Lebanon News

A reporter’s Metn notebook: You had to see it to believe it, and even then …

During the vote count for the 2000 American presidential elections, many Lebanese would joke about Florida resembling Metn. Now the comparisons have come full circle.

Instead of waking up to the usual bland, early-morning election coverage of empty polling stations and low turnouts in the first half-hour of voting, the public was greeted first thing Sunday morning with a new directive by Interior Minister Elias Murr, namely use voting curtains at your own risk.

To get a feel for the election, this reporter visited a polling station in Broummana, and the first indication that a real race might be in the works came upon seeing activists from the National Liberal Party and the Free Patriotic Movement.

Campaign volunteers who wore T-shirts bearing Michel Aoun’s likeness and brandishing red, white and gold NLP flags were working enthusiastically  and lending their weight to Gabriel Murr’s campaign.

Photos of Gabriel Murr were everywhere in sight, and after a weeks of failed attempts at a “compromise candidate,” posters of fellow candidate Ghassan Mokheiber gradually spread out over Metn in only the last few days of the race.

The last 24 hours before election day involved a frantic effort to pass out pamphlets, judging by Metn roads that were littered with white scraps of paper promoting Mokheiber.

But the eventual, unannounced “winner” of the race, Myrna Murr, was nowhere to be found ­ instead, rows of taxis lining the roads in Broummana featured posters of her father, MP and former Interior Minister Michel Murr, whose election machine was running the show.

Despite the tension in the run-up to the election, calm prevailed at one of Broummana’s main polling stations, where the infamous Elias Murr directive on optional private voting appeared to be largely ignored.

Polling station officials would gesture toward the curtain as voters picked up their ballots, apparently disregarding the entire fuss.

Outside the station, the mayor of Broummana, Pierre Ashqar, stood casually and chatted with voters.

Asked about Elias Murr’s allegations that his uncle Gabriel was involved in bribery, Ashqar shrugged and said: “I haven’t heard anything about that.”

But down the road, in a small village called Nabay, Metn’s reputation did not disappoint.

The polling station, set up in a church hall, seemed more interesting, particularly when a Gabriel Murr delegate, asked about how the election was going, whispered “later, later.”

A Myrna Murr campaign del-

egate stood at the ballot box, draping her arms around a cluster of voters gathered there.

When the polling station official was asked whether this was legal, he answered “of course not” and tried to shoo away the delegate, who took offense.

“I’m obliged to do this,” she complained in response. “These are the orders.”

A man then intervened to inquire about the need for such intrusive questions.

Asked who he was, “the mayor” was the confident reply.

Both the mayor ­ whose name I later learned was Abboud Atallah ­ and the Internal Security Forces officer who kicked me out of the polling station declined to identify themselves.

The ISF officer informed of yet another new directive, namely that journalists had only five minutes to do their jobs inside polling stations and could not take statements from polling station officials, whom thousands of Lebanese watching television were getting to know throughout the day.

In Bourj Hammoud, the Tashnak Party machine was in usual form, processing thousands of voters’ papers and sending them to the correct polling stations.

People were chatting about whether the infamous Raffi Madoyan would make another appearance, like in 2000, when he was assaulted by pro-Tashnak activists.

But election-day incidents in Bourj Hammoud remained minor, and many voters were observed using the curtain. While the security presence was high, the presence of lunch trays provided by the Gabriel Murr campaign inside army vehicles seemed to hint that no civil war was about to break out.

Election addicts got their fix from television throughout the day, watching the standard coverage of voters bussed in from the Bekaa and declaring their loyalties to the cameras ­ sometimes Michel Murr and occasionally Gabriel Murr ­ before being straightened out and coming up with the name of Myrna.

Then the long election day turned into night, and the dueling “victory speeches” by the Gabriel and Myrna camps were only a prelude to televised coverage ­ mainly on MTV ­ that stretched past 4.30am.

A quick flip over to MTV’s satellite station confirmed that yes, the images of army troops stationed at the Jdeideh Serail were indeed being beamed out to anyone outside Lebanon who was interested.

Metn MP Nassib Lahoud and various others informed the public that Hemlaya would now join Dade County, Florida, in the history books for people who might have an interest in the idea that every vote counts in an election, like Lionel Jospin.

The only remaining election detail to delve into might involve ascertaining the name of the person who apparently forgot to sign his name, after 71,276 people apparently had no problem doing so.

 

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