|Date: Apr 21, 2018|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Hezbollah supporters in U.S. afraid to vote|
|Joseph Haboush| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: Washington’s strong stance against the actions of Hezbollah has filtered into the Lebanese diaspora that supports the group, with some saying they are concerned the U.S. government could penalize them for taking part in upcoming parliamentary elections. Several Lebanese nationals residing in the U.S. say they have grown increasingly concerned after the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2017 was posted on Congress’s website last August, with the aim of tightening the noose on the financing of the party and any affiliated military, media, financial and social institutions. The U.S. has long designated the entirety of Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
But the Lebanese Embassy in the United States tried to ease concerns, saying that voters will be casting their ballot in secret, “which is a core value in the United States’ system of self-governance, at a voting booth guaranteeing privacy and anonymity, as required by Lebanese law.”
The May 6 election is the country’s first to allow voting by Lebanese nationals overseas.
A statement released by the embassy said that the “voters should not be intimidated, blackmailed or led to believe that a vote could be considered a ‘material support’ to any organization.”
This is in an apparent reference to the American bill that states the U.S. president may impose sanctions on any foreign person who is determined to “knowingly assist, sponsor or provide significant financial, material or technological support” to Hezbollah-linked organizations. But the embassy said twice in its statement that voting is not considered material support and that voting is a right and essential part of democracy.
Gaby Issa, Lebanese ambassador to the United States and himself a former U.S. citizen, told The Daily Star that he would ensure safe, secure and anonymous voting. “But I cannot control people’s fears, especially when they are unjustified as we mentioned in our statement.”
One Baalbeck native who now resides in Washington, D.C., and asked only to be identified by his initials S.S., hinted that his reason for not registering to vote from the U.S. was out of fear. “But if I were to vote, I’m going to vote for those who serve the interests of my hometown, which would be for ‘you-know-who.’”
Asked if he was aware of other Hezbollah supporters in the U.S. being scared to vote, he said, “You know the answer, and I can’t explain too much over the phone.”
A Hezbollah minister in the Lebanese government pointed to low voter registration among Lebanese expats in Michigan, an area with a high number of Shiites from all over Lebanon, as an indicator that Hezbollah supporters are afraid to participate in elections.
Noting that only 1,265 residents of the state registered to vote, he told The Daily Star, “There are over 10,000 Lebanese from Bint Jbeil and Tibnin in Detroit alone.”
But Issa says low voter registration was not unique to Michigan or hubs where Hezbollah may have supporters in the state like Dearborn. “The low number of registrants is due to the short time allowed after registration was made available online and the refusal of the government and Parliament to extend the registration time for another month as was proposed by the foreign minister,” he said.
Issa even said that Dearborn and Michigan both had one of the higher rates of registration compared to other states and cities.
Nevertheless, the Hezbollah minister admitted that potential voters were intimidated by the prospect of being targeted by U.S. authorities.
“But let’s be realistic, no American is going to go inside the voting booth with the Lebanese voter,” he said, adding that the real disadvantage was not being allowed to campaign.
“Other [Lebanese] political parties can hold events and gatherings for voters in the U.S., but we can’t,” the minister noted.
One alternative for nervous U.S. residents would be to return to Lebanon to cast their vote, but some are even wary of this option. “If I decide to go [to Lebanon] and vote, what guarantees that I won’t be questioned about it when I land in the States? For me, it’s not worth the headache to vote, especially since I live here [in the U.S.],” the Baalbeck native said.