Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Is Facing a Backlash for His Remarks on Syrians. But He May Have a Point

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP Photo: Tobias Schwarz

The latest woes of Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, started a couple of weeks ago, when he tweeted that Lebanese workers should come first, ahead of any foreigners, “whether Syrian, Palestinian [or] Saudi.” The Saudi component received the greatest attention on social media, with some asking if Bassil would be happy for Saudi Arabia to apply similar sentiments to the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese working in the kingdom.

Yet it is the Syrian aspect of the tweet that is the most worrying, coming as Bassil supported a promotional video for a campaign by the political party he leads, the Free Patriotic Movement, to stop Lebanese companies hiring Syrian workers. Activists have noted attacks against Syrian refugees across the country, as a hostile environment takes hold.

On this topic, Bassil has political form. A few weeks earlier he had tweeted that the Lebanese “will not be replaced in this land” by refugees and the displaced. He has refused to call Syrians seeking refuge refugees – he prefers the term migrants – and, come to think about it, he isn’t even sure they are seeking refuge. “Most of the Syrians – much more than 75 percent – are no more in security and political fear, but are staying for economic reasons,” he said in an interview two weeks ago.

His remarks have been vigorously contested within and without the country. A Lebanese anti-Bassil petition circulating currently has more than 20,000 signatories.

Bassil is ambitious and appears determined to succeed his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, as president, a post reserved for the Maronite Christian community. His comments against Syrians also have a sectarian dimension, as the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims and criticizing them plays well in Bassil’s Christian heartlands.

He appears to have decided that the best way of shoring up his political support is by taking an openly populist, anti-immigrant line.

That doesn’t mean, however, that he doesn’t have a point.

Like populist politicians elsewhere railing against immigration, Bassil is saying for political gain something that people are already feeling in their daily lives. It makes more sense therefore to see politicians like Bassil as the political equivalent of a canary in a mine: warning about a pressing danger before it becomes overwhelming.

Lebanon hosts at least one million Syrian refugees, the second-largest Syrian refugee population in the world, after Turkey, but as a percentage of population, it is the largest, at least 20 percent of the population.

Lebanon’s unemployment rate is highly contested – the country’s central statistics agency puts it at 10 percent, but some politicians have declared it multiples higher – and the impact of Syrian refugees on it is deeply controversial.

But that there has been an impact is not disputed. The World Bank estimates 200,000 Lebanese have been pushed into poverty as a result of the Syrian crisis. The causation isn’t direct – many of those in poverty have been pushed by the impact of the Syrian civil war on business and trade, not by Syrian refugees taking jobs.

But the impact has been felt disproportionately by those on the most modest incomes.

There is a kernel of truth in what Bassil is saying. It is wrapped, certainly, in a shell of rhetoric – his comments suggesting some genetic superiority of Lebanese were particularly unedifying – but there is truth in it.

Lebanese politicians, and ordinary Lebanese, cannot be blind to the risks, especially when similar concerns have so upended other democratic societies. The plain fact is that too many Lebanese on modest incomes have had to deal with the consequences of the catastrophic civil war next door.

Overall, the influx of Syrians has benefited the economy, because Syrians have brought investment, created businesses and are contributing to the Lebanese economy by buying goods and paying rents.

But it is not enough for the economy overall to benefit, if there are communities who are disproportionately affected. The lesson from countries in Europe that received sudden influxes of migration is that people are most concerned about migration in their local area, regardless of the wider benefits of immigration. The Lebanese are not immune to these views.

Without a doubt, politicians are scapegoating refugees for their own benefit; that is hardly new. But it is also true that Lebanon self-evidently cannot cope with the number of arrivals. Making that point should be uncontroversial – and indeed, it must be made, so that outside powers recognize a disaster is brewing and help is needed.

Simply wishing away the problem doesn’t help. To imagine that many thousands of Lebanese should simply put up with increased hardship is to ignore the realities of politics, and the ways dissatisfaction is expressed in a democracy.

It is also to ignore the reality of other countries – Britain and the United States are currently the best-known examples – where ignoring genuine grievances for years resulted in unexpected, some would say calamitous, votes.

If it is clear that Lebanon cannot cope with its current burden – and it should be obvious given the Bashar Al-Assad regime’s behavior that Syrians cannot forcibly be sent home – then a new settlement for Syrian refugees is needed.

The real message from other countries ought to be that if difficult political problems are not dealt with within the existing political frameworks, they have an uncanny ability to leap beyond acceptable boundaries.

Bassil is expressing ugly views. Yet the reality of the long Syrian war has been ugly for many Lebanese. Merely seeking to shout down or silence those who point that out will not change the demographics of Lebanon’s crowded cities.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.