On the Lebanese Campaign Trail

Journalist impressed by country’s political diversity – but alarmed by sectarian divisions evident during electoral campaign.

On the Lebanese Campaign Trail

Journalist impressed by country’s political diversity – but alarmed by sectarian divisions evident during electoral campaign.

Thursday, 4 June, 2009
After driving past the northern border with Syria into Lebanon, the first thing that struck me was a large blue billboard.

It read in big letters, “They will not return and the sky is blue.”

I paused for a little while to ponder the meaning of this sentence.

Echoing an Arabic idiom, it probably meant there was crystal clear evidence that “they” will not come back.

But to whom did “they” refer? The Syrian people? The regime in Damascus? The Syrian army?

The billboard in question was erected by Lebanese political group the Future Movement, which is hostile towards Syria, holding it responsible for all the instability and political assassinations which have plagued Lebanon in recent years.

The party is headed by Sa’ad Hariri, the head of the current parliamentary majority and son of slain premier Rafik Hariri, and is the main member of March 14 coalition.

It is election season in Lebanon. The country is sharply divided between the March 14 group, which is supported by the West, and another large coalition, the Hezbollah-led March 8 group, backed by Iran and Syria.

Everybody is aware that the March 14 leaders reject a return to the era of Syrian political hegemony over their country.

Syria withdrew its troops from its smaller neighbour in 2005 after almost 30 years of military presence.

But as a Syrian citizen, I always thought that the differences between the two states were between politicians not ordinary people.

There are many family bonds that tie Lebanese and Syrians together. Also, for several years, Syrians have come to Lebanon to study, do business, shop, or visit their relatives and friends.

I started wondering if people would be hostile to me once I reached Beirut.

I asked myself if I should feel responsible, as a Syrian, for the actions of the Syrian government? I even thought of changing my accent so nobody would recognise my origins.

As I drove deeper into the country, further evidence of the heated political campaign which is taking place ahead of the June 7 parliamentary elections emerged.

Along roads, large billboards featured scores of photos of smiling, elegantly dressed politicians and short catchy political slogans, like “Your voice creates change” and “Don’t change your principles, change your legislators”.

It was heartwarming for a Syrian journalist like me to see what a passionate political campaign looks like and to have a small taste of democracy, which are things that we don’t get to experience in Syria.

There is quite a contrast between preparations for elections in the two countries.

During the 2007 parliamentary ballot in Syria, the slogans were inoffensive and uniform. What we mostly saw were simple signs carrying names of candidates along with simple slogans, often supporting the regime.

Most candidates were also either members of the Ba’ath ruling party or loyal to it.

In Lebanon, I could feel that there was a real struggle for power. There was a high level of competition amongst the parties.

Although the political diversity seemed at first attractive, I was shocked at their sectarian rhetoric.

For instance, one candidate’s slogan read that he was running in the elections “to protect the Christians”.

Lebanon follows a political system of consensual democracy where power is divided among the numerous confessional groups in the country.

Although there is a large Christian minority in Syria as well, we would never hear of a politician there talking about the rights of a religious group or speaking on its behalf.

Even if we had more freedom, I don’t think Syrians would appreciate such a sectarian discourse.

Finally, when I reached my destination, I was relieved to find out that people were very welcoming.

One night during my stay, I had dinner in a pleasant restaurant.

Although I talked a little about politics and the upcoming elections with the chef, most of the conversation focused instead on the differences and similarities between the foods and customs of Syria and Lebanon.
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