Saturday, February 27, 2021

Dear Hannah Arendt, the right to have rights means to not be a citizen in Lebanon.

Photo by Tarek Chemaly of a graffiti on a Beirut wall as part of ArcheWALLogy project

Hannah Arendt said citizenship is the "right to have rights" - when you think about it, it totally makes sense. As a citizen, you have the right to this and that - formulated differently from one country to another - but still existent. Think of public goods, which are nonrival (the quantity of breathable air should not diminish because one citizen breathes more or less) and nonexcludable (example, if the army defends a country, it cannot stop from defending you because you defaulted on a tax - you are the citizen of the land and it is your right to be defended).

But, try importing this to Lebanon and suddenly it gets very very confusing.

To begin with, the army defending the land is already very odd as a concept. Whereas Hezbollah engaging in a fight with Israel is technically something that should not involve the whole country (because, as that girl sitting in a pub in Gemmayze said during the 2006 war: "je m'en fous", when asked about what was happening in literally a few kilometers away in the Southern suburb of Beirut), believe it or not - it actually does. And truth be told, many "citizens" do not approve of it because, say should the airport be bombed (as it was in 1968, or in 2006), the airport is technically not a Shiite landmark but a "Lebanese" one.

Think of health issues. Yes, I know, even the United States does not have a universal health care (Cuba does!), in Lebanon being a government employee entitles you (and your spouse) to be a member of the "daman" (a magic word about state-sponsored insurance). Which brings us to the many "fictional" jobs that exist simply for the daman in question. "Politician XX has insured my father a job as a snow plough driver - sure, dad lives in Achrafieh and hasn't been near a snow storm in a decade but we get the daman with it" - so said a student (with rightwing leanings) about his family. If I say "with rightwing leanings" it is not as a derogatory remark, but rather to say that usually the idea of receiving a "free" healthcare is something that more in line with social-leaning countries (those pushing to the left) than the right - still, the student found no oddity between his political opinions (or rather those that he inherited without questioning from his parents) and the non-existent job of his father which insures him a salary and the famous daman.

I have said this before but it bares repeating:

"I admit, I was very idealistic as I was growing, but even then, I used to argue that what was wrong was not the governance but people themselves. For a long time, I used to consult with Dr. Paul Salem at the LCPS (Lebanese Center for Policy Studies) and a remarkable man. However, he believed that if we changed governance this goes into domino effect on the people. When he left LCPS, he went to head the Issam Fares Foundation. By pure chance we met a couple of months later, and after effusive hellos, he said "you know Tarek, you were right". Puzzled I asked what about - and he explained that yes, the original issue was with people, and that he found out they were using wastas (clientage system) to get what was theirs to begin with by simply filling a couple of papers."

So the question is - when people would rather ask a politician for a "favor" (in exchange for their ballot in the next election) rather than trust the state directly, what does it say about them being "citizens" in the said country? I have heard it directly from an advisor of a political leader who heads a large party in Lebanon that when their policy changed from "establishing laws" to "procuring services" their "followers" actually voted for a different person altogether at the election (that the different person in question actually started providing more services is of no surprise at all!).

What therefore, is it to be "Lebanese"? And the right to have rights to be Lebanese? In 2013, Abdo Medlej (disclosure: Abdo and I were at the same school) titled his book "indignez vous pour ne pas perdre votre dignite" (get indignant in order not to lose your dignity), but the whole idea of Medlej rests on the principle of "rights" - or rather as Arendt said "the right to have rights" and ergo be a citizen. But as demonstrated above, to take those rights, people rather revert to post-feudal lords as opposed to trust the whole idea of government (which is supposed to procure the same rights to all of its citizens). See how we are hovering around the same points? 

Because the right to have rights, means not to be a citizen in Lebanon, but rather to be part of a faction, or tribe, or a "follower" of a certain party/political family.