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Struggles against Racism and Exploitation: Lebanon’s Progressive Movements Face Old and New Challenges

Injustice and lack of democratic accountability have deep roots in Lebanon. But there is hope as organizations working together on issues of discrimination and inequality are able to perceive problems intersectionally and support each other.

Lebanon in May 2019: Protests against the exploitation of domestic workers, Patrick Abi Salloum

“Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”—the more things change, the more they stay the same. This saying is a good way to describe current developments in Lebanon. Many structural problems in the country have remained unchanged for years, although with the war in Syria the situation in and around Lebanon has altered dramatically in recent years. But there is also cause for hope, and above all, there are many people who are actively committed to positive change and social justice.

The Situation of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Many of us often come across news about Lebanon in the context of the war in Syria. It is well known that Lebanon, a country which borders Syria, took in the majority of those who fled; at present there are around 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in the country. Because Germany also took in Syrian refugees, a proportional comparison is often made between it and Lebanon. Measured against the total Lebanese population of only five million, the proportion of Syrian refugees is, of course, much higher than in Germany, where about one million Syrians live among a total population of 82 million people. However, what these figures do not convey is how Lebanon deals with Syrian refugees. According to research by the American University of Beirut (AUB), about 75 percent of Lebanese Syrians live below the poverty line. 74 percent have no legal status and are thus forced to survive through illegal work, and they are exposed to exploitation, arbitrary detention, and gender-based violence. Due to the reluctance of the Lebanese state to take a constructive position on immigration and develop a stable framework for it, most immigrant Syrians live in informal settlements without reliable infrastructure or protection of the most fundamental civil rights. Some 300,000 refugee children in the country have no access to education.

Abuse and Overt Racism 

Since 2014, the Lebanese government has made it harder for Syrians seeking asylum to immigrate. In addition, they have made it impossible for many people to even reach Lebanon by imposing border controls and legal constraints. It has become especially difficult since 2017: the Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Gebran Bassil, has adopted an increasingly tough line against the residence of Syrians in the country; he is openly racist, and has the security forces arrest refugees and destroy their already precarious housing. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2018 alone various Lebanese cities and towns drove thousands of Syrians out of their settlements without any legal basis or cause. In the second half of 2018, between 55,000 and 90,000 Syrians left Lebanon, often under heavy pressure from local and national Lebanese authorities, and returned to Syria, where they await a dangerous and uncertain fate. In Syria there are ongoing combat operations, arrests by the security forces are possible at any time, and people are frequently made to “disappear”. Moreover, the regime increasingly dispossesses house and landowners as part of resettlements that are aimed at creating new demographic realities. The Lebanese government also exerts pressure on the United Nations to organize the repatriation of refugees to Syria, despite the great risk that this would entail for those affected. However, any widespread outcry among the Lebanese population in the face of this mistreatment of Syrians and the overt racism against them has failed to materialize. Here, too, the long, conflict-laden history of the relationship between Syria and Lebanon has an impact. The fact that the two states exist at all is due to the colonial logic of partition in the region: in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, France, and Britain arranged to divide present-day Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine among themselves. France was awarded present-day Syria and Lebanon, and was the mandatory power from 1922 to 1943. Two new states existed side by side following the withdrawal of French troops; parts of present-day Lebanon had previously been ruled from Damascus for many years. The history of relations between the two countries continued to be complicated: the Syrian army intervened during the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990) by invading in 1978, and was a dreaded occupying force until 2005.

Attempts at Solidarity

Because of this long, complicated history, the current smear campaigns being mounted against Syrian refugees by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, as well as many other politicians, exploit long-held resentments among the Lebanese population. There are, however, some organizations attempting to improve the humanitarian situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as well as political groups and NGOs that are organizing to oppose the overt racism that these refugees face. The Socialist Forum, for example, is mobilizing against the detention of Syrian refugees in situations like what happened in Arsal in 2017, when Syrian refugees were detained by Lebanese security forces and four men subsequently died in custody. The protests organized by the Socialist Forum in response to this event were, along with other protests, banned by the Ministry. Activists received death threats, and some journalists and bloggers were arrested and interrogated after having reported on the developments. At the time, a Socialist Forum activist reported that the campaign to express solidarity with Syrians in Lebanon regularly led to problems with the security services. For example, a fake account on Facebook presented itself as a partner organization of the “Socialist Forum”, and criticized the Lebanese army for their actions. Such criticism is an absolute taboo and, in this context, led to further escalation of an already tense situation; activists from the “Socialist Forum” found themselves the targets of hate campaigns. Increasingly, however, there are also protests against the discriminatory treatment of Syrians by the Lebanese government. In June 2019, Gebran Bassil posted a video in which some of his political supporters struck up a chant in front of a restaurant that employed Syrians. Shortly thereafter, his party distributed leaflets touting that refugees could return “safely” to Syria. A protest rose up against this propaganda when around 100 people gathered for a spontaneous demonstration in the centre of Beirut to signal their opposition to racism and discrimination.

The Kafala System and the Mobilization of Migrant Workers

All those who work against the prevailing social consensus in Lebanon, or against established political interests, face intimidation and arbitrary arrest by the security forces. This is also the case with activists who, for example, advocate for the rights of domestic workers. An estimated 250,000 people, mostly women, live and work as domestic workers in Lebanon. Many come from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia (the RLS reported extensively on this topic at the end of 2018).

“In every demonstration, both we and the migrant activists know that there is a risk of arrest or even deportation,” says Laure Makarem of the Lebanese organization “Anti-Racism Movement (ARM)”, founded in 2010 in protest against the everyday discrimination faced by migrant domestic workers. Today, ARM runs a number of migrant community centres in different Lebanese cities, and supports the self-organization of migrant domestic workers through training, networking and campaigning. These migrant organizations face great risks for actively standing up for their rights, because discrimination is widespread and commonplace. A simple visit to a Beirut supermarket is enough to get a glimpse of the problem: during grocery shopping, Lebanese families are often accompanied by “their” domestic workers who are recognizable by their maid uniforms. While the mother or father walks with the children through the shop, she or he gives instructions to the domestic worker, who then places the items to be purchased in the shopping trolley. After payment is made, the maid is the one who carries the shopping bags through the summer heat to the family SUV, loads them into the boot and, when in doubt, squeezes herself in alongside them because there is not enough space in the front. She provides the entirety of the care work in the family and thereby enables free time for the parents. Certainly there are cases where domestic workers find adequate working conditions; nevertheless, the situation of most employees is extremely precarious, and discrimination and abuse are commonplace.

A Legal Vacuum

Domestic workers are placed in Lebanon by agencies that recruit women and men in their country of origin. Upon arrival, the worker must then be vouched for by a Lebanese citizen. Domestic workers’ passports are often confiscated so that they are unable to move around freely. Days off are often not granted, although they were theoretically stipulated in the contract. The sponsorship system means that domestic workers exist in a total legal vacuum, in which they are often subjected to ill-treatment and sexual harassment. Time and again, cases are documented of domestic workers either falling from balconies or housing facades during escape attempts, or committing suicide. In 2017, IRIN News reported that there are two such deaths per week.

Laure Makarem of ARM reports that most activists are constantly forced to move between visibility and clandestine activities due to the repressive policies of the Lebanese authorities. While most would like to be more visible and more active for their cause, they are still forced to take precautions and remain anonymous online or not participate in protests. For Makarem, the situation is clear: “There is consistent repression against domestic workers or Lebanese activists who show solidarity.” Nevertheless, she remains optimistic about the prospects for mobilization and resistance. This is also because, according to her observations, more and more organizations and groups in Lebanon are working together on issues of discrimination and inequality, and are able to perceive problems intersectionally and thereby provide support to each other.

Feminist Struggles and Left Movements

Nadine Moawad, who has been advocating around equal rights and feminist issues in Lebanon for about a decade, shares this view. Although the prevailing patriarchal system, corruption, widespread archaic morality, and discrimination pose numerous obstacles to the realization of feminist objectives, she nonetheless sees the achievements and successes of feminist work in Lebanon: “I observe that everything we do ultimately leads to small changes. Today, women are able to be much more active and organized. LGBT people can talk about their sexuality. When I was at college, I never once heard the word feminism. Today, most universities have feminist clubs that are very active. It takes patience, but it’s worth it.”

These small achievements accumulate and bring about long-term changes. It is indisputable, however, that legal equality for women in Lebanon is still very far off: rape within marriage is not punishable (homosexuality is, however); only men can pass their citizenship on to their children; laws regulating marital status and inheritance law are regulated individually for each of the 18 religious communities in Lebanon, and severely disadvantage women; conflicts are negotiated before religious courts, which often have no legal training or knowledge. For women in Lebanon, sexual harassment or assault on the street, in taxis, at work, at family gatherings, or in any other situation are part of everyday life. For women who are discriminated against in multiple ways—for example, those who experience racism due to their nationality or skin colour in addition to gender-based discrimination—the situation is even more precarious, and they are even more vulnerable to harassment or assault than Lebanese women. A representative study commissioned by the Lebanese NGO Kafa found that every Lebanese person knows at least one woman in his or her environment who is affected by domestic violence. There are also increasing reports of forced marriages for young girls; Syrian refugee girls are especially affected because they lack any form of protection.

The Necessity for Alternative Forms of Organization and Activism

To say that much remains to be done on this front would be an understatement. But Nadine Moawad, for one, is unperturbed about the most urgent issues that feminists in Lebanon are currently tackling or should be tackling. She is of the conviction that feminists should  organize themselves in the first instance, and make themselves independent of conventional financing mechanisms in civil society. Only once this independence has been achieved will real change come about. Her perspective cuts against the conventional model according to which activists found an NGO and then advertise for funding. In Moawad’s view, this merely perpetuates existing patterns of political influence and repression, and fails to ensure that this form of activism is independent from the existing patterns of domination. That is why she and others founded a cooperative, consisting of around 40 to 50 activists, which is exclusively financed through membership fees. The money will be used to run a café, a shop selling products from small farmers, and a venue for events. For Moawad this kind of self-organization and activism is part of a long tradition of feminist organizing in Lebanon—from her point of view, there have always been groups of women who have shown solidarity with each other and fought for their rights, even if these histories are not always visible when feminist activism is viewed from a conventional perspective.

It’s the economy, stupid!

The issue of financial independence in Lebanon is a crucial and overarching one, especially at the state level. Lebanon is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, with national debt currently standing at an astonishing 153 percent of GDP. At a donor conference in Paris in April 2018, the country was promised around 11 billion euros in loans and aid payments in order to modernize its outdated infrastructure and provide for the Syrian refugees. We have already seen how the Lebanese state is neglecting its duty of care and how the Foreign Minister is generating an anti-refugee atmosphere. Having said that, however, the promised funds are tied to conditions: the state ought to reduce its enormous debt and function more efficiently. In order to meet these conditions, the government has planned an increase in sales tax in its draft budget, which was approved by the cabinet in May 2019. Government revenues are now to be increased by this simplest of mechanisms—at the expense of the lower middle class as well as low-income households, as has been pointed out by Hassan Abbas, co-editor-in-chief of the alternative media platform Raseef22. “The state has not even bothered to put together a group of products which the increased VAT will apply to,” he says. As a result, there were no considerations whatsoever of excluding everyday products from the sales tax, which would have protected vulnerable households. For Abbas, this clearly shows the preferred mode of the Lebanese government as far as problem solving is concerned: band-aid solutions are applied to urgent problems, and structural approaches and long-term strategies are either lacking or are postponed until the day after tomorrow.

Breaking Up the System of Patronage

The discussions regarding the draft budget—which still has to be approved by Parliament—triggered widespread concern and demonstrations in light of the cost of living, which is steadily and constantly increasing. Journalist Karim Chehayeb views this as one of Lebanon’s most urgent current problems. He commented that the government’s proposed austerity policy “could become a question of survival for many people in the working class, the lower middle class, and for those below the poverty line in Lebanon.” In May 2019 retired soldiers held angry protests against planned reductions in pensions and insurance for former state employees; they set tires on fire outside the seat of government and chanted that the government were thieves.

These developments illustrate that the Lebanese government has no convincing responses to the serious economic problems in the country. According to most observers, political interests are too deeply intertwined and the roots of the elitist system of patronage—upon which the country's political structure is based—run too deep. Influential political “players,” who sit in parliament or hold a ministerial post, distribute the goods that they can gather to their followers; in most cases, these followers hail from their respective villages, towns or communities. Here the principle of the 18 separate religious communities comes into play again, for it is these communities which have access to parliamentary seats, offices and posts in the civil service according to an allocation formula. In return, the politicians expect to receive votes in the next election. The “goods” which are distributed can take very different forms, whether it be money, access to better medical treatment, or help with personal or financial problems. Most of the political activists who are involved outside traditional contexts in Lebanon intend to break up this system and really bring about change for the better. They have different assessments of the chances of doing so—Karim Chehayeb, for example, remains pessimistic. Although he regards the self-organized migrant organizations—with which ARM also cooperates—as the most important protest movement in Lebanon to emerge in the last decade, he still thinks that the elite system cannot be changed in the short to medium term by this or any other protest movement which has political representation. “This system is more than a hundred years old. Legislation or a few minor interventions will not be the only things required to changed it. For this to happen, the entire mentality in the country must change. This will take a long time, but there are more and more people who are looking for an alternative and, increasingly, they are demanding it.”

As we have seen, other activists are also optimistic; for Nadine Moawad and Laure Makarem, signs of change can be clearly seen in the networking that happens between movements with different concerns, and in the space which is created for all involved. For Hassan Abbas, too, the key to change lies in greater political participation for citizens. Fortunately, not everything remains the same.

In the course of her research, Eva Dingel has lived in Lebanon for extended periods. Her dissertation on Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was published in 2016 by I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury under the title Power Struggles in the Middle East. She lives and works in Berlin as a freelance author and project consultant, and is the founder of a project on political dialogue.