Beirut, Lebanon – This was not an ordinary voting day. It was a parade of Syrians celebrating their embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, and expressing support for him in the battle to quell the uprising that erupted three years ago.
Since early morning, tens of thousands of Syrians flocked to the heavily fortified area surrounding the Syrian embassy in Lebanon as expatriate voting began ahead of the June 3 presidential election.
With some of Lebanon’s one million Syrian residents and refugees trying to cast their votes, this was the most visible mass gathering the country has witnessed in the past few years and possibly, the largest-ever gathering of Syrians outside their country.
Cars and buses carrying Syrian voters thronged the main highway linking Beirut city centre to Baabda, where the embassy is located, while a stream of people trying to reach the embassy could be seen walking uphill for several kilometres in the blistering heat, amid the smell of gas and the loud nationalistic anthems blaring from some cars.
The trip was not worthwhile for a large number of voters who could not reach the embassy, tucked away in a narrow street in a security complex, as the Lebanese military tried to manage the crowds.
At one point around noon, soldiers began beating up Syrians who were trying to storm the embassy building, using batons and sticks. At the embassy, poll workers were struggling to check voters’ IDs.
The Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, told Al Jazeera that only pre-registered Syrians who have entered Lebanon legally could vote.
In reality, however, anyone could practically walk into the small and stuffy polling room and cast their ballot – in public and under the eyes of the poll workers – without having their papers checked.
Photos of Assad were plastered on cars and minibuses, national flags and t-shirts. Chanting for Assad broke out periodically on the highway, in front of the embassy and even in the polling room. “Shabiha [pro-regime thugs] forever, for your sake Assad” and “God, Syria, Bashar only,” were the most common slogans.
Photos of the two obscure candidates challenging Assad were conspicuously absent from the scene. Several Syrians interviewed by Al Jazeera voiced their support for none other than Assad.
Fifty-four-year-old Marwan Nayef, a Sunni sheikh who fled the violence in Aleppo, was struggling to reach the embassy with the support of a stick on one side and the arm of his son on the other to vote for Assad.
“Voting is worth all the pain. We want Syria to return to what it used to be before the chaos began and Assad is the only one who could do that,” Nayef, who was dressed up in a beige robe and a white cap with golden embroidery, told Al Jazeera.
Nayef said his support for Assad was a clear example that Syrians were not sectarian. He also said that religious men who took the side of the opposition were “wrong”.
Rabab, 25, and her family were stuck in traffic for hours in a bus with posters of Assad on all its windows. The Syrian embassy had provided free transportation for voters in different parts of the country. “We would still have come if we had to pay for transport for the sake of Assad,” Rabab, who wore a sky blue headscarf told Al Jazeera.
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She hails from al-Khalidiyah neighbourhood in the city of Homs. The regime has heavily bombarded the area to rid it from rebels, reducing much of the houses there to rubble, including Rabab’s. “It’s okay. We were to sacrifice our house for Assad, it’s just made up of stones and walls,” she said.
Rabab said she was voting not only because she supported Assad, but also because they heard rumours that those who did not vote would not be allowed to return home.
Several opposition activists claim that officials from the Syrian embassy have toured refugee encampments threatening that the regime would keep a record of all those who did not cast their ballots.
Bassam, a 34-year-old Syrian factory manager in Lebanon, who also came to vote for Assad, said he doubted that officials would threaten refugees. “That is not to say that the Syrian regime would not keep a record of all those who do not vote. This is an intelligence-based regime. My brother is an officer in the air force intelligence and, trust me, I know how much information the regime can get.”
While several members of his family, which comes from Salamiyeh in Hama province, are officers in the Syrian military, Bassam described himself as apolitical.
But he said he would rather vote in case he decided to return to Syria. “I do not want to lose the privileges from the regime in case I don’t vote. “And I know that this regime will stay in power.”