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Anne Kirstine Rønn

Reem Awny Abuzaid

June 6th, 2024

Governing by Framing: Securitising the Syrian ‘Presence’ in Lebanon

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Anne Kirstine Rønn

Reem Awny Abuzaid

June 6th, 2024

Governing by Framing: Securitising the Syrian ‘Presence’ in Lebanon

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

by Anne Kirstine Rønn & Reem Awny Abuzaid

A line of Syrian refugees in front of the UNHCR registration centre in Tripoli, Lebanon, 8 January 2014. Photo: Mohamed Azakir / World Bank

Since 2011, Lebanon has been a place of refuge for Syrians fleeing war. At the time of writing, the Lebanese government estimates that approximately 1,5 million Syrian refugees reside in the country.[1] For years, this Syrian refugee population has been subject to what Stuart Hall refers to as a securitising discourse[2] by parts of Lebanon’s ruling elite, who have blamed them for country’s social and economic ills. However, over the past few months, the securitisation has intensified.

Particularly, two recent events – the murder of politician, Pascal Suleiman, and the EU’s announcement of a €1bn aid package – illustrate how the presence of Syrian refugees has become securitised beyond its previous level. This development, we argue, can be understood as an attempt by all political players in Lebanon to use the issue of Syrian refugees to tackle the crisis of legitimacy, which they face both locally and globally.

Pascal Suleiman’s Murder and Hezbollah’s Dilemma

The April 2024 murder of Pascal Suleiman, the coordinator for the Christian Lebanese Forces Party in the Byblos area, has put Hezbollah’s national role to the test. Suleiman’s body was found in the Syrian city of Homs, which has triggered accusations against Hezbollah for allowing Syrian ‘thug’ groups to operate along the Lebanese-Syrian border. The incident also reverberated in local media, leading to a wide range of violent backlash against Syrians, particularly in areas where they are least popular: Christian-dominated neighbourhoods.

‘The displaced brothers,’ as Nasrallah addressed Syrians in his recent televised speech, have always posed a strain on Hezbollah’s legitimacy as a powerful national player. This view of legitimacy, as a product of local politics, is evident in Nasrallah’s management of the ongoing military engagement with Israel, where Hezbollah seeks to maintain a balance between retaliating proportionally and spare the rest of the country the pain of an unwanted war, thereby fulfilling the role of a rational national player.

The moral panic surrounding Syrian ‘thugs’ led to the politicisation of Suleiman’s death, compelling Hezbollah to align itself with what appeared to be evolving into a national campaign against Syrian refugees – a departure from their previous stance of maintaining a relatively subdued engagement with similar societal tensions. State officials played a central role in propelling this campaign, with Bassam Mawlawi, the caretaker minister of interior, warning in a public address that ‘we are seeing more crimes committed by Syrians,’ as he demanded greater limits to the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

To explain why Hezbollah’s view increasingly aligns with the wider consensus amongst the political elite against the Syrian ‘threat’ in Lebanon, we need to look at two factors. First, Hezbollah’s authority is measured by the fine scale of demographic realities in Lebanon.[3] Syrian refugees, being majority Sunni, naturally put pressure on that scale if they are integrated. Second, Hezbollah avoids ‘poking the hornet’s nest’ by being blamed for military interfering on behalf of its ally to ensure demographic hegemony in Syria; something that entailed the expulsion of Syrians into Lebanon from the beginning.

The Securitisation of Financial Assistance

On 2 May 2024, the EU announced an aid package of €1 billion, most of which will support Syrians and other vulnerable communities in Lebanon and strengthen border control.[4] Although it is still not certain how, and under which conditions, the aid package will be implemented, it has already met with resistance among Lebanon’s ruling elites. While the EU frames the grant as a measure to provide security and stability in Lebanon, many Lebanese politicians have portrayed it as a ‘bribe’ that serves to keep Syrian refugees and migrants in Lebanon.

Gebran Bassil, leader of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and one of the aid package’s most vocal critics, has even accused the European Commission of ‘a desire to replace the Lebanese people with Syrian refugees, to change the identity of the people and the territory.’ Bassil and other members of Lebanon’s Christian factions have already used such discourse in relation to previous aid packages.[5] However, with the increased securitisation of Syrians in Lebanon, other political actors have recently started to show more scepticism against financial assistance to these refugees, stressing that their return is necessary to preserve the stability of Lebanon. For instance, in a recent Friday prayer, Mufti Ahmad Kabalan, head of Lebanon’s highest Shiite religious council and considered close to Hezbollah, called the EU deal ‘poisoned money’, stating that the issue of Syrian refugees puts the ‘country’s demography, stability, security, economic situation, and livelihood under threat.’

So, why has Lebanon’s ruling elite gravitated towards an increasing securitisation of the Syrian presence in Lebanon? According to Stuart Hall securitisation serves as a tool for embattled political entities to uphold their legitimacy by inciting moral panic, and the Lebanese ruling factions seem indeed to be engaging in such tactics. By pitting the Lebanese populace against Syrians, members of the ruling class are able to redirect public discontent away from their culpability in the prevailing economic and social crises that have been eroding their legitimacy in recent years.

[1] Generally, there has been dispute about the number of Syrians in Lebanon. While less than a million are officially registered with the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), some politicians claiming the actual number of refugees is 2 million.

[2] Critical securitisation, as depicted in the work of Amar (2023), Alexander (1994), and Hall (1978), offers a framework to analyse the authoritarian processes that subject individuals to state mechanisms designed to reproduce legitimacy and sustain authority. Within this framework, we can examine the policing of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which involves a wide array of laws, bureaucratic measures and discourses that collectively frame the presence of Syrians. For further details regarding the impact of Syrians on Lebanon’s labour market and economy, see e.g. Rosalie Berthier (2017), Monetising Syrian Refugees, published on 11 December 2017, at: https://www.synaps.network/post/lebanon-syrian-refugees-economy

[3] Lama Karame posits that the biographic balance serves as a cornerstone for legitimising Lebanon’s societal structure. She argues that, “maintaining sectarian balance in terms of numbers is a basis of xenophobia and racism directed against refugees.” This perspective offers a plausible explanation for Hezbollah’s recent vocal stance against Syrians in Lebanon. For further details on that argument, please refer to Karame, Lama (2023). ”Law in Times of Revolution: A Double-edged sword of repression and resistance,” in Rima Majed and Jeffrey G. Karam (eds.) The Lebanon Uprising of 2019: Voices from the Revolution. London: I.B.TAURIS Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 23.

[4] The €1 billion will be provided for the period 2024 to 2027. 736 million are allocated to support Syrian refugees ‘and other vulnerable groups’ in the country. An additional €200 million will strengthen the Lebanese military in enforcing border and migration controls.

[5] At an international donor conference in London in 2016 Bassil, who was then foreign minister, warned against encouraging Syrian refugees ‘to stay in Lebanon.’ The ‘Supporting Syria and the Region’ conference was an international donor conference in London, hosted by the UK, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN. It raised over US$ 12 billion in pledges – $6 billion for 2016 and a further $6.1 billion for 2017–20 to enable partners to plan ahead.

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About the author

Anne Kirstine Rønn

Anne Kirstine Rønn is a Visiting Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Aarhus University and has been awarded a two-year Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Carlsberg Foundation. Her research explores politics and opposition movements in ethno-religiously divided societies with a particular focus on Lebanon and Iraq. She tweets at @AnneKirstineR

Reem Awny Abuzaid

Reem is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, where she studies the intersection of law and politics with gender and sexuality activism in Egypt and Lebanon. Her multidisciplinary academic background in law, political science, and sociology is shaped by her studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the London School of Economics (LSE). She tweets at @abuzaid_reem

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