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Mukhtars in the middle: Connecting state, citizens and refugees


By Nora Stel

Lebanon’s political set-up differs significantly from that of the region’s monarchical and authoritarian countries. Its consociational system is both remarkably protracted in its sectarianism and distinctly volatile in its elite bargaining. Lebanese governance, consequently, is characterized by a multiplicity of (both state and non-state) political authorities and a plurality of (both de jure and de facto) political institutions. Lebanon, in short, can be considered a “hybrid political order” in which “diverse and competing authority structures, sets of rules, logics of order, and claims to power co-exist, overlap, and intertwine.”

In such a hybrid political order, authorities that can bridge the polarized political landscape and navigate the deadlocked bureaucracy and its informal parallel institutions are particularly important to maintain some form of stability and political coherence.  Such mediating authorities are most significant in the local space of the urban neighborhood where “the street” becomes increasingly detached from “the state”—or at least from any constructive connotation with stateness. While Beirut is the seat of government power, the city is fragmented and state authority is spatially contested in many of its neighborhoods. For instance, various political parties rather than state institutions control both the access to and the perception of many of the capital’s neighbourhoods. The institution of the mukhtar, which is often attributed a connecting and consensual quality, might be particularly relevant in this context – even more so under the current pressure exerted by the flow of refugees, and thegarbage crisis.

An Institution between Redundancy and Resilience

The mukhtar is an elected neighborhood- or village-level state representative. He (and in very exceptional cases, she) is responsible for issuing residence documents and personal status papers (granting birth and marriage certificates, preparing ID cards and passports, and authenticating photos). In a broader sense, he safeguards social relations in the community and represents his constituency vis-à-vis other state institutions. As such, it is the “lowest” and “localest,” but also the most proximate and spatially intimate tier of the Lebanese state structure. The institution, installed in an 1861 Ottoman administrative reform, now falls under the ministry of Interior and Municipalities. Nevertheless, it is organizationally independent from the municipality. Mukhtars directly report to the district governor (or qaimaqam). In the absence of substantial decentralization, this independence from the municipal administration enables mukhtars to function as a counterweight to mayors (but also generates competition between them).

In a comprehensive study of the status of mukhtars and their role in strengthening civil peace, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) highlighted the historical importance  of these leaders as community mediators. It concluded that, despite a continuous relegation of mukhtars’ tasks and responsibilities, their relevance as “reconciliation magistrates” still holds potency today. Yet, many observers argue that the post-civil war reinstallation and development of the municipal structure have reduced the relevancy of the mukhtar.

Under the Ottomans, the mukhtar primarily managed taxation and oversaw the (financial) affairs of the village or neighborhood. These responsibilities were further extended and codified in the “Mukhtar Law” issued in 1928 under the French Mandate. This law outlined the duties of the mukhtar in the realms of public administration, finance, real estate management, general security and justice as well as agriculture and public health. While the 1928 law was never amended significantly in a formal sense, the position of the mukhtar became marginalized during the civil war, and his work is currently limited to local administrative tasks, and social leadership.

Consequently, popular references nowadays often paint mukhtars as redundant “relics,” stewards of a hollowed-out institution, which has lost much of its traditional authority, and that largely attracts political and economic opportunists. My research findings, however, contradict such assumptions. In two separate research projects I was engaged in, mukhtars surfaced as crucial figures in local governance. The first research project, conducted through expert meetings, and in-depth interviews with local governance actors in 2015, regards a scoping study exploring neighborhood-level security arrangements in the urban setting of Beirut. The second project draws on ethnographic research, and in-depth interviews conducted between 2012 and 2014, to explore processes of local ordering around informal Palestinian “gatherings” in the suburban context of South Lebanon.

Based on these studies, this essay discusses the various roles mukhtars have played, are playing, or might play in Lebanon’s precarious governance. The spatial dimensions of mukhtars’ power and their socio-economic and political embedding in neighborhood localities are of particular importance in the following analysis. I argue that it is mukhtars’ physical presence at the local level that underlies their authority. It is their spatial proximity to, and engagement in, neighborhood events and relationships, that generates the social proximity needed for the institutional and territorial ordering of people’s most immediate environments. Although no longer involved in matters such as real estate management and local agricultural and industrial affairs, mukhtars are still tied to their locality by familial and/or property-owning ties that many other state representatives lack. Indeed, it is exactly because their ties with national orders are relatively ambiguous that mukhtars can locally play conciliatory and mediating roles. They are part of the state, but not directly associated with the dysfunctional central government by constituents. They are politicized, but arguably less so than many other state representatives. They have a formal bureaucratic position, but, in many cases, command informal types of loyalty as well.

Beirut: The Mukhtar as “State in the Neighborhood”

In exploring how security is negotiated in various urban neighborhoods, the mukhtar soon surfaced as a key stakeholder. Respondents in our interviews often mentioned mukhtars as crucial mediators in spousal or familial disputes, and street fights. Stressing the importance of spatial presence (and juxtaposing this with the alleged “absence of the state”), an elderly mukhtar from Naba’a indicated that his mere “being there” (on the streets) was often enough to diffuse escalating confrontations between youth. This ability stems from the view that mukhtars are (still) well placed to understand and recognize the interests of different parties and communities and to negotiate satisfactory compromises between them. In addition, mukhtars act as liaisons to the municipal police and the Internal Security Forces (ISF)—especially on behalf of individuals lacking substantial wasta. A mukhtar from Bourj el-Barajneh explained that a group of mukhtars from Beirut regularly meets with police commanders from their respective neighborhoods to share information. He said that when the police come to search a home, or to make an arrest, the mukhtar must be present as a witness and to ensure the respect of basic rights related to privacy and to gender seclusion. Such roles show the importance of the mukhtar for the state’s navigation of local spaces and traditions.

This mediating function between state and neighborhood works the other way around as well. A member of Beirut’s municipal council, despite his derogatory words about the pettiness of many mukhtars, nevertheless indicated that he needed the local mukhtar’s support in convincing a particular constituency of the merits of one of his pet projects. The mukhtar, in the council member’s account, was not merely a social gatekeeper (in the sense that he had to get the people “on board”), but also a “territorial” one as it was the mukhtar, who was expected to convene meetings between residents and municipal representatives, and thus facilitate physical access of the municipal councilor to the neighborhood’s residents.

Mukhtars usually command various forms of human and institutional capital, ranging from political connections and economic clout to local networks (such as active or honorary membership in family and clan diwans, business circles, non-governmental and civil society organizations and religious associations). These institutional resources and connections enable mukhtars to play a bridging role between the community, on the one hand, and state institutions on the other hand.

Most important of these institutional resources is the wielding of what was often dubbed “local knowledge.” Not all mukhtars wield the same social clout. Yet, a diverse range of respondents indicated that mukhtars’ closeness to the “local population,” their “knowledge of local life,” and their connections to “local politicians” are essential to their ability to regulate conflicts. One mukhtar concluded that residents’ feelings of safety stem from “social coherence,” and from “knowing each other.” Mukhtars are often at the heart of these networks in which “everyone knows everyone.” Most importantly, in this regard, is the notion of the “open house” (beit maftuh). The “open house” should be appreciated in the literal and spatial sense, as well as a social tradition. While the mukhtars encountered in the two studies had a separate office space, they all acknowledged that people were welcome to, and actually did, petition them at their private residence “24/7.” The mukhtar from Naba’a, for instance, was convinced he owed his position not so much to his political affiliations but to his families’ long-standing residence in the area and his reputation as a streetwise strongman who knew how to engage various neighborhood “thugs.”

Party affiliations undoubtedly play an important role in mukhtar elections. At the same time, the mukhtar from Bourj el-Barajneh found that parties generally do not interfere in mukhtar elections as much as they do in municipal and parliamentary elections. Residents, too, consider the political affiliation of a mukhtar important but not a defining feature of his position. Who the parties “elect to be elected” mukhtar appears to depend on social as much as political credentials. During such vetting procedures, what matters is not merely what the person has done for the party, but also his linkages to the neighborhood.

In addition, being a mukhtar is a lucrative business: mukhtars often ask for disproportionate payments for the administrative tasks they perform. Yet, in other cases, mukhtars bring resources to the community, waive fees for particularly vulnerable individuals or organize communal events.

It is thus the mukhtars’ physical presence (on both private and public titles) in the neighborhood, their visibility and approachability, which constitutes their authority. This physical embedding in a local community coupled with the function’s institutional centrality—all mukhtars interviewed stressed that mukhtars formed the link between a citizen and the state “from birth till death”—make mukhtars unavoidable. Mukhtars often sit precisely at the intersection of all dynamics that connect the population of a neighborhood, political representatives, and state institutions. Again, this has literal and spatial implications: mukhtars indeed “sit” as often as possible in the offices, homes, street corners, coffee shops, and bars that link them to “their” villages or neighborhoods.

At the same time, it is exactly their political, economic, and institutional ties to the more central echelons of power in Beirut that make mukhtars relevant to the people. It is the formal back up of the state and the informal back up of the parties that grant mukhtars much of their local authority as mediators and liaisons in the first place. Interestingly, however, it appears that the less mukhtars openly invoke these national sources of power, the more resilient their position in the neighborhood becomes. As the mukhtar from Naba’a explained, his role is to de-escalate and contain, to keep things local, and prevent them from spilling over to other localities—an endeavor that is of interest to both neighborhood residents, and central state authorities.

The South: The Mukhtar as Bridgehead to Refugee Spaces and Communities

In local governance arrangements in and around informal Palestinian settlements in South Lebanon, mukhtars also stood out as crucial authorities. Thus mukhtars not only facilitate interactions between the Lebanese state and its citizens, but also function as an interface between the state and non-citizens, here Palestinian refugees. This is especially relevant for Lebanon’s forty-plus “gatherings” which are located on Lebanese land that lack an official UNRWA camp status. Throughout my research, in the gathering ofShabriha, it was clear that the mukhtar in the neighboring village gave vital support to the gathering’s Popular Committee.  This signifies a potentially unique role of the mukhtar in dealing with “facts on the ground,” and in extending what is officially “state governance” into “extra-state spaces,” which are characterized by a deliberate physical and institutional absence of the state.

When, for instance, in 2011, checkpoints were installed around Shabriha to prevent the gathering from joiningthe wave of illegal construction during that year’s governmental vacuum, the mukhtar helped Shabriha’s residents circumvent these blockades. He thus helped lessen the territorial separation implemented by the ISF. During the waste crisis that befell the South in 2012, it was the mukhtar who brokered a deal between Shabriha and the new recycling factory (that initially did not want to treat “Palestinian waste”). When tensions between Lebanese and Palestinians escalated in the summer of 2012, with all the sectarian connotations that entailed, it was the mukhtar’s “open house” that brought the various sides together again after a period in which “no one from one side [of Shabriha] went to the other side.” In line with this, the mukhtar was often characterized as ‘the person on the ground,” “the man in the middle,” or “the consensus guy.”

The mukhtar’s constructive role was not limited to supporting Shabriha’s Popular Committee inside the gathering, but it also entailed linking the gathering with relevant authorities in the region. He facilitated the communication with a reluctant municipality and police station and hosted social and cultural events that brought together Palestinian and Lebanese communal leaders. Shabriha’s mukhtar was particularly influential due to his personal track-record, the legacy of his father and the concomitant support of his prominent family/clan, his extensive connections with the Amal party, his considerable wealth that allowed him to perform administrative services without charging fees, and his position as head of the regional mukhtar council. His bridgehead position between the Palestinian refugee community, and the region’s Lebanese authorities is strongly linked to his excellent connections to the Lebanese state apparatus, and its representatives. But it also, paradoxically, rests on his perceived independence from these institutions.

As in Beirut, then, it is the combination of national, political, and institutional power, and local proximity that grants Shabriha’s mukhtar his authority. Such local proximity, again, manifests itself in “local knowledge,” but also more physically in hosting communal events and enforcing territorial surveillance. Lebanese respondents widely credited the mukhtar in Shabriha was widely accredited for maintaining a tight watch on his village and the Palestinian gathering, occasionally installing informal checkpoints and commanding a network of informants. This spatial control, interestingly, seemed to be encouraged rather than resented by Palestinians. A communal leader from Shabriha told me that “before we refer to our leadership, he [the mukhtar] must know everything,” thus indicating how they often prioritize briefing the mukhtar over their Palestinian superiors. At the same time, the mukhtar’s constant hosting of and participation in special occasions—ranging from religious festivities to project inaugurations and funeral and weddings receptions—added a more benign side to such surveillance. This reiterates the enduring significance of the more ‘traditional’ or communal aspects of mukhtars’ legitimacy that the UNDP report describes as including a mukhtar’s “family and nobility, his good biography, his generosity and services provided to the villagers, his ‘open’ house that was considered the interface of the village and which received visitors and provided them with food, drink and accommodations in many cases.”

While the relations of Shabriha’s mukhtar with the Palestinian gathering were unusually extensive, similar dynamics surfaced for other gatherings. A mukhtar in Maashouk, for instance, proudly told me he was nicknamed the “mukhtar of the Palestinians” because of his expertise in dealing with the complicated paperwork facing Palestinian residents in Lebanon. A previous mukhtar from Burghliye was also widely known as particularly apt in helping Palestinians navigate the administrative challenges of protracted refugeeness and informal residence. As such, he used to service not merely the gathering of Burghliye, but also Palestinians living in Qasmiye, Wasta, Kfar Bedda and Jim Jim—spaces that municipal representatives routinely (and conveniently) consider outside their mandate.

Reflections: How Mukhtars Can Help Connect State, Citizen and Refugee

The studies discussed in this essay did not explicitly investigate the role of mukhtars in local governance. Rather, mukhtars surfaced as crucial stakeholders in local governance in an unsolicited fashion. This fact alone shows the significance of this figure in the political and social life of urban neighborhoods and villages. The experiences and positions of the three mukhtars interviewed in Beirut in 2015, and the seven mukhtars consulted in South Lebanon in 2012, 2013 and 2014 are not necessarily representative of all mukhtars in Lebanon. These specific cases give an insight on how mukhtars could function in Lebanon, rather than reflecting how they do function. Two implications of mukhtars’ unique potential to invigorate Lebanon’s governance structures merit specific mention here.

First, through their inherently localized presence, mukhtars can play a central role in neighborhood- and village-level governance. While Lebanon struggles with over-spilling regional wars, governmental deadlock,surging socio-economic inequality, reemerging militias, and an unprecedented influx of refugees, the country’s crime levels remain comparatively low. Mukhtars’ contribution to neighborhoods’ or villages’ social coherence might play a role in maintaining  this counter-intuitive local security. Mukhtars can also be instrumental in salvaging what is left of people’s connections with “the state.” As put by the UNDP: “mukhtars are in direct contact with their communities and are aware of their needs, challenges and aspirations. Therefore, the mukhtars are naturally placed to be effective mediators among groups in their local community and between their respected local communities and central government.” In the urban setting of Beirut, characterized by territorial segregation and political turf battles, such mediation is especially in demand.

Second, mukhtars can extend state governance to refugee communities institutionally trapped in “extra-state” spaces, and mediate contact between citizens and refugees. This has been particularly evident in the example of the gathering of Shabriha and other Palestinian settlements I studied in the South. In a series of pertinent working papers, the Common Space Initiative documented similar dynamics regarding North Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, urging the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, and the Lebanese government to “give more prerogatives to mukhtars of the region to play officially a mediation role between Palestinian refugees and the government to solve all issues and problems.” As was demonstrated by a mukhtar from Beirut’s Zoqaq el-Blat neighborhood, who was issuing documents that help to “regularize” the Syrian presence in the neighborhood, this role need not be restricted to the country’s Palestinian refugees, but could be extended to Syrian refugees as well—as also recognized by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In conclusion, mukhtars are deeply embedded in Lebanon’s power relations. They are invested in, and part of the country’s hybrid political order, with all the sectarianism and clientelism this entails. Yet, the institution’sbridging social capital, and its potential to guard, and embody some rudimentary form of public space that is rare in Lebanon is evident. However modest their position, mukhtars constitute an indispensible grassroots component of the administrative, and social glue that holds Lebanon’s different urban fiefdoms, and extra-state spaces together. Considering Lebanon’s virulent governance and refugee crises, therefore, much is to be said for bolstering one of Lebanon’s oldest, and perhaps most pragmatic, state institutions.

Nora Stel is Assistant Professor in Governance and Human Rights at Maastricht School of Management. Her visit to Beirut with Plural Security Insights was made possible by the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law; earlier fieldwork in the Palestinian gatherings was supported by Yale University’s Program on Governance and Local Development in the Arab World, the Hendrik Muller Fonds and the Lutfia Rabbani Foundation. This article originally appeared on Jadaliyya.

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