Thousands of pro-Assad supporters bring Beirut to standstill for Syria vote
Thousands of mostly pro-Assad supporters flocked to the Syrian Embassy Wednesday to cast ballots in the presidential elections, causing suffocating traffic jams around Beirut.
The embassy opened its doors in the early hours of the morning when hundreds walked to the only polling station available to vote, with Syrian anthems blaring from cars and buses decorated with photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah flags.
Some parents took their children along to the embassy. A Syrian child was chanting “our country is with you, our president Assad” while her father held up the Syrian flag. Another elderly woman was reciting a folk lyric poem in praise of Assad.
“I am here to elect President Bashar Assad, he is our president and our leader,” one of the voters said.
“Today is the end of the Arab Spring, this American project,” Mohammad Jamous, a refugee residing in south Lebanon, said as he boarded a bus in Sidon to head to the embassy.
However, the whispers behind the scenes were not as glorifying to Assad as the public comments. A Syrian national told The Daily Star that he took part in the election out of fear that the regime would allow them to return to Syria.
“I am scared that they may list my name at the border and prevent me from going to Syria to see my family when I need to,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But several Syrian activists denied such claims.
The Daily Star's queries to the Syrian Embassy over the electoral process went unanswered.
But many voters grew frustrated with the measures taken outside the embassy where the doors were closed for a few hours at midday to allow security forces to better organize the process.
“This is not acceptable. Shame on them, this is not how you organize elections,” one of the voters said as he stood in the crowded street outside the building.
A number of Syrian men crawled over the embassy’s gate, but security forces pushed them down with their batons as minor scuffles marred the electoral process.
Due to the overwhelming number of voters, Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali said he would extend the elections for an additional day, until Thursday at midnight.
As the traffic from the voters increased, drivers began to park their cars farther away and walk to the embassy to ensure they had the chance to cast their ballots.
The most congested roads were in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Sayyad roundabout and Dahr Baidar to the east. Traffic was completely blocked at the Fayadieh road leading to Yarze.
The vehicles carrying voters mostly held Lebanese plates, some of which were rented. Some cars, however, were driving with no number plates.
Meanwhile, motorists were complaining about the heavy traffic that left them late for school and work.
Many students were unable to arrive in time for the Bac de Français exams at Lycée Abdel-Kader in Beirut because they were stuck in traffic.
The school, however, has promised that they will be able to sit the exam upon arrival.
Syrian dissident Michel Kilo, a member of the National Syrian Coalition, said that the “Syrian election is illegitimate because of the war.”
Kilo said that he received information that Hezbollah was threatening Syrians in Lebanon and forcing them to vote, adding that fear of the regime was behind the high turnout.
“The Syrians never voted in such intensity before, there are Syrians [who have been] living in Lebanon for a long time and they fear to go to Syria without voting so that the regime would not reprimand them,” he said.
“We also got information that Hezbollah threatened the Syrians that it would bomb the areas where they are staying if they do not vote."
Despite the high turnout in Lebanon, which is the host of some 1.5 million refugees, Syrians showed less enthusiasm for the vote in Jordan.
Dozens gathered outside the Syrian Embassy in Amman to protest the voting. Some carried placards that read: "Anyone who votes has no morals."
"My son was one of the people who started the protests against the regime. He was unarmed but they killed him," a Syrian woman from Damascus, who identified herself as Umm Mutazz al-Shaar, told the Associated Press. She said all those who were coming to vote were doing so out of fear.
The Central Committee for Syria’s Presidential Elections at the Foreign Ministry had urged expats to head to Syrian embassies in their countries of residence Wednesday, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., “to practice their constitutional right to choose their president.”
Campaigning began earlier this month for the presidential election that is expected to keep Assad in power.
Syrians living inside Syria are due to vote on June 3, but voting will only be possible in territory under government control - thereby excluding large swathes of the country held by rebels - and will not be open to refugees who fled through unofficial crossings.
Assad faces two competitors, both largely unknown, who qualified from a pool of 23 who sought to run against the president. – additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari.
By Ghinwa Obeid, Samya Kullab