x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

It's a home win as Lebanon goes to the polls

Many people on the streets of Lebanon now feel a pride that their country was able to have such a smooth and safe election.

People are driving around Beirut like madmen on mopeds and motorbikes, a van with a sound system fit for a concert blares out national songs and up and down the city car horns are honking, fireworks exploding and gunshots are being fired into the air: you'd think Lebanon had won a soccer match. But this was Sunday and the uproar was marking the end of a much more crucial fixture, the country's stressful election, which saw March 14th emerge as the winning bloc, perhaps setting Saad, the son of assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri, on course to be the next prime minister.

I was in the capital helping to cover the parliamentary elections and spent a good chunk of my time on the street talking to international observers and Lebanese voters. The first stop was Achrafiyeh, a Christian quarter of Beirut, where locals came to vote at a primary school. In the building, people hurriedly buzzed around looking for the room where they were supposed to cast their ballots. Women in tank tops and shorts, teased hair and painted nails, passed by men dressed in red March 14th T-shirts or orange March 8th hats. Large gold crosses decorated their necks and French could be heard in every corner.

There was a sense of celebration, as family and friends met each other in the polling centre and kissed cheeks in greeting, helping each other find their particular poll booths. The press were crawling in every inch of the school - I recognised the Al-Arabeya TV journalist, the BBC correspondent, the CNN guy. Jimmy Carter, the former US president, dressed in gear fit for a hiking trip, appeared with his observers and gave interviews to all of us.

Later in the afternoon, I went to the Burj Brajne neighbourhood in south Beirut. This was an area targeted by Israel during the war in 2006 which houses many of Hizbollah's supporters. The neighbourhood was also visibly poorer with bullet-ridden buildings and shabbier-clothed locals. There was a poorly constructed Palestinian refugee camp inside it. With large yellow flags flying on the bridges over the highway leading to the neighbourhood, you knew you were entering Hizbollah territory. At the school acting as a polling centre, voters were greeted by soldiers checking ID and people dressed in yellow or draped in Hizbollah flags. It didn't take a genius to know who the majority of people here were voting for. Women and men lined up outside the polling station for hours. One old man who couldn't walk was carried through the doors in a plastic chair by two young men. A woman fainted in the corner because of the heat and was taken away on a stretcher. A Hizbollah MP received applause and cheers as he walked in to see how things were going at the centre. He refused to talk to the press, saying he didn't want to "break the law", referring to the ban on campaigning on the day of the elections.

Lebanese politics are incredibly complicated, with coalitions and politicians changing alliances and threats constantly. But one thing was clear - with a bitter history of street violence, assassinations and wars in the country, the tension in the air was very thick and everyone in the country held their breaths waiting for something to happen. Observers with the Lebanese Transparency Association said it definitely documented fighting, harassment and vote-buying but, by and large, Lebanon surprised everyone.

Compared to elections in the rest of the Middle East, international observers felt they were organised and well-managed, with some changes that needed to be made to meet international standards. However, they all agreed the results reflected the will of the people. And many people I spoke to on the streets over the next couple of days said they felt pride that Lebanon was able to have such a smooth and safe election. One man in Achrafiyeh summed it up very well. When asked for his reaction to the poll said he felt like he could breathe again - that the stress that was looming over his and his friends' and family's heads could subside, at least for a little while. He added that while the Lebanese would never stop talking about politics or predicting outcomes, at least some felt a sense of accomplishment - that now they could try to move forward with hope for a stable Lebanon.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo