic anxiety it requires and inspires also ensures political inheritance within families.
The problem is that, more and more, the numbers simply do not add up. There has been no official census since 1932. Without a doubt, demographics have changed dramatically. Accordingly, the “danger” that Bassile and Tueni point to is the same old boogeyman: shifts in Lebanon's social fabric at the expense of Lebanese Christians. It is no coincidence that the “dangerous” Palestinian and Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Lebanon are majority Muslim and are not wealthy. Finally, it seems that we have found a danger that the country faces that is urgent enough to promote consensus between the March 14 and March 8 political coalitions. Perhaps we should thank Bassile and Tueni for taking on this clearly very important issue instead of doing their jobs. After all, I suppose we do not really need that much electricity.
The xenophobia and racism directed at Syrian and Palestinian refugees is one of the wages of political arithmetic, as Rhoda Kanaaneh calls it. It is a symptom of political sectarianism, and we are all complicit in this system until it is ended.
With this in mind, I offer my humble translation of recent statements made by Minister Gebran Bassile and MP Nayla Tueni regarding the Syrian and Palestinian populations that have fled violence and civil war in Syria to find refuge in Lebanon:
The [poor] Muslims are coming! The [poor] Muslims are coming!
Now we have another excuse to cover our, and the government's, ineptitude, corruption and complicity in the ongoing degradation of Lebanon's economy, political life, and infrastructure. Don't have a job? Blame it on a Syrian refugee! No electricity? Blame it on Palestinian refugee camps that don't pay their electric bill and plunge all [real] Lebanese into darkness!
Oh God, the [poor] Muslims are coming!
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