Migration and Formation of the Political Elite in Lebanon

11 February, 2021

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Migration and the Formation of the Political Elite in Lebanon, wherein authors Paul Tabar and Wahib Maalouf approach political elite formation in Lebanon in relation to Lebanese emigrants returning from the diaspora, without neglecting the role played by expatriated Lebanese.

Recently the literature of emigration has gone beyond once prevalent nation–centered methodologies to instead cross the boundaries of nations and nationalisms. Studies now reveal many aspects of the role of the expatriate in domains of the home country’s economic, social, cultural, and political life. However, these studies rarely address systematically the role emigration plays in the production and reproduction of the home country’s political elite. Consideration of this role is especially needed in a country such as Lebanon, where the number of returned emigrants in the country is almost twice the number of resident nationals. To address this aspect of emigration, the book’s 208 pages uses a theoretical framework derived from writings of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and semi-structured interviews conducted with individuals of emigrant backgrounds who figure among Lebanese political elites.

Concept of Political Elite

In the first chapter, Tabar and Maalouf review the academic literature’s various approaches to the concept of political elite up to the present, discussing sources of the formation of the political elite seen in current literature on the topic. They argue that emigration needs to be part of any approach, as it is a source for the formation of the political elite in the home country.

The authors hold that “this holds true especially in our era of emigration, and especially in the “Third World” countries, where migration is a continuous and almost routinely recurring phenomenon. Lebanon is an exemplary case study in which we examine different forms of migration related to the process of political elite formation in the “mother country” – returning migration, transnational migration, and the diaspora.”

Relying in their analysis on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the transferability of capital, they suggest that by broadening Bourdieu’s theoretical framework beyond the geographical boundaries of the nation-state “we can understand how economic capital acquired through migration can be converted into proxy political capital – and into the acquisition of elite status or other forms of political capital in the home country”.

Diaspora and the Birth of Greater Lebanon

In the second chapter, the authors highlight the prominent activity and efforts made by emigrant individuals and associations in the Lebanese Diaspora to realise goals of Lebanon's liberation from Ottoman rule and establishment of an independent Lebanese entity.

The role of the Lebanese Diaspora took two forms, the authors state: the first, historical and literary narratives justifying the creation of this Lebanese entity for the receipt of what they call “cultural-historical” and “cultural-literary” transfers to the mother country-in-the-process-of-formation. Here there were prominent contributions from emigrants such as Boulos Njeim, Youssef al-Souda, and Gibran Khalil Gibran); the second, adoption of political positions with initiatives and activities aimed at achieving the national goals, or at sending “political transfers” to the mother country-in-formation. Here, the Diaspora played a supportive role in the establishment of Greater Lebanon during the First World War, and subsequently during the struggle of the victorious Western countries over shares of the Ottoman bequest, between 1918 and 1920).

Historical background

Chapter Three presents a historical overview of the role that migration played influencing political processes in the period 1943-1990, from the First Lebanese Republic’s establishment to the establishment of the Second Republic.

Tabar and Maalouf show how emigrant and diaspora economic capital played different roles in the process through which concerned politicians assumed elite status in Lebanon between 1943 and 1990. Such roles could be supportive, as for traditional political leaderships in southern Lebanon and Zahle such as those of Kamel al-Asaad, Kazem al-Khalil and Joseph Skaf. Economic capital in this instance played a sometimes-significant role in the reproduction of these traditional political leaderships and in their continuing elite status – as well as for opponents of these traditional leaders who wanted a greater share in the Lebanese sectarian system, such as Musa al-Sadr and Nabih Berri. Economic capital played a complementary role in the emergence of new political elites such as Rashid Baydoun, and an essential role in the emergence of new political elites such as those seen in Hussein al-Owaini, Emile al-Bustani and Najib Salha, and of new political elites at the parliamentary level, such as those of Suleiman Arab, Mikhail al-Dibs and Youssef Hammoud .

Indicators and Data

In Chapter Four, the authors identify general patterns in the data gathered from interviews and secondary sources, to shed light on how different forms of diaspora capital played differing roles in the assumption of elite status by the various parties in the Lebanese political arena.

Tabar and Maalouf discuss commonalities drawn from their interviews and from the relevant secondary sources, examining data relating to eight political elites and a collection of secondary sources. They then assess information garnered from interviews with 26 members of Lebanese political elites, bringing the total number of elite cases studied to 34. Most of the political elites studied in this chapter hailed from modest social backgrounds, or from the middle or upper middle class. Emigration thus played a dual role in the trajectories of these elites, enabling progressive social uplift (by means of diaspora or emigration wealth) as well as political ascendancy (through acquisition of the status of a political elite).

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