Local engagements in the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut: a case of depoliticisation?
The development of NGOs is commonly seen as leading to a depoliticisation of the Palestinian community in Lebanon because of their focus on development projects and social questions. Yet, I argue that engagement in these cases is better seen as a process of “politicisation under constraint” (Vairel and Zaki, 2011) rather than depoliticisation.
“NGOisation” or depoliticisation
Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the Palestinian refugee camps have seen a transformation in their political organisation. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have developed along with actors more directly labelled as political, notably parties and the Popular Committees (PCs) named by the parties, to play the role of municipalities in the camps. This development is partly linked to the shrinking of the partisan organisations’ resources after the departure of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation from the country in 1982.
The effect of this change on the politicisation of the camps’ communities has been debated among scholars in recent years. According to Islah Jad, the growing role of the NGOs in the Palestinian political world leads to a decrease in social movements and political mobilisation (2010), due to the NGOs’ organisational structure as much as their functioning by projects. Meanwhile, these actors diffused a formulation of the communities’ issues in technical and apolitical terms in order to mobilise international funding (Hanafi and Tabar, 2003). Finally, the emergence of actors in competition with the PCs, including the NGOs has been associated with a decline of trust towards politics in the camps (Kortam, 2011).
Seeing social and political engagement through the urban lens
This report is based on fieldwork led between November 2014 and May 2015 in the camps of Shatila, Burj al-Barajneh and Mar Elias, aiming to investigate the relationship between the space of the camps and social engagement within them. The main aim of this research is to understand the role of place-belonging in the shaping of activism, and how space matters in the types of mobilisation observed.
Data was collected via participant observation and 37 ethnographic interviews mainly with activists and cadres of three organisations – but also with donors and PC members – engaging in these camps on questions of urban services provision (such as electricity, water and sewage) in addition to humanitarian redistribution or community support. This engagement took the form of actions of lobbying, demonstration, and organisation of awareness raising campaigns consisting in debates with camp inhabitants or authorities. The three groups self-identified as upholding activism, and “activist” was used as a generic term in these organisations when referring to their members, in a situation between employment and volunteering. The first one is a Palestinian NGO mainly targeting Palestinian women; the second a group of local youth activists supported by a company specialised in funding urban development projects in the camps; the last one a self-sustained community centre created from youth activists in the camp of Burj al-Barajneh.
Rejection of the political appeared prominently in the discourse of most informants, who kept the political reference distant from their activity and claimed a clear distinction between “the social” [iǧtimāʿī] and “the political” [siyāsī]. This was particularly true for those who never engaged in other organisations but the NGOs. Yet this distinction was also prominent during the interviews of actors who openly talked politics and expressed the desire to realise social – and occasionally institutional – change through their engagement.
Talking services, avoiding politics
The informants – including non-members of the studied organisations – generally emphasised the importance of issues related to urban services and including education, the right to work, and access to medicine – all categorised as “problems of the camp” [mašākil al-muḫayyam]. These problems were mostly publicised by a group of professionalised association members. These activists resorted to representations and modes of action inspired by the practices of the international NGOs. The three organisations under study engaged in actions belonging both to contentious politics and social work.
Even when they took a broader perspective on the problems, most informants euphemised any political significance of their actions as “only wanting to improve people’s lives” or “wanting to do something for the camp”. In an interview following a demonstration that occurred in January 2015 concerning the problems of water, electricity, sewage and access of Syrian children to specific classes, a protester explained:
These demands are demands, I don’t know how to say they are everyday demands, for improving the life of people, enough with politics already. We do not demand a change of the system or anything like that. We do not care about the political problems the problems we care about are the problems of the people. These are everyday problems. […] Do you consider that the problem of the infrastructure, for instance, or the problem of education are political problems? […] For me it’s obvious that it’s not the same thing. The problems we talk about are everyday problems, that concerns the people in general, their needs. Their needs for living. These are not demands related to politics, these are not.
Avoiding the political was not specific to the NGOs. In early 2015, the group of local youth activists organised a series of meetings on the “problems of the camp” in Shatila and invited inhabitants, PC and party members (among which Fatah, the PFLP, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad), and NGOs. All actors, whatever their status, introduced themselves as “son of the camps” [ibn al-muḫayyam] or “daughter of the camps” [bint al-muḫayyam] and euphemised their political affiliations even if those were acknowledged. Despite these claims, the core of the debate remained the reform of the PCs, that was deemed inefficient. Thus, it appeared that claiming apolitism was not a sign of lack of political motives, but a requirement to talk about the “problems of the camp”.
“Depoliticisation”, an ambivalent category
Restricting the definition of engagement in social questions to a depoliticised engagement fits neither the representations emerging from the actors, nor the goals of the organisations. Indeed the interviews showed that the activists did not merely aim at providing a service and referred to their action as attempts to serve the general interest extending it to a general interest and identifying opponents. More than rejection of the political, the issue is in part defining to what extent a social engagement aimed at a whole community is political or not. To approach the political, when the idea of “being political” was delegitimised, activists had to claim apolitical-ness or question the definition of politics. This is illustrated by the interview with a cadre of the same organisation, in February 2015:
As soon as the Palestinian people is concerned, there is a political issue […].How can one person think when one is poor? That’s why if you’re improving the social… it is a political act in itself! […] You know, it can be seen as running away from politics, but the people who say “Bla bla it’s not doing politics” they don’t see that no, it is a political act. Whether it is perceived as politics or not.
Yet, in order to tackle issues identified as social, actors feel compelled to label it as apolitical, or non-partisan: the pressure comes from the funders and the public alike, not as much because of a depoliticisation of the actors but because of the constraints placed by the “NGO-type” vocabulary describing motives. Behind the clear rejection of the political lies a form of politicisation that does not tell its name. In the situation of the three camps of Beirut, direct political claims belong to the parties, and are not associated to social issues. In that context avoiding the political appears as a way to express contention.
The main pitfall of analysing social engagement in the camps in terms of depoliticisation seems to be the reification of the concept of political. By defining “politics” in a restricted fashion, the question of how collective issues are effectively approached in the camps is overlooked. The association of “political” to “partisan” was systematic, and what appeared in these three camps was that the rejection of a political character is seen as the only way for certain actors to legitimately tackle political issues.
- Bianchi S., 2012, “Towards a New National Imaginary? The Transformation of Social Work within the Palestinian Community in Lebanon”, in Caroline Abu-Sada and Benoît Challand (eds.), Le développement, une affaire d’ONG ? Associations, États et bailleurs dans le monde arabe, Paris, Beirut : Karthala, Ifpo, Iremam.
- Hanafi S. and Tabar L., 2005, The Emergence of a Palestinian Globalized Elite: Donors, International Organizations and Local NGOs, Jerusalem, Institute of Jerusalem Studies & Muwatin, The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.
- Jad I., 2010, “NGOs, between buzzwords and social movements”, in Andrea CORNWALL and Deborah EADE, Deconstructing Development Discourse. Buzzwords and Fuzzwords, Bourton on Dunsmore, Practical Action Publishing.
- Kortam M., 2011, “Politics, Patronage and Popular Committees in the Shatila Refugee Camp”, in Are KNUDSEN and Sari HANAFI (eds.), Palestinian refugees, identity, place and space in the Levant, London, Routledge.
- Vairel F. and Zaki L., 2011, “Politisation sous contrainte et politisation de la contrainte : outsiders politiques et outsiders de la ville au Maroc”, Critique internationale, vol. 1, n° 50.
Alex Mahoudeau a commencé, en octobre 2013, un doctorat en science politique à la School of Government and International Affairs de l’université de Durham. Depuis septembre 2015, il prolonge cette thèse au Department of Middle Eastern Studies du King’s College de Londres, sous la direction de Jeroen Gunning. Ses recherches portent sur l’analyse par l’espace des mouvements sociaux dans les camps de réfugiés palestiniens de Beyrouth de la période post-accords de Taëf. Le principal objectif de sa thèse est d’analyser la façon dont l’espace vécu des camps est employé comme médiation dans la formulation des problèmes publics et de la politisation en leur sein.