x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Thousands fly from UAE to take part in 'historic' Lebanese election

'People feel as though they can vote freely,' says an former candidate.

Ghassan Aridi was among the estimated thousands of Lebanese residents in the UAE who travelled to their home country to make their voices heard in yesterday's general election. His vote was one of the millions cast to determine the direction that Lebanon will take over the next four years - whether to keep the governing March 14 coalition in power, or elect the opposition March 8 alliance, which is led by Hizbollah.

"This really is a vote for the future of Lebanon," the 50-year-old Dubai resident said in a telephone interview from Baissour in the Aley region, where he and his wife had cast their ballots."The election is so crucial this year because of the choice between the two main factions, which both have such different visions." Joseph Nahra, the president of the Lebanese Business Council in Dubai and the northern Emirates, had been running as an independent candidate before finally withdrawing last week.

"There is certainly a huge number from the UAE who have gone back to do their duty as Lebanese," he said yesterday, shortly before boarding a flight to Beirut to take part in the election. "It is a wedding for democracy, without a foreign state in the country. People feel as though they can vote freely and express their point of view." Even though Mr Nahra was positive about the process, he opted out of the race because the closely fought battle between the two main political factions had left independents with little real chance.

Similarly, Albert Matta, the president of the Lebanese Business Council in Abu Dhabi, had been running for a seat in Aley, but he too decided to withdraw after he was unable to secure enough support. He estimated thousands of people from the UAE had returned to Lebanon to take part in the elections. "So many people I know have gone to vote, because this is a historic day with a huge number of people taking part for the future of Lebanon," said Mr Matta, who has lived in the UAE for more than 40 years.

Mustapha Kanaan, an Abu Dhabi resident from the Baalbek region, said "quite a few" people he knew had travelled to Lebanon, but with the result all but decided in his area he had opted not to. "They will vote for the March 8 alliance, so it does not make a difference if I go or not," he said. "Here, everyone is watching TV to see what happens in the most important recent election in Lebanon." The UAE's Lebanese population is estimated to exceed 130,000 - part of a massive 14-million-strong diaspora stretching from South America to Australia.

Lebanon does not have a postal voting system and thousands have returned to vote, with some believed to be have been shuttled in by political parties. A spokesman for Etihad Airways said flights to Beirut had been full for the past week. Flights originating in Melbourne and Sydney, where there are large Lebanese populations, had also been "very busy".