Pre-election intimidation tactics — sometimes subtle, sometimes violent and occasionally involving a donkey

Pre-election intimidation tactics — sometimes subtle, sometimes violent and occasionally involving a donkey

A man sits on a roadside near an electoral campaign signs that reads "Vote for Lebanon" in Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon May 9, 2022. (Credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

BEIRUT — When the “Together for Change” opposition list headed to the planned launch of its campaign in the South II (Sour-Zahrani) district on April 15 at a conference center in Sarafand, it was stopped short after a group of men, some of them armed, blocked the highway.

At the hall where the event was due to take place, some of the opposition activists were beaten and had their phones taken. Videos of the attack also show at least one person shooting his pistol in the air in front of the Lebanese Army. In the end, the event was canceled.

The opposition candidates and supporters said the attackers had waved Amal Movement flags and shouted slogans supporting the party’s leader, Nabih Berri. Later that day, the Amal Movement denied in a statement any involvement in the incident. On April 20, the Lebanese Army arrested the alleged shooter.

Such incidents have been common across Lebanon’s districts ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections, as in past elections.

“Lebanon is not new to electoral violence and intimidation during [the] campaign period and on election days,” governance and elections specialist Maroun Sfeir wrote in an analysis for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “However, with higher stakes at hand, the political class is resorting to intimidation and violence to silence contenders in a hope to preserve power. Intimidation is on the rise with incidents reported in several electoral districts during the campaign, such as in South Lebanon II, South III, Bekaa III and Beirut II."

He added, "This pattern is expected to intensify closer to election day and until the announcement of results, especially since deterrence mechanisms are weak or absent."

In Baabda, an election rally planned for candidate Farah Kassem, who is running with the “Capable” list of opposition party Citizens in a State (MMFD) in the Bekaa II district (West Bekaa-Rashaya) was canceled after she was accused of treason and received death threats, according to a report by the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections.

In the Bekaa III district of Baalbek-Hermel, shots were fired in the air as Abbas al-Jawhari, head of the Lebanese Forces-supported “Building the State” list was doing election visits in the village of al-Khodr on April 25.

Around the same time, three Shiite candidates from Jawhari’s list withdrew from the elections.

Incidents of intimidation have not been exclusively limited to the areas where Hezbollah and Amal are dominant. In the Beirut II district, for instance, during a series of discussions in public spaces held by the opposition list “Beirut the Change,” in Tarik al-Jdideh, a Future Movement stronghold, a group of people attacked the discussion panel, destroying the tent where it was being held and preventing the candidates from holding any talks.

Beirut the Change candidate Ibrahim Mneimneh, who alleged that Future Movement supporters had carried out the attack, said the incident was the only one in which the campaign had been physically assaulted.

“I think the parties do not use these tools except as a last bullet,” he said. “I also think the parties are focusing more on other tools to gain votes, like playing the sectarian card.”

The Future Movement, for its part, is boycotting the election. On Jan. 24, Future Movement head Saad Hariri announced that he was stepping aside from politics and that he would not be running in the May 2022 elections. Although he also asked all members of his party to do the same, some major figures associated with the Future Movement have distanced themselves from the party and are running in the elections, including Hadi Hobeiche and Walid Baarini (Akkar), Mustafa Alloush (Tripoli) and Sami Fatfat( Minyeh-Dinnieh).

A Future Movement representative did not respond to a request for comment.

And in the Mount Lebanon IV (Chouf-Aley) district, supporters of the “Capable” (Qadreen) list of MMFD were allegedly beaten and banners in support of the campaign were ripped. Citizens in a State released a statement accusing the Progressive Socialist Party, the strongest party in the district, of being behind this move.

A spokesperson for PSP told L’Orient Today that the party “did not prevent anyone from distributing fliers.”

“What happened is that there was a person from MMFD who was distributing fliers from a donkey and had a dispute with the residents because he caused some traffic on the road,” he said, adding, “Nevertheless, when we heard about the incident we went to the area to facilitate the person’s way as we think freedom of expression is a right, but we did not find the person.”

In Akkar, supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement clashed with protesters during a visit by FPM head Gebran Bassil, coming shortly after the deadly sinking of a migrant boat off the coast of Tripoli, for which many in the north have blamed the political class. Protesters had attempted to block the road to stop Bassil from reaching his destination.

Several people were injured during the ensuing clashes, with the Lebanese Army eventually opening the road by force.

More subtle forms of intimidation

Not all instances of intimidation involved physical attacks or clashes.

“I could campaign in my area normally and in all the south and [would] not experience any physical attack,” said Ali Mrad, a candidate with the “Together for Change” list in the South Lebanon III (Nabatieh, Bint Jbeil, Marjayoun and Hasbaya) district.

“How they are trying to intimidate me, however, is through a hate campaign on social media,” Mrad explained. He added, “These parties, they don’t look into your programs and ideas but just give you the label of ‘treason' or make up rumors about you.”

Dima Abu Dayh, a Shiite candidate running with the Lebanese Forces’ list in Bekaa I (Zahle), faced a more intimate kind of backlash. Her family released a statement that condemned her decision to run on the LF list, adding that her decision does not represent that of the family.

However, in an interview with Al Jadeed, Abou Dayh said her family were pressured to release such a statement and that “some of the family members contacted me to support me.”

Apart from social media threats and family pressure, a number of campaigns saw their advertisements or campaign offices targeted.

MMFD had launched a political campaign across multiple districts in which it is running lists, in which it hung banners criticizing Hezbollah, the FPM, the LF and Kataeb for including people affiliated with the banking establishment on their lists.

MMFD member Alain Alameddine, who helped organize the campaign, told L’Orient Today that there were around 100 banners hung across Lebanon in one day and that the majority of those banners were quickly torn down.

Likewise, in the Beirut I district, banners of the only independent candidate who won in the 2018 parliamentary elections, Paula Yacoubian, have been repeatedly torn –– with of black paint marks left on some of them.

In the Mount Lebanon IV district of Chouf and Aley, Zahia Safa, an activist who was working on awareness campaigns around the election, said her car tires had been slashed. Safa had told the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections that a member of Walid Joumblatt’s PSP, the strongest party in the Chouf district, had harassed her due to her work on elections.

Also in the Chouf district, candidate Rania Ghaith from the opposition list “United For Change” had her banner removed from an electricity tower.

In Mount Lebanon III in Baabda, banners of the Kataeb party in the Chiyah area were torn, although none of the perpetrators were identified. A similar incident took place in the same district in the Kafaat area in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where a banner for the LF was ripped by unknown individuals.

In Ain al-Remmaneh, two sound bombs were thrown next to the LF’s headquarters there, which reportedly caused some damage tonearby stores and cars.

Not intimidated

Even in the face of intimidation, many of the candidates remained unphased.

Farah Nasser, a candidate with MMFD’s “Capable” list in Mount Lebanon I (Jbeil-Kesraoun) drove her own car with a number of fellow party members as they hung banners in the Rwes area in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which is known to be a Hezbollah stronghold. The banner read, “The corrupt person is the same as a spy,” a direct quote from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, with a picture of the head of Al-Mawarid Bank Marwan Kheireddine, who is on Hezbollah’s list in South Lebanon III.

“If you ask me if I was not scared of a reaction while doing this, I think all of our members are on the same wavelength that we are ready to confront the system and would not back off,” Nasser said. She was not physically threatened while hanging the banners, although MMFD faced a social media campaign against them.

In some cases, family ties have protected opposition candidates.

Hassan Mazloum, who is running in Baalbeck-Hermel on the “Independents Against Corruption” opposition list, told L’Orient Today that he blames the entire political system for the economic crisis that Lebanon is going through, including the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, he said, “They didn’t try to intimidate us like they did with others, because we didn’t pay money to anyone [so could not be smeared as buying votes], and we have a respectable societal status that they wouldn’t dare to taint it.”

He added that his family, which is strong in the area, also afforded him protection, “No one would dare to mess with us, anyway, because we are not easy, so they wouldn’t want to mess with a clan like us.”

Meanwhile, in Sarafand, “we had a choice to either back off or to face them,” said Sarah Sweidan, a candidate on the “Together For Change” list in the South II district.

“We decided [on] the latter,” she said. “We held a press conference after they attacked us and did not stop our political campaign.”

Sweidan explained that although she and members of the same list continued their political work and campaigning, Sarafand was not the only incident where they were pressured to stop campaigning.

“We cannot campaign in every village in the district,” she said. “Oftentimes I would have [arranged] visits to certain families and they would cancel the meeting after being pressured.”

Almost two weeks after the Sarafand incident on April 24, “Together for Change” launched its list from Sour, with a calm atmosphere unlike the previous time. Hundreds of people, uninterrupted, attended the launch.

Nevertheless, Sweidan said the intimidation tactics have had some effect.

“People are being intimidated after what they are doing, and as a result we are finding it hard to find delegates to monitor the result process,” Sweidan said. She fears that “no delegates means no votes will be counted for us.”

Sweidan said she thinks the reason the major political parties are resorting to tools of intimidation is because they are backed into a corner.

“They know they have failed for 30 years, and that the country has collapsed because of them, so they know they are in a weak position,” she said. 

BEIRUT — When the “Together for Change” opposition list headed to the planned launch of its campaign in the South II (Sour-Zahrani) district on April 15 at a conference center in Sarafand, it was stopped short after a group of men, some of them armed, blocked the highway. At the hall where the event was due to take place, some of the opposition activists were beaten and had their phones...