Hate speech cannot pass for Lebanese patriotism

It is time for the Lebanese to rally against bigotry — not only for the sake of Syrian refugees but for the sake of Lebanon.
Sunday 16/06/2019
A Syrian man gathers his belongings as workers demolish cement block shelters at a refugee camp in the north-eastern Lebanese town of Arsal, June 10. (AFP)
Shadow of homelessness. A Syrian man gathers his belongings as workers demolish cement block shelters at a refugee camp in the north-eastern Lebanese town of Arsal, June 10. (AFP)

Eight years after Syria fell into conflict, 12 million people, 75% of them women and children, remain stranded outside their country, often in dire conditions. With few social and economic prospects and uncertain of when they can return to Syria, these refugees are living a daily nightmare that the outside world has largely forgotten about or grown indifferent to.

In Lebanon, their plight is especially extreme. There, 1.5 million Syrian refugees must cope with double the trauma: having suffered under the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and now subjected to a conniving Lebanese state that peddles xenophobia against them rather than providing them with humanitarian aid.

Anti-refugee sentiment in Lebanon has climbed to new heights. Some Lebanese, convinced that Syrian refugees are harming the Lebanese economy and displacing locals, have directly targeted refugees and forced them to leave their camps. This was the case in Deir al-Ahmar, where locals clashed with people in a nearby Syrian refugee camp, ultimately forcing 600 of its inhabitants to leave the village.

The clashes were not totally unprovoked. Syrian refugees had earlier assaulted Lebanese firefighters who they said had arrived late to put out a fire in a refugee tent. However, they reflect a deepening animosity towards the Syrian refugee community that is driven by the Lebanese government’s response.

Indeed, xenophobic attitudes are, lamentably, growing increasingly common in the country, even among those traditionally supportive of the Syrian revolution. Deir al-Ahmar, where the recent attack against refugees took place, is a bastion of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, which has been unwavering in its support for the Syrian people against Assad.

This worsening climate has been fostered largely by the government, which, instead of putting forward serious solutions to the uncertain crisis, has elevated those who espouse populist rhetoric demonising the refugee community.

One of the biggest purveyors of such hate is Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is also the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Hoping to replace his father-in-law as the next Lebanese president, Bassil has repeatedly used the refugee crisis to build popular support with a Christian community that is largely disillusioned with his alliance with Hezbollah and shady government contracts.

Thus, the Deir al-Ahmar attack goes in line with the deal that Bassil struck with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in which the ministry of state for refugee affairs was given to a pro-Syrian figure while pro-Assad factions created an extremely hostile environment to force refugees to immediately leave Lebanon.

This sinister plan resulted in further hardships for refugees, who face red tape that makes it more difficult for them to register for residency renewals and permits. They have seen some of their camps declared illegal, allegedly because the use of concrete deems them permanent structures, and forcefully removed.

Bassil, happy to see such restrictions imposed, doubled down on his anti-refugee position, transforming the Diaspora Energy Conference organised by the Foreign Ministry into a platform to lash out at Syrian refugees and declare the Lebanese genetically superior, whatever that means. In unhinged comments and follow-up posts on Twitter, Bassil took aim at refugees and vowed to protect Lebanese workers against them.

“It is normal to defend Lebanese workers against any other foreign worker, whether Syrian, Palestinian, French, Saudi, Iranian or American,” he said. “The Lebanese come first.”

Bassil’s bigoted remarks unleashed a storm of controversy. Some ridiculed him for the senseless comments and others warned him of how such a philosophy might play out for the more than 200,000 Lebanese expats working in Saudi Arabia.

A quick examination of some of Bassil’s statements on Syrian refugees shows just how wrong — and ill-intentioned — he is.

While refugees have strained Lebanon’s economy and its decaying infrastructure, they are hardly the reason for Lebanon’s terrible state of affairs. In fact, the responsibility for the bleak days that await Lebanon rests squarely on the shoulders of Bassil and other officials who failed to enact meaningful reform and still think their supposed bloodline distinguishes them from their fellow men.

Further alarming is how Bassil contaminated the public discourse. Increasingly, his views fuel a climate of unadulterated hatred and bigotry that is masked as Lebanese patriotism.

It is time for the Lebanese to rally against this — not only for the sake of Syrian refugees but for the sake of Lebanon. Taking a moral stance to protect Syrian refugees from Bassil’s hate should be a pre-emptive move all Lebanese should take to protect themselves and their children from losing what remains of the country’s moral fibre.

Until enough Lebanese speak out against such bigotry, we are left with Bassil’s demagoguery as a shining example of why a once great nation has declined.