BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun has signed a controversial decree granting citizenship to some 350 people, multiple sources confirmed to The Daily Star Thursday. The move sparked a wave of backlash.
“It is unacceptable for this naturalization decree to pass without accountability,” former MP Boutros Harb tweeted Thursday, adding, “It should be revoked by the judiciary.”
Naturalization has been a controversial topic since the outbreak of the 1975-90 Civil War, mainly due to its implication on the country’s sectarian balance. Of the 375 names on the latest decree, 260 were Christian and 115 were Muslim.
While it is not uncommon for outgoing presidents to sign naturalization decrees, Aoun diverged by doing so halfway through his second year. “During the mandates of all Lebanese presidents, naturalization decrees were issued. The only difference is that presidents issued the decree around the end of their mandate, while this one is the first for President Aoun, who did not wait until the end of his tenure to issue the decree,” one political source said.
Issues like this are traditionally agreed upon between politicians if, and only if, there is a balance between sects. But the political source said that this naturalization decree would be followed by other similar decrees during Aoun’s tenure. Such decrees require the signature of the president, in addition to that of the prime minister and interior minister.
The decree comes after judges struck down Article 49 of the 2018 Budget Law, which afforded temporary residency to foreigners who acquire ownership of a house or apartment in Lebanon.
Critics claimed that the measure would have allowed for the permanent settlement of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Constitutional Council annulled the article on May 14.
One of the candidates who is set to gain Lebanese citizenship agreed that the latest naturalization decree was controversial. “There was definitely talk about sectarian balance and that there were a lot of Christian names put forth, so they [officials] wanted some Muslim candidates,” the soon-to-be Lebanese citizen told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.
Reports have meanwhile surfaced that the successful candidates paid significant sums of money. “It does seem as if just rich or privileged people are able to get this [citizenship],” the successful candidate said, despite denying having personally paid money for the citizenship.
The candidate said they first learned about the decree months ago, when a close friend said Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk had informed him that such a decree would be issued. “I did, however, have to prove ties to Lebanese ancestry. I know other people who originally submitted their names, but were rejected because they didn’t have any Lebanese roots,” the person noted.
But the political source expressed surprise at criticism and the media reports that characterized the decree as “scandalous” for including a number of businessmen and affluent figures that had allegedly “paid” to be granted Lebanese citizenship.
The source argued that the decree would be issued “without problems,” and also downplayed reports that suggested it was illegal and might be challenged before the Constitutional Council for allegedly being issued under a caretaker government.
If someone wants to appeal the decree, yet another source said, they have to prove the decree has had a negative effect, including but not limited to non-material damage.
A Free Patriotic Movement parliamentary source also told The Daily Star that “all names that are concerned with us are not wealthy.”
Another political source also argued that the people naturalized by the decree came from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.
Among those being naturalized are Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Saudi, Emirati, Moroccan, Algerian, American, African, Indian and Sri Lankan nationals, as well as people from various European countries, the source said. – Additional reporting by Sabine Darrous