[Published here May 25, 2014]
SYRIAN EMBASSY, Yarzeh — Hundreds of thousands of Syrians today headed to the Syrian embassy in Yarzeh, southeast of Beirut, to cast their vote for Syria’s next president. The Hazmieh highway was clogged with cars as early as 8 a.m.; drivers waved the Syrian flag out of cars plastered with posters of Syrian president and incumbent candidate Bashar al-Assad. But chaos at the embassy and a disorganized voting process complicated many Syrians’ attempts to vote.
Assad came into power in 2000 following the death of his father, president Hafez al-Assad. Assad the son won a national referendum with 99.7% of the popular vote; he was the only candidate, and Syrians either voted “yes” or “no” on their ballots. Syria’s new constitution, adopted in 2012, has since changed the election process from a referendum to a multiple-candidate election. This year’s election will take place on June 3 in Syria, but expatriates are voting at embassies today. For the first time, Assad is running against two other candidates, Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri and Maher Abdul Hafez Hajjar.
But none of the Syrians with whom NOW spoke at the embassy said they’d be voting for the other two candidates. “Every single person you see here will be voting for Dr. Bashar,” said a middle-aged man who, when prompted to give his name, replied with, “I’ve said enough here.”
“I’m voting for our leader Bashar. He can get us out of what we’ve been experiencing the last three years,” said Mohammad Hassan al-Hassan, a 60-year-old Syrian national who has been living in Syria for 15 years. Hassan had been walking up to the embassy along the Yarzeh road in the sweltering heat when he nearly fainted. When he made it to the embassy, he pushed through the crowds to cast his vote for Assad. “This is a time for leadership, not a time to experiment with other people,” he told NOW.
Once they had arrived at the embassy’s gates, Syrians continued on foot through a series of Lebanese Army checkpoints. Soldiers would only let a certain number of voters through at a time, creating crowds in the hundreds at each makeshift gate they had set up. The crowds of mostly men rocked back and forth as people started pushing against each other, knocking elderly people over and prompting shrieks from older women pushed up against other voters.
The front rows of these crowds, frequently being pushed forward by the swelling mobs behind them, would stumble into the lines of Lebanese Army soldiers standing in front of them. Wielding two-foot rubber tubes and large wooden sticks, LAF soldiers shoved and beat voters back into line. One Syrian man who had been propelled forward by the crowd behind him knocked into an LAF soldier, who grabbed him by the shirt, smacked his back, kicked him repeatedly in the stomach, and pushed him back in line.
“Do you see how your army treats us? They want to beat us and just send us home,” one Syrian female voter screamed. Past the first two makeshift gates, a Syrian man stood along a short stone wall leading up to the main embassy building. He pulled up his shirt sleeves to reveal fresh welts. “Do you see what they’re doing to us?” he asked.
The man, who also refrained from giving his name, said he had been waiting at the Syrian embassy since eight o’clock that morning. He had traveled from the south in Lebanon to cast his vote for Assad, but the embassy doors had been closed for the last few hours.
Just as he finished speaking, the gates that led into the courtyard of the embassy’s central building rolled open. The near-stampede that followed saw men and women – even older ladies well into their sixties – charging towards the opening.
Once in the courtyard, however, many voters didn’t know what to do. They frantically milled outside the building, asking each other how to register or get their ballots. Those who had registered ahead of time could evidently cast their ballot directly by retrieving an envelope and slip of paper featuring the pictures and names of the three presidential candidates. Some circled the candidate they wanted, others tore off their preferred candidate and put his picture in the envelope. Polling officials, easily identifiable by their suits and Syria election caps, were standing on raised platforms handing out ballots. Regular civilians, who may or may not have been voters, were standing directly by the polling officials. It was unclear whether or not they had access to empty ballots.
At the exit to the embassy, many Syrians confessed they had left without voting. “It was too much in there – I couldn’t stay to vote,” said one woman. She told NOW she couldn’t handle the shoving and grabbing, and that her family had decided they would simply return to Syria next week to cast their votes there.
“Why vote here, where the army beats us and we’re treated like animals?” her brother exclaimed. He and his entire family said they’d be voting for Assad. “You won’t find anyone here who’s voting for anyone else,” he chuckled.
But a young man, who identified himself as Khaled al-Midani, thought differently. He had been standing in the crowd listening to his fellow voters talk about Assad, but followed NOW’s correspondent to speak privately.
“I want to give you the real picture. Most of the people are here because they have to be – because they’ve been threatened with three years in jail and a fine if they don’t show up and vote,” he said, speaking quickly. “I took part in the revolution, but now I’m here.”
When asked who he was going to vote for, Midani simply replied, “I have no choice.”