In conjunction with the surge of right-wing populism in Europe and the US, Lebanon appears to be witnessing a similar phenomenon. Even though nationalist and sectarian discourse is not foreign to the Lebanese political landscape, one particular figure has been attracting a great deal of attention over the past months, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Whether “any publicity is good publicity” applies in this case is up for debate. This paper aims to define populist nationalism, determine to what degree Bassil fits the label and the rising global trend, and conclude with the dangers of this discourse in a country like Lebanon.
What is Populist Nationalism?
Defining populism has sparked debates within academic and media circles, but the most widely accepted one describes populism as “a thin ideology that pits a pure, ordinary people against a nefarious and corrupt elite”. In other words, the people and their interests would be better served under the rule of a certain leader or party than the current political rulers. Populism does not amount to an ideology in itself but rather a rhetorical basis through which it attaches to a “host ideology” that provides it with political meaning. While it tends to be associated with right-wing nationalist movements, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration sentiments, it is not exclusively so as it could be ideologically left-wing as well. The core difference between right wing and left wing populism is that the former targets a cultural elite whereas the latter targets an economic elite. Other features of populism include labeling political opponents as traitors to the nation, empowering the executive branch, and undermining independent press. Despite of these tactics, populists must be distinguished from authoritarian movements as they aim to radically alter democracy in their own vision rather than undermine it.
Nationalism, the second aspect of populist nationalism, also has different definitions revolving around the congruence of the political and national unit, national identity, and national consciousness. The version of most relevance to this paper is the one rooted in an exclusionary vision for nation and state thus creating “the other” within an “us vs them” dynamic. This vision is linked to a certain ethnicity, tradition, language, geography, and culture – or at least one’s own perception of them. Previous and current forms of nationalism include colonial liberation, secessionist movements, and ethnic superiority such as white nationalism. The most recent trend of nationalism, also termed as ethno-nationalism, imagines a nation whose members share particularistic characteristics that legitimize their membership. In turn, this tends to exclude “immigrants, non-whites, and non-Christians”. Such in-out distinction could also be based on a sense of ethnic, cultural, or national superiority.
In multi-ethnic and multi-communal societies which witnessed past conflicts, nationalist movements are even more engaged in defining what the nation is and who belongs to it. For instance, people are mobilized against immigrants as populists frame their presence as threat of demographic change. This is where populism and nationalism intersect. The pure people who should rise up against the corrupt elites are also connected together by their ethnic identity. “Purity” thus requires the exclusion of immigrants. Consequently, a “thick” populism develops as it not only divides between the “pure people” and the elites but also between the “pure people” and everybody else.
The delineation between the “pure people” and the others heavily depends on the concept of who these people are and what separates them from the rest. This applies to different nations or ethnic groups in multi-national or multi-ethnic states in which political demands such as the specific group’s autonomy or independence as pushed for. In this case, elites targeted would be those “collaborating” with the state or with foreign powers against the interests of their own group. It also extends towards other minority groups labeled as “enemies within”.
The Case of the Free Patriotic Movement
Bassil has been the head of the FPM since August 2015, the largest Christian party in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet. He is also the son-in-law of current President Aoun and founder of the movement. Looking at Bassil’s leadership of the FPM, one can notice the similarities between his discourse and that of populist nationalists abroad. As a party, the FPM is a majority-Christian one and places itself as the leading representative of that community. Since the return of its former leader President Aoun from exile in 2005, the main theme of the party has centered on combating prevalent corruption in the state and the elites who have ruled the country for the past decades. In the later years and in the run-up to parliamentary and Presidential elections, another accompanying theme began to arise labeled as “regaining Christian rights”. The purveyors of corruption and marginalization of Christians were one and the same.
The Taef Agreement brought an end to the Lebanese civil war but also diluted the far-reaching powers of the Maronite Presidency. Despite the transfer of most of these powers to a cabinet whose seats are divided equally between Christians and Muslims, it continues to be negatively perceived by the majority of Christians since the cabinet is headed by a Sunni Prime Minister. Coupled with Rafic Hariri’s dominance of both the premiership and the economic playground since the end of the war till his assassination in 2005, Harirism was consequently placed at the forefront of the corrupt elite who must be removed by the “pure people”. The FPM, outspoken in its rejection of the agreement since 1989 and coming into the political arena after a decade and a half of exile, had an appealing profile.
A years’ long campaign was subsequently waged by the FPM against Harirism and intensified since 2009 with accusations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. A book, “al-Ibraa al-Mustahil” (“The Impossible Acquittal”), was also published detailing the claims. This was coupled with Aoun’s discourse against the “Sunni elites” for stripping powers from the Maronite President. The campaign against these select elites however was stopped in its tracks as soon as a political compromise was reached between the FPM and Saad Hariri in October 2016 regarding the election of Aoun to the Presidency. This was a glaring illustration of the use of populist slogans for personal gain. An ongoing alliance of interests currently manages the relationship between both parties but has not completely halted the populist discourse which Bassil resorts to in times of crisis. Two recent examples indicate the continued duality of corrupt elite and Christian rights in the discourse in spite of the FPM being a major party in a series of unity governments: First, it was leaked that Bassil explicitly stated “Sunni political dominance took shape over the corpse of the Maronite sect, and it took all its rights. We want to get them back entirely.” In spite of Bassil denying the statement, it does not come as a surprise since it fits within the FPM’s political discourse. Second, al-Ibraa al-Mustahil is occasionally dusted off and briefly used in public rhetoric whenever political interests deem fit.
At the core of populism is defining who the pure people are. In the case of a multi-sectarian country like Lebanon, and based on the FPM’s discourse, the pure people who must confront the corrupt elites are Lebanese Christians. This has expanded to the notion of the pure people against, not just the elites, but also everybody else. For example, Hadat’s municipality, a town near Beirut, issued a decision banning the selling or renting of property to Muslims. The mayor is a member of the FPM and declared that he is not ashamed in opposing demographic change.
The switch from a national to a more sectarian discourse in the efforts to bring then-General Aoun to the Presidency was allegedly masterminded by Bassil. Aoun was thus marketed as the “strong Christian President” who must assume the highest Maronite post if Christians were to regain their lost political influence. This somehow established a precedent and even a rule for Bassil who has Presidential ambitions. For Bassil to be able to succeed Aoun, by his own logic, he must be the strongest Christian leader. To do so, Bassil has increasingly employed a sectarian discourse exclusively tailored to his Christian, if not even Maronite, audience reminiscent of the deep divides of the civil war. Some of the actions taken include attending the ceremony honoring the assassinated right-wing President Bachir Gemayel, rhetorically rejecting the Taef Agreement, expanding voting rights to – presumably majority Christian – Lebanese abroad, “liberating” Christian-allocated seats in parliament from the influence of Hariri, Berri, and Jumblatt, controlling all Christian public office appointments, demanding the commemoration of the withdrawal of the Syrian army in 2005, freezing the results of the civil service board because of the low number of successful Christian applicants, and leading the charge for the “Orthodox Gathering” electoral law in which each sect exclusively votes for its representatives. Note that the last example was followed by a smear campaign and labeling of “traitors” against Christian MPs and parties who backed away from supporting the law. A key danger of this discourse is that it never remains isolated in and by itself as it always entails an opposite reaction from other sectarian groups.
In reality, the “regaining Christian rights” campaign has been more shaped by the FPM’s political interests rather than that of the community they claim to represent. “Christian rights” in the state has become synonymous to staffing administrative positions exclusively to loyalists. This falls squarely within the nationalist tactic of exclusion from political participation and access to state resources based on ethno-cultural belonging. Building on a sense of political advantage against Sunnis led by Hariri and Druze led by Jumblatt but not against Shias led by Hezbollah, Bassil has targeted public positions occupied by members of the Sunni sect. Rooting the arguments in mismanagement and corruption, the pillar of the original FPM strategy, Bassil has also set his sights on the CEOs of the Middle East Airlines and Port of Beirut. Similar attempts were and are being made against the Christian Director of the Central Bank and the Druze Deputy Director of the Central Bank who Bassil aims to replace with loyalists. The same applies to the appointment of Christian officers in the Internal Security Forces.
Classic ethnic nationalism is based on “a sense of peoplehood arising from a common language, culture, and genetic type”. Bassil stirred controversy as he tweeted “We have devoted a concept to our Lebanese identity, above any other affiliation, and we have said that it was genetic, since it was the only explanation for our similarity and distinction”. When Bassil targets refugees in his discourse, he switches to nationalist Lebanese as the pure people in an “us vs them” scenario. Based on the tweet, he also adopts a particularist and exclusive form of defining who the nation is. This change in identification from a sectarian to nationalist discourse is not a contradiction of Bassil’s principles because, as will be portrayed in the coming paragraph, the nationalist rhetoric against refugees falls directly in line with the sectarian populism being propagated.
Populist nationalist discourse is similar across different countries as threats from immigration are typically presented based on interest, economy, security, and identity in terms of culture and way of life. Both real and imagined grievances are being magnified and channeled into resentment towards both elites, immigrants, and even ethnic minorities. “Immigrant crime”, loss of jobs, pensions under threat because of high refugee costs, and declining socioeconomic conditions are all used in the service of nationalism. The same applies to Lebanon as well. For example, in terms of jobs, Bassil stated in a party meeting that “we definitely do want to distinguish the Lebanese citizen [as being] above non-Lebanese, at work, in taxation and in many other things as well. This is not racist discrimination but an expression of a state’s sovereignty over its territories.” Some of the repercussions of this rhetoric are “Employ a Lebanese” slogans, calls to report Syrians working illegally, supporters storming shops owned or employing Syrians as well as harassing Syrian employees, and military-ordered demolitions of concrete and bricks walls in Syrian camps.
An effective approach is finding a scapegoat that can be blamed for the negative situation in the country. Bassil has regularly laid blame on Syrian refugees as the cause of Lebanon’s deteriorating economic situation and high unemployment. These calls can be classified as an intersection between nationalist and sectarian populism since they separate Lebanese from foreigners, in this case Syrians. They also place him again as the “defender of Christian rights” since the continuous settlement of Syrian refugees who are overwhelmingly Sunni threatens to disrupt the demographic situation in the country. As a result, collective punishment in the form of forced evictions, social tensions, hostile discourse, and aggressive harassment is taking a national and religious overtone.
This xenophobic rhetoric is finding support among a sizeable segment of Lebanese because of the very high number of refugees, increased pressure on already-poor infrastructure, higher rents, and cheap labor competition. Some even complain about the aid provided to refugees; however, numbers dispute this perception. Syrian refugees live in severe poverty: 51% of families live off less than $3 per day, 88% of households are in debt, and 54% of children are not attending formal schools. While it is true that cultural, economic, and personal reasons drive the insecurities of a sizeable segment of voters, the framing of policy decisions by playing on an ingroup outgroup logic shores up nationalist public support. When not drumming up organic criteria of nationhood, supposed civic distinctions are resorted to. The outgroup is accused of being incompatible with “the people’s values and hence a source of instability. Instability in this case would be the “demographic balance”. Similar to how Trump rejects immigrants from “shithole countries” while asking why the US does not receive immigrants from countries like Norway, Bassil’s nationality law which excludes children of Lebanese mothers married to Syrians and Palestinians falls within the same racist expression of populist nationalism.
A final tactic used by populist nationalists that will be examined in this paper is accusing the “elite” and others of betraying their “own people” and nation because of their positions on immigration. When Bassil was criticized for his genetic distinction tweet mentioned previously, he replied by saying “Their Lebanese belonging is not strong enough to feel what we feel and because they have another belonging which could be more important for them”. In so many words, Bassil practically shed doubt over the patriotism of those who did not agree with his classification of the “pure people”. Such accusations even extend to international aid organizations and the international community as Bassil has repeatedly stated that there is an international conspiracy to discourage “safe” returns and permanently settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon. These statements resonate among the Christian population at a high rate as it echoes similar claims made in the 1960s and 1970s with the Palestinian refugees.
Impact of this Rising Discourse
Without dwelling on the fact that a sectarian and xenophobic discourse severely hampers much-needed political stability, a persistent reliance on such tactics by Bassil, among other political elites, to strengthen their negotiating position and shares of power in the state raises major concerns. From Bassil’s statements mentioned above, to Hariri’s “I am the father of the Sunnis in Lebanon and know where their interests lie”, to Jumblatt’s fight for monopoly over the Druze and being the “main door to knock”, to Nasrallah’s “We the Shia of Ali bin Abi Taleb […] We Hezbollah the Islamic Twelver Shia Party will not give up on Palestine”, sectarian discourse is not an alien intrusion by Bassil’s FPM. The frequency of such usage however and its inflammatory nature has attracted criticism from allies and foes alike.
On one hand, a continued sectarian rhetoric will inflame sectarian tensions, impede crucial reforms, and attract a counter-sectarian narrative. It also forces more moderate and centrist parties to either move further right to be able to keep up with the populist discourse or retain their position and demands of respect for rights while possibly paying the price of these unpopular choices. Some responses have already begun to surface in newspapers and social media in which Christian demographic numbers are highlighted to argue that Bassil’s demands of the “Christian share” are invalid and inflated. Others have argued that the Minister of Labor’s crackdown on foreign workers as an attempt by the Lebanese Forces (LF), the main rival of the FPM, to counter balance Bassil’s tactics. While not denying the fact that such discourse is politically smart within Lebanon’s sectarian system of representation as it carries the prospect of increased popular support, this path of sectarian escalation also has the potential to drag the country, and its Christians which Bassil claims to defend, to potentially disastrous consequences. On the other hand, a continued nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric threatens whatever degree of social cohesion is left between Lebanese and Syrians. The previous absence of a government plan to regulate the presence of Syrian refugees, the current absence of a proper strategy for refugee returns, very poor socioeconomic conditions, and increased hostilities towards the Syrian population in Lebanon from both governmental authorities and segments of the public undoubtedly warn of an upcoming clash whose consequences may not be controllable.
As Bassil shifts in discourse from sectarianism and Christian rights to the preservation of the National Pact to Lebanese nationalism, the underlying aim remains the same as the target merely changes. From targeting corrupt elites to other sectarian leaders to refugees, the leader of the FPM is directly appealing to the historical narrative, instincts, and current concerns of his largely Christian support base. This populist sectarian and populist nationalist rhetoric may be strongly resonating within a segment of the population, but its long-term consequences on inter-sectarian as well as Lebanese-refugee relations remain to be seen as deteriorating socioeconomic conditions reach a breaking point.References
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