Syrian ‘elections’ and scapegoating in Lebanon

Sectarianism is not the one factor in Lebanese politics that remains a constant. In fact, sectarianism is inherently malleable, and sectarian parties often find ways to cross ‘the divide’ to reach whatever agreement is necessary. In the spirit of the Ta’if agreement, the one that ‘ended’ the Lebanese wars of 1975 to 1990, the logic of these agreements is often to find the weakest members of Lebanese society to scapegoat. The ‘no victors, no vanquished’ formula promoted after 1990 (but used before too) exclusively applies to Lebanese actors, excluding everyone else, notably Palestinians. Since 1990 especially – not that it was all cheerful before – that weakest member has been the refugee. This is the constant in Lebanese politics: scapegoating refugees.

As I’m writing this, thousands of Syrian refugees from across Lebanon are being bussed-in to the embassy to ‘vote’ for the upcoming ‘elections’. I hope I don’t need to explain why I’m putting these in quotations. Reports of threats are widespread, and unsurprising. When the PR circus is over, Bashar Al-Assad will have ‘won’ seven more years in power. He’s been in power since his father Hafez died in 2000. He and his supporters expect to make it to 2028, and likely beyond.

That would make it 28 years in power. His father had 29 years in power. Bashar’s goal is undoubtedly to outlive his father, and he may get to do that. That would not be possible, however, without the complicity of other powers. In this piece, I’ll focus on Lebanon, although the role of Europe and its racist anti-refugees obsession is likely to play an even bigger role. That’s for another time.

Pay attention to what’s happening in Lebanon, where over a million Syrian refugees are still stuck in limbo. Supporters of the Lebanese Forces and Phalangists/Kataeb are attacking those on their way to the ‘vote’ to pressure them into leaving Lebanon. The LF, opponents of the current president Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), are serving as the physical punishers of the FPM’s stated goal to forcibly return Syrian refugees (they would not use these terms of course). As a result, Bashar Al-Assad will have his ‘new mandate’ by being able to not only declare Syria as safe – it is not – but Lebanon as unsafe. Thus, the (anti-Assad) LF and the (ocasionally-pro-and-occasionally-anti-Assad) FPM, are aiming at the same result: terrify enough refugees into ‘choosing’ to go back.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. It is already happening. Last December 2020 a group of Lebanese men in Bhanin set a refugee camp on fire, “forcing some 400 people to flee for their lives.” We can go back as far as we want to find more examples. In the summer of 2017, Lebanese people spread rumors that Syrians were “going to protest against our honorable army” (whatever that means). So, Lebanese men, brave enough to take on unarmed Syrian refugees but not brave enough to take on the very armed Hezbollah, took turns filming themselves beating Syrian refugees. I wrote about this in 2018: Lebanon’s militarized masculinity.

But as I’ve argued back then, Lebanon’s scapegoating of refugees did not start with Syrians, but with Palestinians. In effect, the post-Ta’if status quo provides enough material for Lebanese politicians and those still enthralled by their glorious leaders to always fall back on scapegoating refugees whenever things get too difficult for the Lebanese. And given that things have gotten much more difficult in the past couple of years, refugees are being even more aggressively scapegoated. If Syrian refugees are not given the option of safe passage to another country, I fear what may come next.

I had initially reacted emotionally on Twitter upon seeing the portraits of Bashar near where some friends and family live. I said it was insulting, and that it indeed is. My family home was bombed before I was born, and many Lebanese and Palestinians in Lebanon were killed, tortured and forcibly disappeared by Hafez Al-Assad’s regime, a tradition proudly continued by the son. But my reaction did not take into consideration the xenophobia at play here. I have no reason to believe that the Lebanese who destroyed cars bearing the portrait of Bashar and beating those within them care about the horrors of the Assad regime. In fact, everything I’ve seen so far point to the more obvious, and much more Lebanese, explanation: ‘fuck Syrians.’

They even burned a Palestinian flag, because nothing says anti-Assad like burning the flag of a people murdered by the Assad regime in both Lebanon and Syria. And let’s do that while Israel continues to bomb Gaza. That’ll show the Assad regime.

So I deleted my tweets, to avoid any confusion.