In their mother's country, Lebanon protesters clamour for citizenship

Beirut (AFP) –


Draped in the Lebanese flag, 22-year-old Dana is bursting with pride at taking part in Lebanon's "revolution" -- even if her home country refuses to give her nationality.

Standing amongst other demonstrators in the capital, she explains she was born in Beirut to a Lebanese mother and has spent all her life in the country.

But like thousands of others in Lebanon, her father is a foreigner and, with Lebanese women unable to pass down their nationality, she has been deprived of citizenship.

"My parents divorced before I was even born. I grew up with my mother," Dana told AFP.

"I see myself as Lebanese, but they don't want to recognise my identity," she added.

The politicians who do not want to change the century-old law, she says, are "patriarchal" and "racist".

The right to citizenship is one of many long-standing demands to have found new life in the mass protests sweeping Lebanon since October 17.

The unprecedented show of cross-sectarian anger in the street brought down the government last month -- but many other of the demonstrators' demands remain unmet.

Outside the seat of government, 17-year-old Omar said he'd only ever been to Syria once, but was consistently suffering the consequences of his father's nationality.

Each year, he has to make his way to General Security headquarters to renew his residency permit -- like all other non-Lebanese.

"They treat us like foreigners. It's humiliating," he said, holding the Lebanese red-green-and-white flag.

- 'A natural right' -

Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) strongly denounced the law, noting that Lebanon lags far behind some other countries in the region on the issue.

Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen all provide equal citizenship rights to the children of both women and men, while Iraq and Mauritania confer nationality to those born in the country, according to HRW.

At a Beirut protest, Samer stood in a small crowd, raising his fist and chanting against political leaders he sees as inept and corrupt, the majority of whom have been in power since the end of the country's 15-year civil war in 1990.

"But we need it (citizenship) to work, to sign up our children at school and receive social security," said the 33-year-old, whose father is Palestinian and who is himself the father of three.

Despite activists campaigning to amend the 1925 nationality law, Lebanese authorities have been reluctant to do so.

In this small multiconfessional country of around 4.5 million, the political system relies on a fragile balance of power between communities.

Authorities fear that changing the law would open the door -- especially through marriages of convenience -- to the naturalisation of some of the majority-Sunni 1.5 million Syrians and around 174,000 Palestinians living in the country, according to official estimates.

Last year, then foreign minister Gibran Bassil suggested amending the law to allow for Lebanese mothers to pass on their nationality -- but only if the father was neither Palestinian nor Syrian.

"It's racism," said Randa Kabbani, coordinator of the "My Nationality, My Dignity" campaign demanding citizenship for children of Lebanese women.

Of the 10,000 impacted households identified by the campaign, some 60 percent are Syrian, 10 percent Egyptian, and just seven percent Palestinian, Kabbani said.

Others are Jordanian, Iraqi, American or hold European nationalities, she added.

Around 80 percent are Muslim and 20 percent Christian.

Samer said those pushing for reform are not demanding the naturalisation of all Palestinians living in Lebanon, "but only those born to a Lebanese mother. It's a natural right".

- 'Decent leaders' -

Kabbani said she was delighted the issue had gained new momentum in the ongoing protests.

"Before the movement, women were almost ashamed to speak up about it. But today they're clamouring loud and clear," she said.

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters took part in a march organised by "My Nationality, My Dignity" in the capital.

Volunteers with the campaign have erected a tent in the square by the office of the now deposed cabinet to discuss the issue.

When she is not protesting, Dana -- the university student -- helps spread the word among other protesters so they too can join in her fight.

But the young student says she is under no illusions.

Whether or not a new cabinet includes independent experts as demanded, the key to her finally obtaining her Lebanese citizenship will boil down to political will.

"The day decent leaders take power, the legal amendment will fly through," she said.