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Fault Lines Apparent At the Polls
Religion Remains Divisive in Capital

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 30, 2005

BEIRUT, May 29 -- Outside a Starbucks cafe in a Christian section of Beirut, a man removed his Yankees cap to show a battle scar -- received, he said, when he was a 14-year-old carrying a Kalashnikov in Lebanon's civil war. Now 30, the man, who identified himself only as Ramy, expresses little faith in any of the politicians vying for leadership of this religiously fractured society.

"Why vote? Why vote for someone whom I don't believe?" asked Ramy, who said he feared police harassment if he gave his full name.

As Lebanese in Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods went to the polls Sunday, Ramy sat it out. He smoked Marlboros, talked of a new civil war and watched rival Christian factions shout slogans across a crowded square, bristling with soldiers, in Beirut's fashionable Ashrafieh neighborhood.

The map of election day emotions almost exactly mirrored the division of this religiously atomized city into Christian and Muslim enclaves.

Sunni Muslims, buoyed by their almost certain sweep of the Beirut parliamentary seats, voted in large numbers, and turned their polling places into festive spectacles. Overall turnout was low, 28 percent by the government's estimate. Shiite Muslims were cautious and expressed hope that the new government would tend to the problems of unemployment and poverty. And many Christians, angry about a 2000 election law that limits their influence in national parliamentary elections, stayed home.

"They're watching TV," Ramy said.

At the Verdun Public School in a wealthy and mostly Sunni neighborhood, voters divided up by gender and religion. Tamam Jaber Mir, 45, emerged from a room reserved for Sunni women married to Sunni men, and called the vote the most important of her life.

"Because of the assassination of Hariri and the Syrian withdrawal, we are safer now," she said, referring to two events in the last four months that many thought might remake Lebanon's political life. Elated and surprised by a rare moment of national unity and inspired by widely shared disgust with the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on Feb. 14, many Lebanese hoped a strong, unifying leader would emerge from the current round of elections, which continue by region until June 19.

For Sunnis, that leader is already clear: Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri's son, a charismatic but politically untested 35-year-old businessman.

"He is coming to continue on the path, Saadeddine, the son of the martyr," a voice sang from stereo speakers across the road from the Verdun school polling site. The song, one of dozens of political anthems composed since Rafiq Hariri's death, was set to a pop electronic version of the Lebanese national dance, the Dabke.

In Beirut, the first region to vote, there was little drama about the outcome. Pre-election horse-trading and backroom alliances meant that nine of the 19 seats were uncontested, and there was little real opposition to Hariri and his allies for control of the rest. Outside polling stations, voters were handed small squares of paper with Hariri's political list written on them, making voting as easy as stuffing the pre-printed ballots into brown envelopes ready for the ballot box.

For Dib Tajrine, 58, the lack of real political choice and the reemergence of a familiar cast of sectarian leaders made him cynical about the euphoric feelings of Lebanese solidarity many felt during massive demonstrations in March.

"The elections results are already decided -- there is no competition, no candidates to chose," he said while out for his Sunday walk along the Corniche, Beirut's seaside boardwalk. He said he believed that the protests "were orchestrated, that a machine directed them. I don't know who was running it, but it was a machine."

Tajrine said he wasn't voting. He identified himself, reluctantly, as a Sunni.

"That you ask the question, that's the problem," he said.

While people bustled outside polls in Muslim neighborhoods, the streets were quiet in Christian areas. In Sodeco, a line of voters, many wearing Diesel jeans and designer sunglasses, formed outside the French Cultural Center, but they were French Lebanese voting on the European Union constitution.

"I'm more interested in this," said Tony Abouzeid, 31, who, as a resident of the Bekaa Valley, won't vote in the Lebanese elections until June 19. "This is a more normal election, no cheating."

Christian politicians allied with Hariri pleaded with voters to get out and vote, if only to give greater legitimacy to the new government. Outside the Tabaris Public School in the Ashrafieh neighborhood, Gebran Tueni, a Greek Orthodox candidate, urged Christians to resist calls by a maverick Christian leader, Michel Aoun, and others to boycott the elections.

"Don't consider these elections already over; these elections are a referendum on March 14 and you shouldn't consider them appointments," he said, referring to the date of the largest protests, which brought hundreds of thousands of people into Martyrs' Square in Beirut one month after Hariri's assassination, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

A few minutes later, instant messages from Tueni started popping up on local cell phones: "The battle is not over yet! To win, we need your massive voting on May 29!"

In Bashoura, a neighborhood with a large Shiite population, Nabila Rawass, 53, said she was concerned primarily about economic issues. She lamented the high unemployment rate that has driven many young people, including her own son, to seek work in other countries.

"I want national unity, stability and for my son to find work here, inshallah," or God willing, she said.

Outside a massive new mosque on Martyrs' Square, a few dozen people lingered around a bier laden with white flowers that marks Hariri's grave. The site has become an impromptu public shrine, flanked by huge pictures of Hariri and images of the protests.

Wael Mreysh, 25, had just voted for the first time, for Saad Hariri's list, and was visiting the burial site to pay his respects.

"He delivered the country from civil war," Mreysh said. Rafiq Hariri, a billionaire businessman who made a fortune through close economic ties with the Saudi royal family, was instrumental in rebuilding the downtown of war-ravaged Beirut. The mosque, which is still unfinished, was one of Hariri's projects, for which he is beloved by many and respected by others.

As the Lebanese struggled to harness the political momentum unleashed by Hariri's assassination, many lamented that voters and politicians had lapsed into old sectarian habits. But construction, at least, continued, and across the street from Hariri's grave a pile driver pounded away on a Sunday afternoon, preparing the ground for a new neighborhood of high-end housing.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company