Lebanon is a tiny country, with a population of around six million; it could fit neatly between Philadelphia and Danbury, Connecticut. It has survived many crises over the past several decades: a brutal civil war from 1975 to 1990 that left 100,000 dead, a string of political assassinations since 2004 whose perpetrators have gone unpunished, and occupations by Israel and Syria. But Lebanon’s resilience is fraying. Its infrastructure is badly damaged and unemployment is high. It is also struggling to accommodate a large refugee population—500,000 Palestinians, many descended from those who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and nearly 1.5 million Syrians, a majority of them Sunni Muslims.
Most of the Syrian refugees I met in Lebanon do not want to be there—or in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt. They are fleeing intense fighting, ethnic cleansing, starvation, chemical attacks, and Russian air strikes that devastated Aleppo and other rebel-held areas. It is clear that they are not welcome in Lebanon, where they are increasingly seen as disrupting the country’s delicate sectarian balance among Shia Muslims, Druze, and Christians and as vulnerable to Islamist radicalization...
...Much of the hatred has been stirred up by the conniving foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, who in October famously said, “Yes, we are racist Lebanese,” adding, “and at the same time, we are open to the world, and no one has the right to lecture us about being humanitarian.” This was a jab at European countries that have taken a fraction of the refugees that Lebanon has.
Bassil is forty-seven and the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese army general. He is the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, also known as the Aounist Party, the largest Christian party and the second largest in Lebanon’s parliament. An engineer by training, he became foreign minister in 2014, and has his eye on the Lebanese election next May. His strategy is not sophisticated: “Bassil is trying to radicalize Lebanese people,” says Ziad el Sayegh, a senior adviser to the Ministry of State for Displaced Persons. “It’s simple. Raise fear in Lebanese society, polarize votes.” Many Lebanese find Bassil and his rhetoric odious. One political analyst refers to him as “Im-Bassile.” But like Nigel Farage, who played a large part in encouraging pro-Brexit sentiment, there are many who listen to him. “Bassil started very early on trying to gain political traction by creating a panic about the refugees,” says Nadim Shehadi, who is Lebanese, from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
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