Published on August 6th, 2017 | by Zach Medeiros0
Fear and Loathing in Lebanon: An Interview with the Socialist Forum
On the morning of June 30, the Lebanese Army raided two Syrian refugee camps near the border town of Arsal, under the magical guise of anti-terrorism. During these raids, at least several people were killed, including a young girl, and some soldiers were wounded in an alleged suicide bombing. Following the operation, the Army rounded up over 350 refugees accused of links to terrorist groups. On July 4, the Army announced that four Syrians who had been arrested died in detention as a result of “chronic diseases and climatic conditions.” Photos that soon emerged on social media suggested a different story, however. The bodies of the men, who have since been identified as Mustafa Abdulkarim Abse, Anas Hussein al-Hasiki, Khaled Hussein el-Mleis, and Othman Merhi el-Mleishad, were riddled with severe bruises, lacerations, head trauma, and other signs of torture. A Human Rights Watch investigation found that abuses against the Arsal detainees were likely routine and brutal, and that a fifth man may have been killed in custody as well.
Despite widespread calls for an independent inquiry into the case, which were partially echoed even by Lebanon’s Human Rights Minister, the Army did everything in its power to squash any real probe, pressuring the families of the deceased to bury the bodies immediately before they could be examined, confiscating evidence, and finally concluding in their own internal investigation that there was “no evidence of violence” in the men’s deaths.
According to the Socialist Forum, a revolutionary socialist organization based in Lebanon, “a large group of Lebanese activists gathered on July 13, 2017, to organize a solidarity rally for Syrian refugees, against racism, and against the repression that occurred following the events in Arsal. The goal was to attempt to restore, and strengthen, the relations between Lebanese and Syrians, hoping to counter the discourse of hatred and racism. The Socialist Forum called for a sit-in in solidarity with Syrian refugees to take place on Tuesday July 18th, 2017, at the Samir Kassir Square in Beirut. Three members of the organisation were in charge of getting the permit clearance from the Municipality of Beirut, following the usual legal procedures for organizing a protest in Lebanon. However, given the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that followed the widespread incitement campaign that was launched by a shady intelligence Facebook page called the “Syrian People’s Union in Lebanon”, and taking into account the numerous threats received by some of the organizers, the Socialist Forum decided to cancel the sit-in.
As the Socialist Forum and its allies have detailed, racism and hatred towards Syrians and other refugee populations in Lebanon, such as Palestinians, is rampant, exacerbated by the incitement of politicians and the deep exploitation of displaced people as workers. The disempowered, as usual, are being scapegoated to distract from the problems created and propagated by those who rule. Incapable of resolving the contradictions of late capitalism, the ruling classes of Lebanon, like their counterparts around the world, are embracing authoritarianism, “populist” bigotry, and war/state terror as fake solutions. Recently, a group of nearly 300 Lebanese intellectuals, writers, activists, journalists and artists published a public article and petition condemning anti-Syrian chauvinism and the growing “fascist climate” in their country.
To reach a better understanding of this dismal situation and raise awareness about it, I reached out to the Socialist Forum, and on July 19-22, I conducted an email interview with one of their members, Marwan El Khazen. I have lightly edited the text for the sake of clarity.
Zach: For those who aren’t familiar with the Socialist Forum, can you give some background on your organization?
SF: The Socialist Forum is a revolutionary socialist organization based in Lebanon. Our two publications are the monthly publication al Manshour (accessible in print, at al-manshour.org, and on Facebook as well as a seasonal joint publication with other Arab country-based revolutionary socialist organizations (paper and permanentrevolution-journal.org).
They have been in line for years with our struggle against all forms of imperialism, along with the structural racism, misogyny, and all the other structural discriminations that capitalism is founded upon, and through which it wages the material and ideological war on the working class, be it in the stage of production or in that of distribution, through laws and law enforcement but also informal militia and fascist groups ready to crack down on dissidence by invoking nationalistic and patriotic discourse, as is increasingly the case currently.
Zach: I plan on including some background about the Arsal raids, the torture and murder of the detained men, and the subsequent repression. In your own words, can you describe the current situation for the Socialist Forum, Syrians in Lebanon, and Lebanon as a whole?
SF: Apart from the occasional threats, that are, granted, currently much more frequent than what we are used to, the Socialist Forum does not seem to be in immediate danger and is rather gaining more and more positive attention and traction.
Syrians in Lebanon, however, are indeed in a grave situation. Violence against them is being more and more frequent and normalized under the pretense of the psychotic war on terror, and due process is increasingly unapologetically dismissed. Deaths under torture cannot even be properly investigated, and in our case a simple solidarity stand earns us a very violent backlash and a dangerous defamation campaign.
Physical violence aside, the Syrian refugees lack basic educational and medical services and infrastructure, are not allowed to work in most jobs and in most places, they have a curfew. They do work though, and contribute enormously to the economy, be it through their labor or through the massive assistance Lebanon receives as refugee aid. Somehow, as workers they are not allowed to even go on strike and as refugees they have access to only a fraction of their aid and must face rising prices when the unregulated service industry exploits their weak position to profit from indirect aid. In the end of course, and to add insult to injury, they are framed as both stealing jobs and being lazy recipients of aid. And the more the politicians want to impose themselves, the more they become harsh and violent towards refugees. All that is taking unprecedented magnitude with the approaching parliamentary elections and of course, the war on terror context and battles like the one in Arsal, as well as the regional plan to force refugees to go back to “safe” (read: safe for Assad to oppress at will) places in Syria.
Some have also denounced the fact that anti-terror and racist discourse have been used to turn the public’s eyes away from the salary and tax bills being passed at the moment.
Zach: According to the statement on the al-Manshour website, the incitement campaign against you was initiated by a Facebook page by the name of the “Syrian People’s Union in Lebanon.” What do you know about this so-called union, and the people that may be behind it?
SF: We don’t know them, we just know they willingly masqueraded as us or at least as our close allies, while failing to cite us whenever they took pictures of previous demonstrations we had participated in, or when they took our statement as is and published it as their own, or when they co-opted our solidarity stand with refugees event and made it into an anti-army demonstration, putting everyone in danger in this tense context.
All informal analysis obviously points to it being a fake page orchestrated by Lebanese and/or Syrian intelligence services. But we have no proof. Yet.
Zach: I noticed that your statements about this incident avoid mentioning Hezbollah by name, although the party is clearly not neutral on this question. Is this for safety reasons?
SF: A quick search of the keyword “Hezbollah” on our website shows how vocal we have been against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria ever since it started, as well as against their treatment of refugees. Recent events simply had us focused on the torture and the meddling with justice that the army seems to be responsible for.
Zach: The Socialist Forum did not organize this rally and sit-in alone. Can you tell us more about your comrades, both Syrian and Lebanese?
SF: Many organizations and activists have been organizing events such as this one since 2011.
Zach: I’ve read reports indicating that Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army are planning a full offensive on Arsal, perhaps with further assistance from the Assad regime. In your view, how do most Lebanese feel about this?
(Since this interview, Hezbollah’s victory has driven some 7,000 Syrians from Arsal to Idlib, in a clear echo of the Assadist powers’ forced transfer policies within Syria. Most of the people expelled are civilians.)
SF: The predominant discourse seems to be in line with this offensive. It’s a very nationalistic and pro-war on terror environment.
Zach: Finally, how can readers best help the Socialist Forum and other comrades fighting to support Syrian refugees and other oppressed people in Lebanon?
SF: Get in touch with us [e.g., http://www.al-Manshour.org], write us and have journalists write about the dangerous fascist and authoritarian regimes rising in the region and the need for a new and strong left that denounces these regimes but also denounces both U.S. and Russian imperialism. Follow us on Facebook, read our publications, and if you’re in town, meet with us.