Alleging corruption, Lebanese parties to challenge president on citizenship decree

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Despite only 375 names being included in Mr Aoun’s proposal, the subject is so contentious it sparked a major response
David Enders
In this photo released by the Lebanese Government, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Government via AP)

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.