Foreign assets

Though the country remains deadlocked over the presidential elections and the formation of the next government, the bread and butter issues of Lebanese politics haven’t been completely forgotten. Recently, Change and Reform bloc MP Nematallah Abi Nasr spoke to NOW Lebanon’s Arabic team about the proposed expatriate card, now a draft law waiting to be addressed by parliament, once it can get back to normal business. The issue at stake is one that Abi Nasr has been involved with for many years: the rights of the Lebanese diaspora, and how best to reconnect with those abroad.

The debate over who should count as Lebanese abroad and at home, and how to tap into the vast resources of the Lebanese diaspora has been ongoing for decades, but particularly since the end of the civil war. In the past several years, many attempts have been made to begin reconnecting with Lebanon’s far-flung sons and daughters. If Lebanon can somehow get that relationship right, it could mean huge dividends for a country with a long history of exporting many of its best and brightest.

The expatriate card debate

Two months ago, the cabinet accepted a draft law that would allow people of Lebanese descent living abroad to obtain an identification card that would let them visit Lebanon without a visa and buy property here. Cardholders would enjoy a wide range of rights but would not be able to vote, hold government offices or engage in trades regulated through “enclosed syndicates,” such as law or medicine.

Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Tarek Mitri explained, “It has to do with granting Lebanese living abroad a registration card that would enable them to enter Lebanon without a visa and buy property in Lebanon, but they don't have nationality. It was drafted, discussed and approved by the government, but it will be queuing among the many other laws waiting for the parliament to reopen.”

Mitri added, “[MP Nematallah] Abi Nasr might be upset with the law we have proposed because he thinks it is incomplete, that it should have granted nationality. He's fighting over the issue of nationality, that any Lebanese living abroad should get nationality. This is something he's been battling for.”

Indeed, speaking to NOW Lebanon, Abi Nasr explained that the original 2003 draft law that he was behind “says that the card would give a person the right to nationality after two or three years. Today, this draft law came without mentioning the right for nationality. It is ridiculous because we should facilitate visas for all tourists, and this card only offers this. I think they came up with this now to close the door for my draft law. My law says that those who want, can become Lebanese.”

“What is disappointing is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [when Jean Obeid was minister] agreed on it, and today it is hesitant. And the Ministry of Interior Affairs agreed on it [during the term of Michel al-Murr], and now it is rejecting it,” he added.

Mitri explained, “Later, when we are in a better situation, we can talk about nationality and who is entitled to nationality.”

Minister of Youth and Sports Ahmed Fatfat also stressed the need to keep the issues of nationality and an expatriates’ card separate: “The card is something else; nationality is a totally different issue. Nationality is based on two things: right of land and right of blood. In Lebanon there are many critical issues, and we do not have a clear law.”

Conflict over citizenship

The question of citizenship is fraught with complications for the Lebanese diaspora. Lebanese have been emigrating in significant numbers since the second half of the 19th century, and the question of which Lebanese would be eligible to reclaim citizenship is hotly debated. Lebanese emigration occurred in three main waves: the first in the late 1800s, the second following the First World War and the third during the 1975-1990 civil war. The draft law under discussion would grant an expatriate ID card to any person able to prove that their grandfather was in Lebanon in 1924, after Greater Lebanon declared its independence, under French Mandatory authority, from the Ottoman Empire. The law also does nothing to change the fact that Lebanese women married to foreigners cannot pass their nationality on to their children.

Mitri said, “To claim nationality, like every country in the world, one of your immediate parents should be Lebanese. The problem is that there are many Lebanese who are third or fourth generation, whose parents or even grandparents do not have the nationality. And then there are communal undertones and overtones to such a problem, because you have many more Christians of Lebanese origin than Muslims [living abroad].”

While hard demographic figures for the Lebanese diaspora are impossible to come by, estimates range as high as 15 million. With the majority of that number being Christian, opening the door for naturalizing the Lebanese diaspora as citizens could dramatically shift Lebanon’s demographic balance in their favor, at the expense of Lebanese Muslims and all those living in the country.

As Fatfat notes, nationality is generally based on right of blood or right of land, or residence. But in Lebanon, even these basic parameters can be problematic. Because Lebanon’s political system is confessionally-based, demographics in the country are a highly sensitive issue. “With right of land, we have the problem of 500,000 Palestinians,” Fatfat observed. “We should look at this and study this problem before we make a law because it would create problems. The law is developing gradually. It has been discussed for a long time.” Indeed, even in its current form, the draft law was already being discussed in spring 2006 by Fatfat, Justice Minister Charles Rizk and now-resigned Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Minister Fawzi Salloukh. Earlier, similar proposals have been tossed around for years.

Fatfat saw Abi Nasr as trying to use the issue as a political wedge in the current crisis, saying, “He is politicizing issues that we have already agreed on. A number of MPs from all sects signed the draft law.”

Reconnecting with the diaspora

Obviously, the issue of naturalization both abroad and at home is a thorny one for Lebanese leaders, raising blood pressures on both sides of the divide. Yet the diaspora arguably represents Lebanon’s greatest untapped asset. Lebanese are known the world over for their business acumen, and the financial and personnel reservoirs that the diaspora has built up over the past century-and-a-half could do wonders for the country as it struggles both economically and politically.

One example of the possibilities is Moghtarebee Lubnan, an organization promoting greater social and economic ties between Lebanon and the diaspora. International Coordinator Rabih Mogharbel said, “Moghtarebee was founded about two-and-a-half years ago, and when we were founded, our agenda was economic development, to provide IT outsourcing to Lebanon as an example. Rather than send it to India, we were going to work with Lebanese expat managers to send the work to Lebanon.”

The political turmoil of the past two years has disrupted economic development plans, however. Moghtarebee Lubnan has therefore concentrated on aid projects, and, of course, advocating for diaspora rights. Mogharbel said, “I strongly believe that mothers should be able to give their children citizenship in Lebanon. If a mother is married to an American, her children are not Lebanese. That's definitely wrong – forget all that other stuff.”

“We definitely have so much to contribute, and I think we should have some say in how things are run. Once you give expatriates a tangible resource where they feel they are part of the decision-making process, they're going to contribute even more,” said Mogharbel.

Aside from the broader diaspora, whose rights to citizenship can be debated, Information International, a Beirut-based research group, estimated that there were some 1.2 million Lebanese citizens residing abroad in 2001. Today, Lebanese nationals living abroad must return to their districts in Lebanon if they wish to vote in parliamentary elections, effectively excluding most from the political process. One proposal has been to offer Lebanese expatriates the option of absentee ballots. Minister of Telecommunications Marwan Hamadeh said, “There has always been a discussion about Lebanese emigrants. As more and more Lebanese are living abroad – not emigrating really, but many of them are seeking jobs abroad – and those who still have Lebanese nationality, not those who left three, four generations ago, we are looking at the way to facilitate their [involvement].”

Hamadeh added, “Anybody in the Arab world, in Africa, they are not a permanent immigrant. Those we lose, unfortunately, are those who go to America or Australia. But even those, once they regain the Lebanese nationality, should have the right to express their political opinion.”

Mogharbel offered, “I think at some point it was proposed to have each continent have a couple representatives in parliament. So that's something we would like – we would like to vote, and we would like to have two representatives from each continent.” Abi Nasr’s 2003 draft law included a similar provision, and the proposal has been made several times in recent years.

The question of absentee balloting, unlike the question of extending citizenship, is less contentious but still awaits a move by parliament. Hamadeh said, “Now, anybody can fly back and vote. It's not that that is the problem; the problem is how to vote abroad. It must be included in the electoral law, that you find ways and means to implement it. It has started to be finalized, but as the parliament is closed, we don't know when this can be proposed to the parliament.”

Previous attempts to introduce an expatriate card have been met with skepticism and hostility by those who place more emphasis on absentee voting and an clearly-defined path to reclaiming Lebanese nationality. But in the present climate of distrust and gridlock, it may be necessary to treat such a card as an initial small step in that direction, despite fears that it will be used as a substitute, rather than a supplement, to such stronger measures. Unless the mother country can make some gesture toward involving its international sons and daughters, it may well find its emigrants from the late 20th century as distant as those from the 19th.

Hanin Ghaddar contributed reporting for this story.