The Different Citizenships in Crisis-Ridden Lebanon

Marwan Issa

The human rights-based definition of citizens as “legally recognized subjects having duties and rights” in the Lebanese context has long been challenged by historical, political, and ideological factors. These factors find roots in all levels of development (national, regional, and global) across various historical trends. More recently, the country’s crisis has accentuated sectoral or discriminatory identifications of the citizenry or has created new categories of identification that have exasperated deteriorating socioeconomic conditions affecting everyday social relations. By this, we mean the rise of various forms of citizenships often destitute from social justice or rights-based foundations or associating these rights with particular forms of societal functionings. The article focuses much on functional understandings of citizenship, as opposed to normative or essentialist understandings of it.

The Neo-liberal Citizenship and Perverse Confluence

In her essay, Dagnino (2007) tackles the wave of neo-liberal, Washington Consensus, and Post-Washington Consensus obfuscations of citizenship. Under neo-liberal social relations, to be a citizen is to be an active member of the market. In the Lebanese context, as in the MENA region and global contexts, the efforts to entrepreneurialize culture and promote deep marketization efforts obfuscated meanings of citizenship from social justice perspectives. Through IMF constraints and naturally following global trends, Lebanon has been a quintessential case of a context impacted by the neoliberal wave.

A focus on individual entrepreneurial effort overtook conceptions of social rights, and consequently depoliticized “citizens”’ endeavors. It was well in the current ruling class’s benefits that civil society and political actors be endued with a lesser sense of collective action and accountability actions vis-à-vis the state, and be more preoccupied with getting-by efforts, especially relevant for middle-class constituencies who have the luxury of “free time”, otherwise possibly invested in volunteer, political, and overall organizational efforts.

Sectarian Citizenship

On a more national and historical note, the country’s sectarian division on political, geographical, and strongly cultural levels has endued citizenship functionings with sectarian tropes. This transfigures into two sect-infused citizenship functionings.

The first type of sectarian citizenship performance relates to the understanding that being a citizen means being a member of a certain sect operating within a wider sectarian network (the Lebanese state, or on a wider level, the Middle East). With this identification, one’s action as Shiite Muslim, Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, Druze, or any other sect serves to “maintain the sectarian mosaic”. One does their “sectarian job” in their respective “sectarian area”, while other members of other sects do theirs. The conceptualization of citizenship is then dissected from a simple common national citizenship to a common national one infused with distinct sectarian functionings.

Another sect-infused citizenship functioning attaches essentialistic characteristics of “being Lebanese” to a certain sect, often in an ideological direction. Conceptions of the Lebanese state as a “Maronite” effort, or as part of the “Arab Muslim” world, are often translated into one being a citizen by performing sectarian traditions that are supposed to represent “true Lebanese” citizen values. One is therefore a citizen performing their sectarian rituals: going to the mosque for Friday prayer or to Sunday Church Service.

Progressive and Patriarchal Understandings of Citizenships

In response to norms attaching patriarchal elements to Lebanese citizenship, more encompassing and inclusive efforts have been made to widen the scope of citizen understanding. Newly nascent progressive groups have put forward socioeconomic demands to the forefront of the political agenda in an attempt to challenge the existing normalization of elitist banking and overall economic policies. The same and other groups also put forward campaigns in demand of a more gender-inclusive understanding of Lebanese citizenship, highlighting social, legal, and political inequalities in access to basic rights and duties.

The October Revolution and the Way Forward

The 2019 October Revolution has paved the way for activists and citizens from different backgrounds to assert their right to basic needs and social relations, and hegemonically facilitate the arrival of policy and program-specific politics, emphasizing social justice as a response to a history of elitist Lebanese politics. The distorted unequal dynamics of current citizenship understandings have hitherto proven disastrous for a vast majority of the Lebanese population, and it is through inclusive and rights-based understandings of citizenship can human development be adequately planned for and can basic rights be provided.

The article never planned to provide an exhaustive list of different citizenship approaches in the Lebanese context, it highlighted some of the more prevailing ones in a context where divisive populist politics are exasperated by ruling-class politicians, and where access to basic rights becomes more and more absent, or more accurately described, stolen.

About the author

Marwan Issa is a writer and researcher specializing in socio-political analysis with a focus on Lebanon, the Middle East, and Arab-European Development Initiatives. Previous areas of work include research on social movements in Lebanon and the Arab region, humanitarian aid, refugee socioeconomic realities, and clientelism by Lebanese political parties.

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