New Texts Out Now: Wendy Pearlman, "Emigration and the Resilience of Politics in Lebanon"

Posted on May 07, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Tadween will be posting excerpts from the Arab Studies Journal's Twentieth Anniversary issue. What follows is an interview with one of the authors as well as an excerpt of her article from the issue.

Cover of "Arab Studies Journal," Spring 2013

Wendy Pearlman, “Emigration and the Resilience of Politics in Lebanon.” Arab Studies Journal Vol. XXI No. 1 (Spring 2013).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article? 

Wendy Pearlman (WP): Five years ago I began to read widely about Lebanon in preparation for a trip there. While there are so many fascinating things about the country, I was most intrigued by its one-hundred-and-fifty-year history with international emigration. There is hardly a corner of the globe in which Lebanese have not settled, and the worldwide diaspora of Lebanese origin outnumbers those living within Lebanon’s borders. Today, an estimated ten to twenty-five percent of Lebanese nationals reside outside their homeland. Lebanon leads the developing world in receipt of remittances per capita.

This rich history of migration has a manifest impact on Lebanon’s economy, social fabric, cosmopolitanism, and place in the world. Many historians, anthropologists, and scholars from other disciplines had studied various dimensions of these issues. As a political scientist, I also wondered about its implications for politics. Yet when I turned to conventional political science works on Lebanon, I scarcely found mention of outmigration. Rather, they focused on such themes as sectarianism, clientelism, the weakness of the state, and interventions by regional and international forces. For the most part, migration crept into the discussion only with regard to its effect on the demographic balance among Lebanon’s confessional groups. 

I believed this left unaddressed a host of questions that were perhaps less visible, but no less important. For example, how does emigration shape access to and struggles over power in the country left behind? How does the outflow of people and inflow of migrant monies affect the quality of democracy, the role of money in politics, and prospects for change? What are the political consequences of differences in the extent to which various social groups migrate, return, and remain connected? In the end, who benefits and who loses from their compatriots’ migration abroad, and how have these outcomes changed over time?

As I read more in the general field of migration studies, I saw that the relative neglect of questions such as these stretched beyond Lebanon and indeed the Middle East. Scholars have long scrutinized the impact of immigration on countries where migrants settle. We arguably know less about the effect of emigration on countries from whence migrants come. Examination of these issues in the Lebanese case stood to make a contribution to a much larger literature.

So in 2008, I decided to launch this new research. My hope was that study of emigration might be able to offer a new angle from which to understand Lebanese politics, while examination of Lebanon might be able to contribute new information on the effect of emigration upon sending states. I did five weeks of field research in Lebanon that summer, and returned for another four months in summer 2010. During this time I did more than a hundred interviews with analysts, activists, academics, journalists, government officials, political party representatives, businesspeople, and resident and expatriate citizens. I also gathered every piece of data I could find that in some way related to the question of emigration and its consequences. I photocopied thousands of pages worth of documents, newspaper clippings, books, articles, and theses in Arabic, English, and French, many of them unpublished or unavailable outside Lebanon.

I am still yet to organize all of these materials, no less read and analyze them! On the basis of what I have been able to examine thus far, however, I’ve written three papers on different aspects of emigration and politics in Lebanon. This article in Arab Studies Journal is one.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

WP: This article situates emigration in debates about the sources of resilience in political systems in the Arab world. Decades of scholarship studied how regimes endured despite popular discontent with authoritarianism, corruption, denial of basic freedoms, and lack of accountability. Many explanations attributed regimes’ persistence to the strategies that leaders deliberately used to sustain their grip on power, co-opt elites, and thwart opposition. My article takes a different approach. It shifts attention from the purposeful design of political structures to processes that occur at the societal level. My aim is to explore how even seemingly apolitical phenomena can sustain an existing structure and practice of politics by defusing potential challenges to the status quo. One such phenomenon, prominent in the Middle East and North Africa as throughout the developing world, is emigration.

At first glance, Lebanon appears an odd case with which to probe relationships underpinning the resilience of political systems in the Arab world. It has been more prone to upheaval than to enduring domination by a single person, family, or political party.  Nevertheless, in fundamental regards, the nature of politics in Lebanon is similar to that in other Arab countries. Lebanon is arguably characterized by clientelism, endemic corruption, weak rule of law, personalization of power, and insufficient provision of social services and economic opportunity. As opinion polls and countless less formal indicators attest, citizens are “fed up” with the lack of accountability in public life. Yet despite complaints, calls for reform, and recurrent crises, elections return the same politicians to office year after year. 

What explains the resistance to changing the basic structure and practice of Lebanese politics, despite broad dissatisfaction with the system’s shortcomings? Some attribute the resilience to deep-seated sectarian identities or the maneuvers of leaders who share an interest in preserving the status quo. These explanations are telling, yet insufficient. The status quo is viable only to the degree that external sources of income help fuel clientelist politics, offer a crutch for the state’s balance of payments, and sustain families despite the inability of the trade and service-based economy to generate employment.

In this article I argue that emigration is a vital source of such income. It crucially alleviates pressure on the labor market and generates millions of dollars in remittances.  In addition, I posit that emigration helps sustain the Lebanese political status quo through four mechanisms. It serves as a “safety valve” that prevents Lebanon’s residents from reaching the level of socioeconomic distress that the poor state of the economy, political accountability, and public goods provision might otherwise induce. Relatedly, emigration offers an “exit option” that reduces citizens’ imperative of working for political reform. Thirdly, “brain drain” migration also depletes the ranks of those particularly well positioned to bring new ideas and skills into public life. Finally, outmigration fortifies clientelism by inviting a continual infusion of migrant wealth into politics.

The article discusses in more depth each of these mechanisms connecting emigration to the resilience of the political system. It illustrates each with data from Lebanon, incorporating both published sources and excerpts from my original interviews. 

J: What other research have you done related to this topic?

WP: This article is a complement to two other pieces that I’ve written thus far on Lebanese migration. One, an article published in March in Politics & Society, titled “Emigration and Power: A Study of Sects in Lebanon, 1860-2010,” takes a longer historical view. I recognize that a small body of research considers whether outmigration and remittances are “good” or “bad” for developing countries in terms of economic growth, democracy, or civil peace. Those queries highlight the important question of whether emigration is harmful or beneficial in normative terms. Yet, I suggest, it fails to ask for whom emigration is beneficial in the sense of realpolitik.

Against this backdrop, I ask, how do patterns of emigration from a country shape access to power within that country? When does it aid groups in their competition for influence or have the opposite effect? I argue that, for competing groups in the homeland, outmigration can entail a trade-off between losing demographic numbers inside the country and accessing material resources from outside it. The effect of that trade-off on access to and struggles over power evolves in accord with patterns of who emigrates, to where they emigrate, and when. The first factor identifies the actors in question. The second and third condition the kinds of earnings that they acquire, the character of their connectedness to the homeland, and their likelihood of returning. Depending on the interaction of these factors, emigration can contribute to generating, accentuating, or ameliorating disparities in the country of origin.

I illustrate these relationships with evidence from Lebanon since the start of mass outmigration from Mount Lebanon in the mid-nineteenth century through the present. I concentrate on the balance of power among sectarian communities. While I do not wish to reify the coherence of sects or discount the competition and diversity that exists within sects, I adopt that focus as a first cut at the question of who benefits and who loses from compatriots’ outmigration. The article traces how Lebanon’s first migratory wave concentrated material benefits and population deficits in one community. Over time, the broadening of emigration to include other regions and groups diffused the profits of labor abroad. Due to changes in destinations and historical circumstances, however, many later migrants remained more connected to their homeland. This aided social mobility for their communities without sapping resident strength, as had previous ways. Outmigration thereby helped redistribute human and material resources among sects, and hence the demographic and material foundations of competition for power.

My third paper, titled “Competing for the Diaspora,” looks at how groups inside Lebanon compete over and through their fellow citizens and kin abroad. I began thinking about this this question when one Lebanese-American told me, “They [residents] view us [expatriates] as an ATM machine.” I came upon a similar comment in a 1938 account by a Lebanese journalist, who lamented, “It is regrettable that we still view the emigrant as a milking cow. No sooner does he set foot on the soil of the homeland, we converge on him” (Kamil Muruwweh, Nahnu fi Ifriqia, p. 310).

I begin my analysis with the premise that Lebanon features a society that is divided by sectarian and other cleavages, where a large number of political groups battle for office and the economy is highly reliant upon external funds. Each of these realms of public life produces heated contests in which residents might see diasporans as uniquely positioned to offer resources that they need in order to be competitive at home. Different interests in the homeland work to attract those resources using a range of strategies, from online networking to flying expatriates home at election time, and from legal reform to the Miss Lebanese Diaspora beauty pageant.

I argue that three realms of competition for the Lebanese diaspora are prominent: social competition over demography, political competition for votes, and economic competition for money. Scrutiny of dynamics in these realms shows how homeland groups can transport domestic struggles from sending countries to new geographical terrains. At the same time, it casts light on the nature of struggles back home and reveals the elements that constitute power in those struggles. 

J: How does this article connect to your previous research? What other projects are you working on now?

WP: Apart from this foray into Lebanese migration studies, my research has focused on social movements and mobilization in the Middle East. In this context, I’ve written half a dozen articles or book chapters on the Palestinian struggle, as well as two books. My first book, Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada (Nation Books, 2003), is a collection of Palestinians’ personal stories about the second Intifada. My second book, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2011), examines nearly one hundred years of Palestinian history as a case with which to identify how the internal cohesion of a self-determination movement affects its use of nonviolent or violent protest tactics.

The Arab uprisings since late 2010 have encouraged me to think about dynamics of protest and dissent in new ways. In particular, I have been captivated intellectually and moved personally by the saying, “The barrier of fear has broken” (inkasar hajez al-khawf). I wondered what understandings we might develop about these historic events if we studied this expression from an academic angle. As a first effort in that direction, I dove into literature on the social psychology of emotions and used it to develop some ideas about how dispiriting feelings of fear, and likewise futility, contributed to upholding authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, whereas new, emboldening emotions were part of mobilization against them. I believe that this role of emotions points to affective dimensions of political action that cannot be explained by the perspectives dominant in my discipline, especially the assumption that people act on the basis of instrumentally rational calculations. I develop these points in an article that will appear in the June issue of Perspectives on Politics. It considers the contribution of emotions to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the non-occurrence of an uprising in Algeria. 

I am currently exploring similar themes in a new research project on Syria. I spent five weeks in Jordan last fall, during which I interviewed some sixty Syrian refugees about their experiences in the revolt. I asked them such questions as: What does the idea of “breaking the barrier of fear” mean to you? Did it happen in your own life and, if so, how, when, and where? What was it like to participate in protest? Starting with these questions, conversations typically flowed freely, and I had the chance to learn about various aspects of how the uprising began and developed in particular communities. Though I am still transcribing, translating, and analyzing my interviews, I am already seeing fascinating patterns in the ways that participation in protest was personally transformative, socially embedded, and deeply shaped by values and moral principles. To access a broader range of experiences, I plan to do a second round of interviews this summer with Syrian refugees in Turkey.

As we know, the uprising in Syria has transformed from a nonviolent groundswell to a complex and heart-wrenching conflict with regional dimensions and catastrophic proportions. Given the daily headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it began when ordinary people went out into the streets to assert their dignity and claim their political voice. To do so, they first had to overcome a long-entrenched sense of fear, or muster the ability to act despite fear. My hope is to understand, and to honor, this extraordinary show of courage by gathering personal testimonials from those who experienced it. This is a privilege for me as a political scientist, because it reminds me what politics is all about.

Excerpt from “Emigration and the Resilience of Politics in Lebanon” 

The first proposed mechanism by which emigration contributes to the persistence of political structures and practices in Lebanon is by serving as a “safety valve.” In Lebanon and elsewhere, emigration and its corollary of migrant remittances relieve social, political, and economic discontent that might otherwise become a burden on political elites. Outmigration is akin to a leak in a pressure cooker, dispelling discontent so that it does not reach the point of explosion. Frederick Jackson Turner popularized this notion when he famously argued that the frontier of the American West functioned as an escape route that reduced the probability of unrest in the East. This theory has been carried forward in analyses of contemporary migration from the global South to the industrialized North, which is likewise seen as relieving the strain of demographic growth and diffusing potential instability stemming from people’s unmet aspirations. 

These safety valve dynamics can be identified in the Lebanese context. In the view of historian Fawwaz Traboulsi, the dynamics have been in place since the aborted popular revolts of the mid-1800s. He argues that one of the reasons that the land question went unsettled in Lebanon was that peasants began migrating abroad. Had they remained, socioeconomic hardship might have impelled them to sustain a greater challenge to feudal structures. The fact that many instead sought livelihoods overseas sapped the impetus for agitation for political transformation. A similar dynamic may be present in the contemporary era. Lebanon’s economy, based on trade and services, has long fallen short of producing sufficient employment. As of 2011, unemployment was between twelve and fourteen percent, reaching twenty percent among people under the age of twenty-five. Economists project that these figures would be considerably higher if outmigration were not relieving the labor market of job seekers it cannot accommodate. According to economist and pollster Riad Tabbarah, unemployment surveys carried out in June often yield higher rates than those carried out in September. The former month catches university graduates while they are waiting for the results of job and visa applications; by the latter date they have either found work in Lebanon or left the country. There was a natural experiment that further proved the rule. Unemployment rates shot up from about twelve percent in 2001 to twenty-two percent in 2002. Tabbarah attributes this increase to restrictions on immigration from the Middle East to the West in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. “All the people that were going to the States and Europe got stuck here,” he says. 

Normal flows of outmigration thus help to prevent the emergence in Lebanon of a large population of unemployed persons of the kind who played a major role in street protests elsewhere in the Arab world in 2011. It relieves the country of those who might otherwise press greater demands upon the state for job creation, basic welfare services, or political accountability. Like outmigration, workers’ remittances function as a safety valve allowing social and economic discontent to dissipate among those who remain in the home country. By increasing the purchasing power of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, monetary transfers from loved ones abroad reduce demands on elites for accountability and reform. A historically weak state, as well as the experience of state collapse during the civil war, trained Lebanese society to manage with minimal government provision of public goods. Remittances have long helped to fill the gap—primarily as subsidies to individual families, but also as a source of investment in schools, charities, infrastructure, and houses of worship.

For some, remittances do not simply relieve economic pressure, but even enable a life of ease and luxury. A Lebanese blogger remarks that, due to the diaspora—which he dubs “Lebanon’s sugar daddy”—there are two kinds of employees in the country: those who do and do not receive remittances. His elaboration is telling:

The first kind is made of the people who are stuck in the rat race. They struggle to make ends meet and to save at the end of each month. They sometimes have two jobs. They are always angry at [sic] the government and are constantly complaining from low pay. Their ultimate goal is to find a rich spouse, a job in the Gulf or an immigration ticket to Canada.

The second kind is…people who net $900 a month but drive $70,000 cars. They work for pleasure, prestige, or for the pursuit of a sense of accomplishment and growth, but not to pay the bills….Their pay-checks are their disposable incomes, but the essentials (accommodation, utilities, transportation, cell-phone bills, health-insurance) are simply “taken care of.”

This stereotyping is of course just a caricature, but there is nothing that can symbolize the Lebanese economy better than that second category.

Numerous commentaries echo this idea that migration, matched only by war, is the main source of economic mobility in Lebanon. “Those who stay [in Lebanon] are either already rich or will never be financially stable until they leave,” a writer for the Daily Star observes. In analyst Oussama Safa’s words, “If you see someone and he’s poor, you know he has no one outside. If you see someone and he’s rich, you know his kids are abroad.” The upshot is a strange disconnect in Lebanon between salaries and income. According to Tabbarah, many people are socially middle class (in terms of standard of living and consumption patterns) even though they are economically lower class (in terms of wages).


[Excerpted from “Emigration and the Resilience of Politics in Lebanon,” by Wendy Pearlman, by permission of the author. © 2013 The Arab Studies Journal. For more information, or to purchase this issue or subscribe to the journal, click here.]


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