Akkar, Lebanon - Through the green terrains of the Lebanese district of Akkar, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, a bumpy small road leads into a village that bears no signs of Lebanon. It is as if one ventured into Syria by mistake.
The black-white-red Syrian flag fluttered over most of the modest stone houses in the village of Masoudieh. Pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - in formal clothing and military uniform - have been plastered on almost every wall. Photos of his father, late President Hafez al-Assad, are even more prominent in the village. At the main roundabout hangs a large photo showing the faces of the father and son fading into each other.
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The Lebanese village residents, majority of whom are the Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, are bracing themselves for the presidential election that will be held in Syria, just a few kilometres away, on Tuesday June 3. The Syrian government is expected to set up a polling station at the nearby Areeda border crossing. Also polling stations will be set up at at least four other posts along the border with Lebanon for Syrian residents to vote in the election. Assad is widely expected to win another seven year term in office.
Thousands of Syrians from the cluster of Alawite villages in Akkar, along Lebanon's northern border, are expected to cross the frontier and vote in Areeda, according to a local politician. The Syrians who live in Akkar are either Syrians who married Lebanese and moved across the border, or labourers who came here years back to work in construction and farming. There are almost no Syrian refugees in the area, as most of those who have fled the violence in their country are Sunni Muslims who opted to live in Sunni-dominated areas in Lebanon.
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Local politician Sulaiman Sulaiman has been spearheading the effort to facilitate the movement of voters. He has arranged for busses to transport Syrian workers to vote and has been travelling to Syria to meet with officials over the election preparations.
"Officials in Syria expect somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 voters to be at Areeda border crossing. This number will be manageable if all computers at the border control are working," Sulaiman said.
According to Sulaiman, there is an agreement in place between Syrian and Lebanese officials to allow voters to cross the border and return without having their papers stamped and without having to pay the 1,200 Syrian pounds ($8) exit fee the Syrian government imposes.
He said Syrian authorities fear a suicide bombing or mortar fire targeting voters, as rebels may seek to disrupt the vote.
|Asmahan Mhana, a Syrian from Tartus who has been living in Masoudieh [Al Jazeera]
"God is the protector," said 54-year-old Asmahan Mhana, a Syrian from Tartus who has been living in Masoudieh for the past two decades. She is heading to polling station at the border with her two daughters."It is our right and duty to vote. We will vote for Dr Bashar al-Assad," she said.
Mhana and other Alawites in the village say the Assad dynasty, which has been ruling the country for the past four decades, has improved the social and political status of Alawites in both Syria and Lebanon. Mhana also cites the free health care and education that Syria provides for free for Syrians and Lebanese alike.
Mhana did not seem bothered by the fact that she and other Assad supporters will have to travel through the Sunni-dominated town of Areeda, a bastion of opposition to the Syrian regime, to cast their votes.
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The Lebanese army is deploying heavily along the road in anticipation of skirmishes between Assad supporters and opponents. The border crossing at Areeda, has been divided by barbed wire into two sections - one passage for vehicles and one for pedestrians.
|Syrians officials expect nearly 15,000 voters to be at Areeda border crossing [Al Jazeera]
Areeda is a town that continues to host hundreds of Syrian refugees and its residents have been bombarded with tales of horror from Syria but also with countless stray rockets from there.
Syrian refugees are not expected to vote, not only because a large percentage of them oppose Assad but also because of a new decision by the Lebanese government.
This week, the Interior Ministry warned that Syrian refugees crossing into Syria will have their refugee status revoked and will, therefore, lose their entitlement to UN assistance.
It remains to be seen how the new rule will be implemented on the ground and whether or not refugees will be allowed to vote and return to Lebanon under an agreement whereby their papers are not stamped. But another factor why Syrian refugees are reluctant to vote is fear of reprisals from their own community.
"If Syrian refugees want to vote for Assad, then why are they in Lebanon? They should go live under Assad's rule instead of taking our resources," Khider, a Lebanese who owns a car rental shop in Areeda, told Al Jazeera.
He admitted that tension has soared in Areeda between Lebanese residents and refugees following footage showing thousands of Syrians flocking to their embassy in Beirut on the expatriate voting day, May 28, while holding photos of Assad and chanting slogans in support of him.
Several of those who voted that day have reportedly been attacked by Lebanese nationals.
But many Syrians felt they were between a rock and a hard place, especially after rumors spread among the refugees that the Syrian government would take note of all those who did not participate in the election.
Umm Ahmad, a 46-year-old refugee who hails from the battered city of Homs, said that the decision of the Lebanese Interior Ministry provides a good excuse for refugees not to vote, if they would ever be questioned by the Syrian regime upon returning home."Why would we want to vote in an election that will put Assad back in power, the same Assad whose fighter jets and tanks were responsible for destroying our houses and living humiliated in someone else's country?" she told Al Jazeera.
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Source: Al Jazeera