This week, the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants launched a glossy new campaign, aimed at encouraging individuals of Lebanese descent to apply for Lebanese citizenship. The Lebanese diaspora far outnumbers its domestic population and is generally economically successful. By encouraging expat connections to the country, the drive may, therefore, seem like a logical way to ease a domestic economic crisis. But, the impetus for the campaign, as well as the underlying citizenship laws behind it, betrays its inherently sexist and sectarian goals.
Lebanon is one of twenty-seven countries worldwide (thirteen of which are in the Arab World) that limit the ability of women to pass on their citizenship to their children. By law, if a Lebanese woman marries a foreign man, she is unable to bestow her Lebanese citizenship upon her children or husband. As such, the new campaign only offers citizenship to someone whose father or grandfather is a Lebanese citizen or to “the foreign wife of a Lebanese man.” Children of Lebanese women need not apply.
These discriminatory regulations are based on a law initially adopted in 1925, which affects thousands who often have known no other home than Lebanon. A 2009 study estimated that around 17,000 Lebanese women in the country have married non-Lebanese men. Around 77,400 women, their husbands, and children are affected by these restrictions on women’s citizenship rights. Without Lebanese citizenship, those affected cannot own property, access public health or education services, or work without a permit.
One is forced to wonder why the nearly century old nationality law has not been revised to ensure equal citizenship rights for all. The answer to that question cuts to the heart of Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which is based on political representation according to ethno-religious community. Under this system, for every six Christian members of parliament, there must be six Muslim MPs. Additionally, the president of the republic is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim.
These roles were initially assigned at the country’s founding; proportions are ostensibly based on a census conducted in the 1930s. In the ensuing seven decades, profound demographic adjustments have occurred that would upset the current proportional representation system and threaten the power and influence of Christian Lebanese. In 1948, tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon. Now numbering hundreds of thousands, many whom have been born and raised in Lebanon, these primarily Sunni Muslims are banned from holding citizenship. More recently, more than a million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon.
When Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil spoke to a group of Lebanese expats in South Africa last month, the sectarian message was coded but clear. “With each person that restores Lebanese citizenship, we give Lebanon a new day of life,” he told the group according to The Daily Star, “Lebanon, without its philosophy and culture, will go to the advantage of refugees and terrorists.”
Bassil, who is Maronite Christian and leads President Michel Aoun’s Future Party, went on to say that “Lebanon is made of Christians and Muslims and if either is eliminated, the country and the diaspora will not remain.” His primary fear, however, is the so-called elimination of Christian Lebanon by refugees and non-Christians. Indeed, Gebran Bassil has previously stated that he is in favor of allowing women to pass their citizenship on to their children and foreign husbands, provided they are not married to Syrians or Palestinians (read: Muslims). This racist exception, he said on Twitter, was to “preserve our land.”
Lebanon’s citizenship drive is therefore a blatant attempt to grow the Lebanese Christian population, while thousands of people who have lived their whole lives in Lebanon are denied citizenship. Despite its appealing website and promises of restoring the country’s “identity,” the citizenship effort is a sectarian enterprise based on a profoundly sexist law.