Beirut—On May 28, tens of thousands of Syrians currently living in Lebanon went to vote in the upcoming Syrian presidential election. The unprecedented turnout that followed meant that voting was extended into the following day. Scheduled in Syria for June 3, this year’s so-called election takes place against the backdrop of a raging civil war, with none of the long-demanded political reforms in sight. The election has thus been widely criticized and dismissed as a farcical attempt to legitimize the current regime. That said, the large numbers of disproportionately pro-Assad Syrians who marched through Beirut on Wednesday and Thursday this week cannot go unnoticed.
From as early as 5 am on Wednesday, the main road leading to the Syrian embassy in Yarze, Beirut, was already crowded. Syrian men and women of all ages flocked to their embassy, bringing the whole of south Beirut’s traffic to a standstill. Cars blasted pro-regime songs and people waved Hezbollah, Ba’athist and Syrian flags in honor of the Syrian regime. Others had Bashar Al-Assad’s familiar face on billboard-sized posters, stuck on car windows and printed on T-shirts.
The procession chanted pro-regime slogans, which echoed through the area: “Syria, Bashar and God: they are one!” could be heard, along with cries of “We are with Bashar with our souls and with our blood!”
A few scuffles erupted with the Lebanese Army, who tried to contain the crowds with batons and water jets. At the Syrian embassy, a sea of people blocked the entrance. It was evident that not even a third of those gathered would make it to the ballot box that day. “They won’t all get to vote, but many have come for show,” one soldier said. “Anyway, even if they don’t vote we all know the outcome.”
As tensions mounted, Syrian ambassador Ali Abdul-Karim Ali addressed the voters: “You are on Lebanese soil and you must respect the structures in place to secure your vote.”
In response to the ambassador, a woman from the outskirts of Aleppo piped up cheerfully: “We may as well be in Syria. Lebanon and Syria belong to Bashar!”
The voters in Beirut were largely made up of longtime Syrian expats, as well as those who fled Syria more recently due to the war. One man, originally from Idlib, told The Majalla: “I have been living in Lebanon for 20 years, but I am Syrian and with our president above all.”
Needless to say, many Syrians who are staunchly opposed to the current regime have boycotted these elections. But in contrast to accounts of the Syrian polling process in Jordan, there was no opposition to be seen in Lebanon’s capital. The crowd’s unanimous support for the Syrian regime, expressed at a time of great suffering and uncertainty, is baffling to many. So what really motivated so many to turn out to vote Bashar Al-Assad into his already guaranteed third term?
Well, the Syrian Ba’athist regime has a strong following among the Syrian Shi’ite and Christian minorities, many of whom make up the 1.5 million Syrians estimated to be living in Lebanon. Many may also be inclined to express their support for the Syrian regime due to the Assad regime’s recent victories in recapturing strategic areas outside Damascus and Aleppo. The regime’s current winning streak is likely reinforcing the message to Syrian voters that Assad won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Some may be inclined to express their support for the Syrian regime due to its recent victories in recapturing strategic areas outside Damascus and Aleppo. The regime’s current winning streak is likely reinforcing the message to Syrian voters that Assad won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Others will no doubt have been motivated to vote by fear—fear that, if the rumors are true, they would not be able to return to Syria if they don’t participate in this year’s election. In this case, “participate” clearly means voting for Assad.
As a Syrian currently living in the Gulf who wished to remain anonymous explained: “I am against Bashar and the regime, but if I do not vote I may be held up at the checkpoints on my return.” This has been the reasoning of many Syrians abroad who, knowing full well how this election is going to turn out, wish to minimize any future hassle. She continued: “There is no democracy in sight for Syria and we have had to give up on our revolution. Now I just want to settle for stability, even if it is under Bashar.”
But with regards to the voting process in Syria, one young pro-regime man from the outskirts of Damascus said he had told his relatives to “stay inside this week, because the militant opposition groups promised to bombard Damascus with hundreds of mortars" during the election.
With fears of yet more bombardments during next week’s election in Syria, even stability seems to be too great a demand.