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Lebanese press for accountability after claims of election fraud

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Following Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on May 6, more than a thousand Lebanese gathered in front of the Ministry of Interior to challenge its official electoral results. According to the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, an election monitoring group, there were approximately 7,300 legal complaints, including the removal of its monitors from electoral polls during the counting of votes.

Few media outlets, national or global, have focused on these electoral violations, covering instead the unexpected victories of Hezbollah in several districts and the severe losses for the pro-West Future Movement party. Nevertheless, Lebanese civil society groups are continuing to push for accountability. “We would have accepted the results if the electoral process was fair,” said Gilbert Hobeich, a member of the new political party Sabaa. “But there have been all kinds of violations even before election day, from buying votes to threats.”

Civil society groups like Sabaa, LiBaladi, and You Stink have been organizing in recent years and are beginning to catch the country’s attention. The latter only recently got involved in elections, having initially formed during Lebanon’s 2015 trash crisis — a political stalemate that resulted in the piling up of trash all over the country’s streets. The group first gained attention for organizing a protest on August 29, 2015, which attracted 250,000 Lebanese from all sides of the political spectrum. More peaceful protests followed, but they were met with violence from police forces when, according to You Stink, infiltrators sent by the regime vandalized several commercial properties.

Since then, You Stink has been unable to protest in public spaces, forcing its members to build a strong online presence, with a Facebook page that has amassed more than 250,000 followers. The group posts cartoons mocking party leaders as well as memes that add ironic captions next to politicians’ tweets, which regularly go viral in Lebanon. Other actions have reached more of a global audience, including one that involved the use of drones to spoof a film made by the Ministry of Tourism. You Stink juxtaposed the picturesque beaches and mountains of the country in the official video with shots of “rivers of trash,” some of which were real footage from locations the original film had intentionally left out of the frame.

Sabaa is another political party born shortly after the trash crisis. Described on their website as “modern” and “cross-sectarian,” Sabaa is considered to be one of the more organized and better funded new parties. As a result, the traditional parties have accused it of being a “foreign export.” Sabaa’s candidate, Paula Yacoubian, a famous television host, won the party’s only parliamentary seat, although Hobeich insists they should have won “at least two or three more seats.”

Despite having a smaller online presence than Sabaa, LiBaladi is another new political party gaining momentum. It has reached a wide audience in its campaigning by partnering with celebrities — like award-winning director Nadine Labaki and actor Fouad Yammine — who often have more followers on social media than the average Lebanese TV channel. Even TV host Dima Sadek dedicated the last show of her popular program to LiBaladi’s Naila Geagea and Ziyad Baroud, a former Minister of Interior who doesn’t affiliate himself with any of the traditional parties.

Despite the three groups’ intense campaigning in the last few months, Lebanon’s traditional parties have created a united front against them to limit their rise through methods used by totalitarian regimes. Sabaa, LiBaladi and You Stink have all received limited coverage from the country’s main TV channels, which are affiliated with the mainstream parties. They have also faced difficulty hosting their campaigning activities in private spaces. For example, Sabaa had to cancel an event at a restaurant last year because its host received pressure from local officials to close. Meanwhile, around the same time, more than 10 members from You Stink were arrested for hanging posters in Beirut that depicted the faces of the country’s leaders with a caption, saying, “Report them to 112 [911 in Lebanon], those who raped the power of the state.”

Despite the renewed shunning of these groups following claims of election fraud, the nonviolent fight is far from over. While Sabaa and LiBaladi intend to appeal several electoral results, You Stink asked its followers via a Facebook poll if it should “move to the streets.” The results showed resounding support.