Friday, July 18, 2014

The Syrian Refugees Problem

[Originally posted at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Sada journal]

A combination of security, economic, and above all political considerations has the Lebanese government seeking for the first time to limit, and ultimately reduce, its Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian refugee population. Human rights groups have criticized these new restrictions on Syrian refugees, saying the denial of refuge to those in need violates fundamental principles of international law. But Lebanon’s political power brokers are fearful of more than just the economic and social burdens of Syrian refugees.

The exact details of the new stipulations, passed by cabinet in June, vary for Syrians and Syrian-Palestinians (that is, Palestinian refugees previously residing in Syria). Refuge will, from now on, only be granted to those “coming from regions where battles are raging near the Lebanese border,” in the words of Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, with “humanitarian and necessary” exceptions. Additionally, all refugees traveling to Syria, for any reason or duration of stay, are stripped of refugee status upon their return. On top of these restrictions, Syrian-Palestinians also face further monetary charges and onerous administrative requirements that amount in practice to a near-total ban on coming to Lebanon.

Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian refugees number well over a million and are expected to comprise a third of Lebanon’s population by the end of the year. At present, refugees are scattered across the country, living wherever they can afford to, including in over 1,200 ad hoc, self-built camps. A proposal that has been contemplated since the start of the crisis would set up formal camps to house existing refugees along the Lebanese-Syrian border. While this is unlikely to move forward at present for a number of reasons, it could potentially be adopted in a partial or revised form in the future. A recent revival of the proposal divided Lebanese officials, with the health minister calling it the only solution, while the foreign minister vowed to “oppose [it] no matter the pressure.” The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) came out against it, arguing the state would be able to provide neither the infrastructure nor the security necessary for it to succeed.

Either way, there is clearly a new mood shared among Lebanon’s power brokers with regard to the refugees. Although the underlying factors fueling it have been accumulating since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the translation of this mood into executive action was largely triggered by a single event. On May 28, 2014, tens of thousands of Syrians waving Hezbollah flags and posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad descended upon the Syrian embassy east of Beirut to vote in their country’s presidential elections, which were widely regarded as illegitimate. The unexpectedly vast turnout halted traffic across the capital for hours, and led to mild clashes with overwhelmed Lebanese soldiers guarding the embassy.

Within hours, Lebanon’s anti-Assad March 14 coalition, which holds over a third of cabinet seats, issued furious condemnations of the spectacle, calling it a “provocation” orchestrated by Syrian intelligence and Hezbollah, and demanding the deportation of all Syrian supporters of Assad. Less than a week later, on June 2, the cabinet decided on the new entry restrictions, and while the official explanation was “security concerns,” a Western diplomatic source cited the embassy controversy as a likely stimulus.1 Similarly, UNHCR said the government had acted in the hope of “ensuring that actions by refugees (including exercising their right to vote inside Syria) do not provoke adverse reactions inside Lebanon or stoke hostility between refugees and the communities in which they reside.”2

To be clear, it was not the relatively benign happenings at the embassy itself that mattered so much as what they represented. Until then, the refugee presence had arguably been politically useful for March 14. More than a million destitute men, women, and children were daily reminders of the tragedy of a brutal war they could blame on Assad and their key domestic rival, Hezbollah. However, seeing that the same refugees could also be mobilized—whether on their own or coerced by political groups—in their tens of thousands against them was an unwelcome surprise for March 14’s public as much as its politicians.

This shifted March 14’s outlook to something closer to that of its pro-Assad rivals, the March 8 coalition, who have never been comfortable with the Syrian refugee presence. Christian members of March 8 in particular, such as the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), have long been accused of stirring xenophobia and paranoia with their public allegations of “conspiracies” to settle the refugees permanently and thereby change Lebanon’s sectarian demography. In 2013, one FPM member, who has since become foreign minister, went as far as calling for deporting all refugees. While March 14’s large Sunni Muslim constituency has no such anxieties about the predominantly Sunni refugees, the embassy episode nevertheless resulted in a degree of convergence of political opinions and interests between the two blocs.

That convergence against the presence of Syrian refugees was also made possible by the shared burden of an economic collapse brought on by a more than 25 percent population increase in three years. Social Affairs Minister Derbas recently put the direct cost to Lebanon of the refugee crisis at $7.5 billion, or 17 percent of GDP. Unemployment in some regions has doubled as Lebanese manual labor is undercut by Syrian competition. Electricity and water resources, already insufficient to meet Lebanese demand alone, have had to be spread that much thinner. The overall impact of the Syrian war and its occasionally bloody “spillover” into Lebanon has been a decline in GDP growth from 7 percent in 2010 to 1 percent in 2014, according to latest IMF estimates. Tourism, which in better years would make up a quarter of national income, has particularly suffered. While none of this, of course, is the refugees’ fault, it has predictably bred resentment and revived xenophobic sentiments picked up during 29 years of Syrian occupation. In short, Lebanese of all political persuasions have become fed up.

For the refugees themselves, the government’s new policy adds yet another source of hardship to an already grueling existence. It is unclear how many Syrians have been turned away since the June 2 decision, but a new Amnesty International report documents a number of what it calls “shocking” cases among Syrian-Palestinians, including pregnant women fleeing the besieged Yarmouk camp in Damascus being denied refuge at the border, and children in Lebanon being separated from parents who entered Syria briefly to renew identity documents. Syrian-Palestinians make up less than 5 percent of all refugees from Syria. As the restrictions spread to the broader Syrian refugee population, the new policy will likely have widespread humanitarian repercussions. All of this serves to underscore the need for a far more determined global response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

1. Interview with the author.
2. Correspondence with the author

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The language barrier: How Islamists outshine Arab secularists

[Originally posted at NOW]

A little over a year ago, I visited a Jordanian friend in Amman. Determined atheists that we both are, as the Black Label bottle steadily drained our conversation turned, as it often would, to the evergreen subject of the woefully elevated positions of the region’s Parties of God in all their forms and guises.

“Man, let me show you something,” he suddenly said, reaching for the TV remote. “This is why the secularists can’t beat the Islamists today.” Flicking to one of at least a dozen available Islamic channels, we listened as a shrouded televangelist expounded on the boundless splendors of the pious path. “Just listen to the guy’s fusha [classical Arabic],” my friend said in sincere admiration. “It’s effortless.” And so it was – without the slightest stutter or pause, our imam filled the room with the music of 7th-century Arabian vocabulary, every single letter adorned with precisely the correct diacritical flourish. Picture someone mellifluously chatting in the tongue of Shakespeare and you’ll get something of the oratorical effect.

“Now compare that with these guys,” said my friend, switching to a political talk show featuring two beardless Jordanians in suits. Clearly ill-at-ease in the fusha they were compelled (by widely-observed custom) to speak on air – which is likely the only time they speak it – the contrast in style was disastrous. In awkward monotone, they would punctuate every other word with an “uhhh” as they frantically scanned their limited mental lexicons for the formally proper noun or adjective. “It doesn’t matter that what they’re saying is a thousand times more enlightening than the Islamist propaganda,” my friend said. “Who could listen to this for more than thirty seconds?”

That thought came rushing back to me on Saturday when I watched another Islamist, the fugitive cleric-cum-militiaman Ahmad al-Assir, mount an 11-minute-long diatribe against the “liberals” (what contempt he put into the word) of Lebanon’s moderate Sunni Future Movement. Secure in his amply-demonstrated fusha proficiency, Assir actually reverted to colloquial dialect to land his most personal jab, directed at Future leader Saad Hariri, “who doesn’t know how to string two words together in Arabic.” It’s a reference to the former prime minister’s famously shaky fusha, most memorably demonstrated in a calamitous 2009 parliament address. But Assir wasn’t trying to score literary points: he meant to undermine Hariri’s religious, and ultimately political, legitimacy as the representative of Lebanon’s Sunnis. It was an assertion of the supposed authenticity, the unshakeable Arabness, of Islamism compared to effete and decadent liberalism.

Older generations of Arab nationalist intellectuals championed the revival and protection of Arabic out of fear that “the nation” and its culture were losing ground to an ascendant West. Today, the new and graver danger is of young Arab minds being seduced by hyper-articulate jihadists, to whose rhetorical charms even this British kafir is not entirely invulnerable.

Among other things, this makes all the more necessary the secular Arabic literary heritage, from the classic pre-Islamic mu`allaqat through such brilliant medieval reprobates as Abu Nuwas to modern giants like Mahmoud Darwish. Indeed, there’s reason to believe a thread running through the entire oeuvre of the permanently clean-shaven Darwish, who never hid his dislike of Hamas and lamented those who “don’t know the difference between the mosque (al-jam`) and the university (al-jam`a),” was an unspoken determination to claim Arabic (and specifically classical Arabic, the clerics’ home ground) for an avowedly secular renaissance, or nahda. (The contribution of those who manage to turn these works into music and other art forms – Marcel Khalifé being perhaps the most obvious example – is also invaluable, not least because of the profanity of music in and of itself in the Wahhabist worldview. One recalls Khalifé’s farcical 1999 blasphemy trial.) Unless and until that is achieved, the Islamists will continue to exploit the appearance of an intellectual – and even cultural – superiority that is of course entirely and dangerously illusory.

Why Baghdadi talks like that

[Originally posted at NOW]

There are a great many oddities with the speech last Friday by ISIS/IS leader Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri (aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka “Caliph Ibrahim”), and while many have been amused by his apparently expensive wristwatch, I am myself less inclined to be surprised at a religious megalomaniac indulging the perks of power.

No, for me the weirdest aspect is the way the guy spoke; abruptly elongating various vowels and consonants in a manner that totally disrupts natural oratory rhythm. If one knew no better, one would think he suffered from a stutter or other speech impediment, if not indeed something worse.

But in fact what he’s doing – which is something new, not practiced by the likes of Bin Laden or Zawahiri – is speaking in accordance with the Islamic rules of reciting the Quran, known as tajweed (literally “improvement”). The madd (“extension”) convention, for example, mandates doubling the length of a long vowel if it is preceded by a short vowel (haraka). In addition to tajweed, Quran recitation techniques follow one of at least seven styles (qira’at), each having, according to one Islamic blog, its own “unique mood, flourishes, tempo, pitch, vocal ‘color’ and durations of certain notes and pauses.” I’m unable to ascertain exactly which qira’a Baghdadi adheres to, but it’s safe to assume he’s done some hard thinking on it, and can argue with conviction why it is the correct one (to recite the Quran improperly, after all, constitutes the sin of lahn, which another website informs us “may deprive the reader of any reward in the Hereafter”).

Then again, perhaps Baghdadi needs to brush up on his theory, because according to this website, “It is not permissible to apply the rules of tajweed […] to normal conversation. The majority of the scholars are of the view that the rules of tajweed apply only to the words of the Quran.”

Worse, another website says some clerics go so far as to consider the use of tajweed for non-Quranic recital as tantamount to the grave sin of bid’a (“innovation”), on the grounds that it might lead listeners to confuse the speaker’s own words with those of Allah.

Come to think of it, for the man declaring himself the absolute ruler of every Muslim on earth, the comparison may not necessarily be an unwelcome one.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Palestinian refugees: From fire to frying pan

[Originally posted at The Economist]

THE tiny alleyways of Burj al-Barajneh, the most densely populated of the Lebanese capital’s three Palestinian refugee camps, offer scant relief from a scalding midsummer sun. Only moments after your correspondent enters the labyrinth of passages a young woman falls silently to the dusty cement ground, fainting from a combination of heat and over ten hours of Ramadan fasting. “It’s like Ghassan Kanafani’s ‘Men in the Sun’”, says Abu Bilal, your corrrespondent's companion, referring to the classic 1962 novella about a group of Palestinian migrants roasted alive in a tanker truck while trying to smuggle themselves across the Arabian desert.

Abu Ahmad knows about emigration. At 77, the Haifa native has experienced three exiles—from Palestine to Lebanon in 1948; then to Syria at the 1975 outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war; and back to Lebanon this year courtesy of Syria’s war. Dabbing the sweat off his forehead in his air-conditionless apartment in the heart of the camp, he recalls how he nearly didn’t make it. Lebanese authorities were refusing him entry at the border, in keeping with an undeclared but widely documented new policy of effectively denying refuge to any additional Palestinians from Syria. Only when the infirm Abu Ahmad himself fainted in front of the border guards did they let him through, citing an exception for medical emergencies.

Abu Ahmad is one of the lucky ones. Abu Bilal says his siblings are still stuck in Damascus under threat of bombardment, having tried and been prevented from joining him in Lebanon, even though one is married to a Syrian. It’s an all-too-common story among Palestinians today. An Amnesty International report published this month documents what it called the “shocking cases” of pregnant women and even children being separated from their families as a result of the policy, which it described as “blatantly discriminatory” and in contravention of Lebanon’s obligations under international law. The Lebanese government declined to respond to the rights group’s requests for comment.

Though Palestinians make up only some 50,000 of the 1.12m registered refugees from Syria in Lebanon, their comparatively weak legal status renders them the softest target for a Lebanese government now officially committed to limiting its refugee population, says Abu Bilal. “Syrians benefit from legal agreements permitting free travel to and from Lebanon but we are stateless, we have nothing like this," he says.

Lebanon’s policy change comes as the Syrian government is tightening its 19-month-long siege of Syria’s largest Palestinian camp, Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus. After reports of over 100 deaths by starvation in the camp led to limited provisions of humanitarian aid earlier this year, the UN says it has not been able to get food in since May. Residents contacted by Skype say the days of resorting to eating leaves and animal feed may be returning.

Lebanon illegally mistreating Palestinians from Syria, says new Amnesty report

[Originally posted at NOW]

It’s always been the case that, in Lebanon, the only thing worse than being a Syrian refugee is being a Palestinian refugee from Syria. Compelled from the beginning of the Syrian conflict to pay an additional entrance charge at the Lebanese border, and receiving systematically less aid from their UNRWA donors than Syrians get from UNHCR, Palestinians have also for the most part had to squeeze themselves into Lebanon’s already saturated Palestinian refugee camps, where it’s by no means uncommon to find ten or more people inhabiting a single, bare-brick room.

What a brand-new Amnesty International report published today shows, however, is how much worse this discrepancy has become, and – crucially – how the latest turn of misery has come as a direct and deliberate consequence of official Lebanese policy.

A pregnant mother of five fleeing airstrikes and famine in Damascus’ Yarmouk camp left stranded on the Syrian side of the Masnaa border crossing. A 12-year-old boy separated from his parents and brother since last year. A 61-year-old disabled man unable to receive medical care or see his wife. At least 40 Palestinians forcibly deported, or refouled, from Lebanon back into Syria. These are just some of the victims encountered by Amnesty of Lebanon’s new restrictions on Palestinian refugees from Syria, who are now obliged at the borders to produce things like entry permits approved by Lebanon’s General Security – not the easiest documents to get hold of in the smashed wastelands of Yarmouk.

Other highlights – or, rather, low points – include a leaked memo instructing airlines not to transport any Palestinian refugees from Syria to Lebanon, and countless stories of those who have made it in only to be continuously jerked around by General Security; made to pay sums far beyond their means in return for promises of paperwork that never materialize. And so on.

Such “blatantly discriminatory” measures, as Amnesty calls them, constitute “serious human rights violations” carried out in “clear breach of international law.” The report concludes with a call for authorities to scrap the new restrictions and allow “all persons fleeing the conflict in Syria, including Palestinian refugees who are normally resident in Syria, to enter.” Read it in full here.

Dissecting the problem

[Originally posted at NOW]

Regional crises revive ideas of communal segregation in Lebanon.

Graffiti in Beirut reading "Yes to federalism" is altered to read "Yes to secularism" (NOW/Alex Rowell)

As the mangled remains of the 22nd car to have exploded in Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis lay smoldering in a mixed Sunni-Shiite Beirut neighborhood last Tuesday, one young male bystander told a television reporter he only had one thing to say. “It’s either them or us. We can’t live together.”

It was a statement of an exasperation felt by many Lebanese – an exasperation that is increasingly leading some to conclude that the country’s decades-old brand of sectarian coexistence has failed, and should be replaced with something that formalizes or to some extent reinforces segregation along communal lines. Adding momentum to these currents is the spectacle of raging Sunni-Shiite warfare elsewhere in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, where Islamist extremists have literally demolished the post-WWI border and declared the formation of a theocratic state. At the same time, Kurdish separatists have seized the city long coveted as the capital of their future state and insisted they won’t give it back. Surveying these “great changes and historical turns,” Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt wrote last Monday of the need to “preserve General Gouraud’s Lebanon before it is too late.” (Gouraud was the French High Commissioner who in 1920 decreed the creation of Lebanon within its current borders.)

While few Lebanese seriously advocate the abolition of “General Gouraud’s Lebanon,” there is rising interest in ideas ranging from decentralization to regionalism to federalism. Significantly, enthusiasm no longer comes exclusively from the Christian community – a segment of which has advocated such measures since the 1975-90 civil war – but from a minority of Muslims as well.

At the extreme end are the militant Sunni factions calling openly for an Islamist statelet in the north. On Sunday, June 22, 2014, supporters of Salafist cleric Sheikh Salem al-Rafei in Tripoli held a demonstration during which they chanted, “We want an Islamic state.” Asked by NOW about the slogan, Rafei initially denied that it was intended to be taken literally, but later said he “believed in the Muslim khilafa [caliphate] regime […] this is the ideology I follow.” While he said the concept was “not applicable” in Lebanon, due to its religious diversity, he predicted “the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites will lead to the segmentation of Lebanon, just like Iraq and Syria will be divided into provinces […] The first [part of Lebanon] would be for those who want wilayat al-faqih (Iranian state ideology nominally advocated by Hezbollah) and the second for those who want a just state that assures equality for all its citizens – Sunnis, Druze, Christians, and independent Shiites.”

Rafei’s is a view firmly rejected by mainstream Sunni political factions, who officially oppose any such “segmentation” even in its mildest forms. “Federalism is an illusion,” said MP Ahmat Fatfat of the Future Movement. “Lebanon is a small country. The only solution is the state,” he told NOW.

Yet a minority within the Sunni community disagrees. “I am definitely a supporter of federalism,” said Nabil al-Halabi, a Sunni human rights lawyer, who told NOW the same fear of domination that previously drove Christians toward the idea was now duplicating itself among Sunnis, whose vulnerability “became more apparent” after the violent takeover by Hezbollah-affiliated militiamen of predominantly Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut in 2008. “Federalism will forbid any community from governing other communities.”

Nor is Halabi alone, according to Jean-Pierre Katrib, former spokesman of the now-defunct federalism advocacy group Loubnanouna (“Our Lebanon”).

“This is no longer a function of the Christian community alone,” Katrib told NOW. “You come across people from the Shiite community who are not hostile to the notion of federalism as they once were. You come across very senior Sunni figures – for reasons of confidentiality I cannot disclose their names, but I can tell you these are high-ranking, well-known Sunni figures, enjoying wide popularity – who welcome the idea. I’m saying this because I have met with these people at their request.” [Disclosure: Katrib is an employee of Quantum Communications, a sister company of NOW’s.]

Does it work?

To be sure, federalists remain a minority nationwide, and certainly have many detractors. Among the criticisms of federalism is that it simply does not solve the system’s core problems, and may even aggravate them.

“I don’t think it could work in Lebanon,” said Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House and former director of the Centre for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University. Shehadi points to the final years of the civil war, when the Christians in fact did control their own de facto canton in Mount Lebanon, yet partook in some of the worst violence of the entire 15 years – among themselves. “Controlling your own canton doesn’t necessarily mean homogeneity,” Shehadi told NOW. “So it doesn’t solve much.”

To this, advocates counter that federalism is less about cantonization than tackling inefficiency and promoting regional economic development.

“It’s not about separation or creating a shield for the Christians, because we don’t believe you can have Monaco in Jounieh and Kandahar in Tripoli,” said Albert Costanian, political bureau member of the Kataeb Party, who prefers the term “regionalism” to federalism. By electing regional representatives locally, rather than having them appointed by the central government, and giving those representatives fiscal and executive autonomy, Costanian told NOW that much of the chronic corruption of the central government could be avoided, while regions could pursue their own economic development programs without depending financially and administratively on Beirut.

Federalism or secularism?

Another common criticism of federalism is the argument that, by granting the premise that identity is fundamentally defined by sect, it perpetuates the same communal divisions that fuel the dysfunction and violence for which it purports to be the solution. As the slogan “Yes to federalism” has been spray-painted by graffiti activists across Beirut’s walls in recent months, it has elicited a counter-campaign by opponents, altering the text to “Yes to secularism.”

This dichotomy, according to Costanian, is a false one, akin to “comparing apples and oranges.” Indeed, he argues regionalism will “accompany the people’s march toward secularism” by abolishing sectarian quotas within regional governorates and allowing for regional legislation in favor of things like civil marriage. “Hopefully we will reach a totally secular system in a few years,” he told NOW.

By contrast, in Shehadi’s view, the two concepts cannot be married so easily. “When you have people of different identities on the same land, you have a choice between breaking down the boundaries or reinforcing them,” he told NOW. He cited the example of 19th-century cosmopolitan cities such as Smyrna, where for all the inter-communal mingling in marketplaces and public squares, each ethnic and religious group lived in segregated quarters, to which they would retreat and “lock the gates” at night.

“Of course,” says Shehadi, “in times of crisis, when people feel threatened, they become more sectarian and they want more extreme sectarian solutions.”

“But the bottom line question is, do you protect boundaries, or break them down totally?”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.