On May 6 and 8, the diaspora will vote in their country of residency in Lebanon’s 2022 parliamentary elections, marking the first electoral test at the national level since huge protests in October 2019 and the infamous 2020 Beirut Port explosion.
Many Lebanese expats in the United Arab Emirates are eager to vote on Friday and Sunday, hoping to make a difference in the country’s worsening economic crisis, disappearing middle class, and a history of sectarian government rule characterized by elites who have pushed the majority of the population into extreme poverty.
A lot of hope is riding on the Lebanese diaspora to cast their votes and make a difference in this year’s election. Al Arabiya English spoke to some Lebanese expats in the UAE who are gearing up for the voting day.
Lebanese expat Mark El Khoury, 27, was born and raised in the UAE and spent his university days in Lebanon where he was exposed to the political opinions of the people around him.
“To be fair, I think it’s about time to vote. Something I learned throughout my time [as a student] in Lebanon was that politics has become such a taboo topic, because no one wants to talk about it,” El Khoury told Al Arabiya English. “The fact is that you have to talk about it, because there is something fundamentally wrong.”
Coming from an expat background, he said had a lot to learn when he moved to Lebanon.
“I really want to make a difference, which is why I have to vote and why I believe everyone should because it’s time politics ceases to be a taboo subject and for people to learn that politicians are supposed to work for you; you don’t work for them,” he said.
According to El Khoury, people in Lebanon “don’t follow an ideology, they follow a person,” adding that this was one of the root causes of the nation’s political issues.
“Religion and politics should never mix, in my opinion. Religion is a way of life, it’s a belief. Nowhere in any religion does it say: you should be in charge of the government,” he continued.
Lebanese activists all over the world have ramped up efforts in recent months to encourage more people from the global diaspora to vote. Over 220,000 (six percent) Lebanese people from the diaspora have registered to vote, accounting for a three-fold increase in voters from the previous parliamentary elections in 2018 – when out-of-country voting was allowed for the first time.
Lebanese politics – often a sensitive topic for both the diaspora and the country’s residents alike – has long been influenced by religion. Sectarianism has been the basis of Lebanon’s political ecosystem since the French set it up before departing the country in 1936. The system was, in theory, supposed to ensure the influence of all 18 recognized religious groups, some of which now have their own militias, in the government, dividing all public service roles equally amongst them.
However, the quasi-federal religious government, coupled with the 1960s Civil War and incessant nepotism within political parties, has kept Lebanese society deeply divided, causing sectarianism to rule over nationalism and for endemic corruption to continue.
Echoing El Khoury’s sentiment, Lebanese expat Omar, 34, believes religion and politics should be separated.
“I believe in a Laic country… in a country where power is to the people by their competencies, not by their religion or because they belong to a certain religious group or party,” he told Al Arabiya English.
“I’d rather have people rule the country because they deserve it… Somebody who has achievements, comes from a diplomacy background, is not really affiliated with a certain party. Somebody who is kind of neutral, who is taking action, and not just talking about plans,” he continued, adding that he was vouching for an independent candidate from the civil society.
Omar did not vote in 2018, during the last elections, but chose to take part this time because he is hoping to “at least contribute to a shift in the weight of the voices and votes” in parliament.
Released earlier this week, the Arab Reform Initiative report which examined the 2018 voting behavior of the diaspora found that their behavior and political attitudes varied based on where they emigrated to and why. Registered diaspora voters at the time were mainly based in Canada, Australia, the US, UAE, France, and Australia who mainly supported the Lebanese Forces and Free Patriotic Movement. Voters in Germany and several African countries mainly opted for Shia-majority parties Amal and Hezbollah.
Lebanese expats who voted at the time did not have much of an impact as they only accounted for 3 percent of participants, with less than 6 percent of out-of-country voters choosing candidates on opposition lists. This did not do much to reduce the impact of the long-established sectarian system, according to the joint report by the Arab Reform Initiative and The Policy Initiative.
The scale of the change in voter attitudes to shift away from supporting traditional political parties in the 2022 elections remains uncertain overall, but UAE expats who spoke with Al Arabiya English expressed they were keen to do their part in initiating this shift.
Raed, 34, an expat who works in the aviation industry, said that he moved to the UAE because he was “suffering for years” in Lebanon, and was determined to make a difference with his vote this year. His views changed due to the obstacles he faced in Lebanon, both socially and economically. He said his father used to support one of the country’s traditional political parties, despite their house being bombed during the Civil War, causing injury to his father’s arm.
“I’m voting to make a change. My parents in Lebanon are suffering, they don’t have medical coverage, they don’t know what will happen in their future,” Raed told Al Arabiya English, adding that he no longer supports one of the traditional parties.
“My father basically has one hand. In the civil war, he got injured inside our house… we got bombed. And he’s still following them in one way or another. No one helped him, they [the party he supported] didn’t even look at us at all, we never got anything from them when we needed them, so that’s another reason why I’m against these parties,” Raed said.
“[The sectarian government] needs to be changed. You cannot mix religion with government, or religion with political parties.”
Expat Elie, 30, a first-time voter, said that his family’s struggle in the country has led him to vote.
“I just want Lebanon to become a better country, and considering the recent issues that they’ve been facing like the August 4 [Beirut Port] explosion and the crisis, I love Lebanon and want to see it as a successful country.”
“I’m totally against sectarianism. To change that now, it might be very minimal, it’ll take time, because people are used to it. I’ve always been against these parties because I didn’t like the fact that they worked for their own benefit instead of helping the people.”
El Khoury, 27, also stated that he wants the country’s constitution to be updated.
“Last time I checked, the Constitution was not updated since the 1920s. The fact that you can get an extra 50,000 Lebanese Lira in your salary if you grow a moustache in the internal security and policing forces… this is how outdated our Constitution is… the old existing bodies that have been there for 40 years and have changed nothing, they are still living by these rules, taking advantage of us, creating corruption,” El Khoury said.
He continued: “Hopefully, by voting for someone new, someone with a conscience, they will at least try to change what is currently going on, to fix the current constitution and at least bring it up to date so the country can stand back on its own feet again.”
UAE-based expat Rasha, 36, said she’s always voted but wants to convince more people to vote this time “because this is the worst condition Lebanon has ever been in.”
She continued, “it poses a big hope because of what the country has come to, this is a chance for people to vote and bring in new blood [into the government].”
According to Rasha, “old blood” in the government will not make a difference.
“The people our families and ancestors, previous generations used to believe in, they don’t have the same importance or credibility anymore. They don’t have a place [in the government],” she added. “This is our chance to make a change.”
“The biggest mistake is when someone says: ‘it’s not like I’m the only one’ or that the situation ‘doesn’t just rely on my vote.’ But yes, it does. The expats are the majority of the Lebanese population, so I do hope that I’ll be one of those people that are going to go and make a change. The sentiment this year is different, it’s a lot better, people want to help.”
Rasha and many others from the UAE-based diaspora have been helping the consulate in Dubai with the planning and management of voting day. “We all just want to be there to help,” she said.
“Basically, the problem with our government is that it has been the same since 30 years… nothing changed and some of the peoples’ mindsets haven’t changed also so it’s completely corrupt to a point where there is no going back anytime soon,” insurance broker Raphael Daniel, 31, said.
“I think our votes are just going to be a wake-up call for the people that are in place at the moment, it’s just sending a message to the politicians that we’re fed up. The message is going to be as big as the difference we manage to make,” he added.
“In one way or another, we need to move forward. If nobody votes or does anything, nothing will change.”
Citizens in Lebanon will take to the polls on May 15 to elect new members of parliament.
An estimated 1,044 candidates are running for parliament this year in the hopes of winning a position in the 128-seat legislature.