BEIRUT: Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has responded to criticisms of a message that he posted on Twitter at the weekend about workers in his country. It sparked an angry response on social media, with many people describing his comment as racist and calling for his resignation.
On Saturday, he tweeted: “It is normal to defend Lebanese workers against any other foreign worker, whether Syrian, Palestinian, French, Saudi, Iranian or American. The Lebanese come first. Unfortunately, some people do not understand that the Lebanese interests come first, nor do they understand the meaning of the bond of blood.”
It came on the same day that Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement released a promotional video for a campaign encouraging businesses to hire Lebanese workers rather than foreigners. It shows campaigners visiting shops and telling Syrian workers to “go back to their country.”
On Monday, during a conference on “Active Diplomacy” in Beirut, Bassil addressed the controversy, saying his words had been “twisted.”
“My words have been misinterpreted and taken out of context,” he said. “When this happens, a correction is a must. I actually talked about Lebanese workers. Each state should give priority to its people for job opportunities and protect itself from illegal workers, and this what all of the states are doing.
“Lebanese people abroad are working according to the states’ needs and not against them, respecting the laws there. We call on any state to take necessary measures against any Lebanese expatriate who violates its laws, especially in Saudi Arabia, where we have a Lebanese community whose interests we should preserve.
“Our duty is to respect the state where we work and its laws. Countries, including Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, prioritize their own people in their laws. This is not racism. Defending the right of our people is not racist but patriotic. This is all I meant.”
His tweet sparked debate online, and while many were critical of Bassil’s comments, some supported him.
“Someone should remind him of Saudi Arabia’s efforts in reaching the Taif Agreement, back when the Lebanese were fighting, and he was hiding with his father-in-law 20 meters below the ground,” wrote Lebanese activist Nouf Al-Doussari, who called on Bassil to resign.
Naif bin Arwil wrote: “You have a Lebanese labor force that you stole, a Syrian labor force begging you that you cut off, a Palestinian work force that turned to you and that you humiliated while you kissed the French hands, humiliated, and finally an Iranian force trying to destroy you that you obeyed. However, the Saudi generous hand was extended to you and you bit it. Shame on you. And I am only talking here about Lebanon’s traitors.”
Lebanese MP Paula Yaacoubian called on Bassil to “apologize to the Lebanese as it is impossible for one to be responsible and say anything just to increase their cheap popularity.”
Lebanese State Minister for Presidential Affairs Salim Jreissati visited Dar Al-Fatwa on Monday, following Bassil’s tweet and speeches by others criticizing the political Sunnah last week, which provoked the anger of both Grand Mufti of Lebanon Sheikh Abdul Latif Deryan and the Future Movement.
After the meeting, Jreissati expressed surprise at “the extent reached by the latest political speeches.”
He added: “Lebanese President Michel Aoun considers that political speech is determined by the laws in force, including the Charter of National Reconciliation and Constitution, i.e. the Taif Agreement and the constitution, and so we insisted on the need not to attribute statements to anyone other than those who voice them, and not to build up escalatory stances based on such statements.”
He stressed that “President Aoun considers that Prime Minister Saad Hariri is the most powerful...in terms of representation and he speaks in the name of the Lebanese government, according to our constitution, after drafting the policies, including foreign policy, and taking decisions in unanimity and majority of votes in the Cabinet. This is the Taif Agreement and the constitution that we make sure to respect.”
The Lebanese-Saudi Business Council called on Lebanese officials “to avoid dragging Lebanon into intense regional conflicts and pushing it to take positions that contravene its principles and the natural and historical partnerships with its Arab neighbors, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The council said it relied on “the Saudi authorities to understand the sensitive situation in Lebanon and to deal with Lebanon based on the historical ties between the two brotherly countries.”