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Is there a need to reconfigure citizenship in the Middle East?

The Lebanese people are facing testing times, struggling with constant threats from terror groups and suffering attacks from Daesh/ISIS, some of which were experienced last week in the Hezbollah strongholds surrounding the Beirut southern suburbs which also house the Palestinian refugee camp, Burj el Barajneh. Wherever I asked Beirut citizens about the situation, I was met with comments reflecting a mentality that echoed Lebanon’s war-torn history, memories all too fresh in people’s minds. In a testament to their sense of powerlessness, they all answered, “What will happen will happen.”

Lebanon is taking the brunt of the exodus of Syrians1, fleeing the atrocities of the five year war, which escalated recently with the participation of the US, Britain, Russia and France. Having lost its uprising momentum, Lebanon is balancing a situation with a close-to-inactive government failing its basic responsibilities (such as clearing rubbish from the streets) and rocketing unemployment; people have little time or energy to act, let alone develop a viable alternative.

The Middle East is living through the repercussions of its uprisings; or rather, experiencing conditions and forces behind despotic leaderships after the uprisings that challenged them. The profoundly fundamental flaws and inequalities in governing structures is a common characteristic across the region. They are a legacy of oppression dating from the Ottoman era, including Western colonialism. On Tuesday, as the US Carnegie think-tank rounded off its conference in Beirut on citizenship in the Middle East, there was some serious realisation about the historic and political legacies that have dogged any functioning government attempting to rule in this unique regional diversity.

Although the uprisings have nothing to do with sectarian or religious differences, the politicisation of such “divides” have led this to become reality. Political developments have strengthened ethnic, religious or racial identities at the expense of citizenship. In countries including Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, these identities have led to armed confrontation. The conference asked if a state built on the principles of citizenship, could and would make everyone equal in the eyes of the law.

Dr Maha Yahya, senior researcher at the Carnegie Centre, pointed to oppression and occupation as having confused and disrupted identities as well as their meanings. This has become reflected in legislation on which the crisis, discrimination and division has thrived. What is the solution to this entrenched and systematised form of division? A decentralised form of citizenship perhaps? Or could there be a possible unified pluralist form of citizenship despite these deep chasms, and the grievances they have brought about? What do we do when citizenship is lost by nations and instead becomes a tool for war? Dr Yahya urged us to rediscover a way to embrace pluralism in the diverse region that is the Middle East.

Muhammed Elagati, Executive Director of the Arab Forum for Alternatives, highlighted the repercussions of colonial authority in, for example Morocco, which has led to marginalised groups and grievances from the “divide and rule” mechanism preceding independence. This is the common divisive feature of the colonial legacy, materialising in various ways across the region. The widening gap and discrimination between sects have inhibited social justice and the very rhetoric of diversity — the way that even international charters will label groups as “minorities” rather than “social components” — bolsters the wall that encourages division rather than unity. Elagati stressed the need to safeguard democracy through citizenship, by reviewing the structure of the state, the nature of its powers, diversity and the Arab culture, and the effects of occupation as well as contemporary “interference” from the international community.

The acclaimed Lebanese political historian, activist and analyst Dr Fawwaz Traboulsi made it clear that the revolutions and uprisings across the region must teach us why social justice is absent. Such expectations must be understood against historic realities on the ground.

The future of citizenship in the region is based within particular social, economic and political relationships. “To explain politics with politics is not enough,” said Dr Traboulsi. “We must look at realities on the ground. The disparity within government, the army, geography and impact of the economy, as well as the intellectual capital along ethnic or religious lines, serve to recirculate grievances. Citizenship, we must remember, is part of an ideology imposed by the West, a by-product of capitalism which is spread by neoliberalism. This has led diversity into the institutionalised disenfranchisement of certain groups, favouring some over others; for example, as seen with the Maronite Christians favoured by their French occupiers in Lebanon.”

The contextualisation of concepts such as citizenship and social justice is vital for unravelling discriminating socio-economic structures. Thousands of lives have war as livelihood; that is, socio-economic disenfranchisement and class are important factors to understanding how this can come about and push people into joining groups like Daesh/ISIS.

Minority rights and majority frameworks seem to be at the heart of the dividing features in the Middle East and minority-majority coexistence must be based on a recognition of society as it looks today in much of the Arab region. Citizenship and its borders — with passports, entry/exit stamps and employment cards — are constant reminders of the synthetic and inorganic social and government structures creating socio-economic disparities, preventing livelihood and ignoring the diverse, nomadic realities in this region. The next generation is stuck; they cannot be sent to school or are denied jobs based on the relevant and necessary stamps, papers and passport. Indeed the on-the-ground realities of, for example, displacement by the millions, certainly demands newer ways of looking at citizenship. This suggests reconfiguring citizenship based on realities rather than authoritative/despotic power-sharing and “clientele-ism”.

Looking back to before the 1940s or pan-Arabism, we can rearticulate what political and structural independence means for each Arab country. However, this is an unrealistic approach; social justice is not the reality anywhere due to the many factors listed above. The discussion at this conference, though, highlighted the importance of recognising the events and flows that affected such history. Globalisation as well as the responsibility which comes with a global economy and neoliberal strip-backs of society, which have harmed pre-existing social and structural fabric, is one such flow. The uprisings showed how people recognised that this was a system, never actually created for them but recirculated by them for government or external interests. Similarly, a governing ideology like Ba’athism worked to legitimise itself in a post-occupation power-vacuum, but failed as a social justice project for the people it seemed to salvage through independence.

Citizenship and equality before the law are inhibited when we have laws that segregate and divide, based in a colonial history of systematising division to rule. The reasons for military coups and divisive government structures such as Lebanon’s consociational version have roots; the question is, how far should we go back into those roots to reconfigure Arab citizenship or national citizenship?

Where do we go from here? How can we impose the rules of the majority whilst protecting minorities? Do we need to decentralise social protection, creating a kind of “commune-ship” rather than citizenship? Can the collective identity of a group provide better protection than the state vis-a-vis human rights and the demands of democracy?

“Our discussion reminds me of one of those films in which the subjects stand still against a background that keeps changing,” explained Dr Heba Raouf Ezzat. Any argument or solution we may find for social constituency and citizenship in the Middle East will mirror the context in which we situate them against different “backgrounds”, and we may find different solutions. In this way, it is as important to analyse or even deconstruct those concepts of citizenship and democracy as it is to understand the context in which one may deploy them to enhance society, as the region bears a long history of occupation and imposed ideologies, such as capitalism, which has had a significant effect on the social fabric.

Leaving both participants and speakers with far more questions than answers, a new chapter, demanding new kinds of citizenship, has been opened in Lebanon’s academic and political circles. This is a pivotal theme, which has the potential to rewrite a gloomy unstable destiny in the region of either (literally) buying into unseemly ideologies that may never take root or saving people from capitulating under oppressive despotic leadership.

1The UN has registered 1,075,637 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and there are an estimated 300,000 unregistered Syrian refugees also in the country.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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