Two major Lebanese political factions say they will undertake separate legal challenges against a presidential decree to grant citizenship to over 300, alleging that financial favours had been exchanged for passports.
The decree was signed by Lebanese president Michel Aoun last month, but only became public in the last week. It was also signed by prime minister Saad Hariri and interior minister Nohad Machnouk.
On Saturday, Mr Aoun’s office issued a statement challenging critics to present evidence that anyone had been unfairly granted Lebanese citizenship, and urged “anyone in possession of definite information regarding any person covered by the aforementioned decree who is unworthy of the Lebanese nationality to forward said information to the General Security Directorate for verification.”
The statement defended the decree as having “been issued through legal channels”.
“The law says the people must have done an extra special favour to the country, which none of them did,” said Elie Al Hindy, who is in charge of foreign affairs for the Lebanese Forces, one of the two major parties that have said it will sue to block the naturalizations. “Some people included have good connections with Lebanon and Lebanese spouses.”
The 375 names on the list have not been made public, but some have been leaked. Among the names believed to be included were at least five prominent Syrian businessmen and politicians.
While it is not uncommon for Lebanese presidents to grant citizenship to non-Lebanese and persons with Lebanese ancestry who do not possess it, such decrees are generally made at the end of a president’s term.
Lebanese president Michel Aoun is currently in the second year of his six-year term.
In Lebanon, even such a small number of naturalizations can also stir existing debates over demographics. The country has gone for more than 80 years without an official census, in part because its Christian community fears its numbers are in reality far fewer than the numbers upon which seats in government are apportioned.
“The number [on the list] is small but fear is high,” said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science and international affairs at Lebanese American University. “A precedent in granting citizenship ignited demographic fears among different confessions.”
The fear of demographic change is particularly acute among many Christians, now a considerably smaller population than the joint Sunni and Shiite populations. The Free Patriotic Movement, which Mr Aoun founded and is now run by his son in law caretaker-foreign minister Gebran Bassil, has been vocal in its drive to ‘restore’ the rights of Christians in Lebanon. While most presidents passing such decrees attempt to maintain a semblance of sectarian balance in their picks between Christian and Muslim, Mr Aoun’s proposals are reportedly overwhelmingly Christian.
Those demographic fears also sparked debate and recriminations among politicians earlier this year, when they struck down a proposal within Lebanon’s budget – only the second agreed by Parliament in the last decade - that would have loosened rules on foreigners owning property in Lebanon and allowed property owners the right to remain in the country.
One of the chief objections to the law, known as Article 49, was that it might create an avenue to naturalization for refugees from other countries to remain in Lebanon permanently. Mr Hariri denied the claims, saying it was an effort to boost foreign investment in the country – long a major source of revenue with thousands of high-end properties owned by Gulf and Western nationals.
“Concern stems from the fact that the country is hosting a large number of refugees, Syrians and Palestinians,” Mr Salamey said. “Naturalization may upset the demographic balance among confessional groups.”
There are just under 1 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN agency, although the government estimates upwards of 1.5 million are in the country. There are also officially some 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, forced out by the creation of Israel, although a census last year found only 174,422 actually remain living in Lebanon. The majority of both Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are Sunni Muslim, although there are a small number of Christian and other denominations among the communities.
Article 49 was annulled last month after it was challenged by the Kateab party, whose leader, Samy Gemayel, has also requested the list of all 375 persons naturalized.
"The Presidency of the Republic refused to give us a copy of the naturalization decree, even though it was the issuing body. We have been referred to the interior ministry, i.e. the implementing authority. We will go to the interior ministry on Monday," he tweeted on Saturday.
There have also been debates in the last year over the laws allowing Lebanese women to pass citizenship to children born to non-Lebanese men, which they are currently not allowed to do. That measure – which received a backlash from groups campaigning on the issue - failed to pass after disagreements over whether children with a Syrian or Palestinian father would be included.
Mr Gemayel has also requested more clarity on the process that led the Mr Aoun’s naturalization proposals.
Whether the president’s office might revoke some of the recently-granted citizenships was an open question on Sunday.
“Samer Fawwaz is being mentioned,” Mr Salamey said, referring to a prominent businessman from the city of Lattakia who is considered to be close to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Analysts have suggested Mr Fawwaz’s network of companies could help the Syrian government evade international sanctions.
Hani Mourtada, a former minister in the Syrian government, is also among the names that have been mentioned. Another is a prominent Syrian pro-government journalist.
“If true, this is a clear political deal that favours president Bashar Al Assad and helps him manoeuvre economic sanctions,” Mr Salamey said, adding it could also “indicate the return of Syrian influence in the new parliament.”
Even after Syria’s yearslong military occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2005, the spectre of greater Syrian domination in Lebanon’s political sphere has been a constant fear for many Lebanese. But the decree also speaks to other problems in Lebanon’s political system.
“It is about financial corruption,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. Lebanon is consistently ranked internationally as having endemic and entrenched corruption, where money and influence allow the wealthy to circumvent laws and regulations.
The LF was joined in its opposition by the Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Joumblatt.
A PSP statement released on Saturday called for “the competent official authorities to clarify all the circumstances of the issuance of this decree … and asks: What about the thousands of deserving Lebanese poor who have been ignored for the benefit of some of the privileged?”