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Hezbollah question hangs over Lebanese voting in US

Lebanese Americans fear voting for Hezbollah-backed slates may amount to 'material support' for 'terrorist' group under US law
Last time Lebanon held parliamentary elections was in 2009 (AFP/ file photo)
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DEARBORN, United States - Next week, Lebanon will vote for a new parliament for the first time in nine years, and on Sunday, nationals living in the United States will be able to vote in such elections for the first time.

The Hezbollah question is overshadowing this historic precedent. The group, a dominant party in Lebanese politics, is designated by Washington as a foreign terrorist organisation.

Voters fear choosing slates that include Hezbollah members may amount to "material support for a terrorist organisation," a punishable offence in the US.

About 10,000 Lebanese nationals have registered to vote on 29 April, a modest tally for a population that numbers about 500,000 people.

Dearborn, a Detroit suburb of 100,000 people, is home to a big Lebanese community that hails mostly from southern Shia-dominant villages, but only 800 have registered to vote this month.

Is it likely that they would charge you with material support? No. Is it possible? Yes.

- Nabih Ayad, lawyer

Ali Jawad, the founder of Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities (LAHC), a Dearborn-based Lebanese-American human services and advocacy group, said not enough effort has been exerted to raise awareness about the vote in the US.

He added that concerns about voting for Hezbollah-backed slates are a major factor in the low voter registration in the Detroit area.

Jawad said the fear is casting a shadow over the fairness of the election.

"Why is it that some people are voting comfortably while others are in fear?" he said.

Asked if such worry is warranted, Jawad told Middle East Eye: "Of course, there's still no clear definition of  'material support'."

Jawad said he would have liked to vote for Yassine Jaber, a veteran politician and former minister of the economy, who is known for his moderate views. But Lebanese election law requires voting for an entire slate, and Jaber's list includes Hezbollah candidates.

"Why would I subject myself to questioning, even if there's a two percent chance of that," he said.

Assurances

The Lebanese embassy in Washington has tried to calm anxieties about the matter, emphasising the secrecy of the vote.

"In all of the established voting centers, voters will be given the opportunity to cast a secret ballot, which is a core value in the United States' system of self-governance, at a voting booth guaranteeing the privacy and anonymity, as required by Lebanese law," the embassy said in a statement.

It added that the elections are held in cooperation with the US State Department, ensuring that the process is in compliance with American law.

"The individual voter's choice is anonymous, and voters should not be intimidated, blackmailed or led to believe that a vote could be considered 'material support' to any organisation," the statement says. "Voting is not 'material support'."

Still, Nabih Ayad, a Detroit-based civil rights attorney who handles terrorism cases, said he cannot rule out an interpretation of the law where voting can in fact be considered material support by the US government.

Lebanese expatriates in Arab countries voted on 27 April, photo in Lebanon's embassy in Riyadh (Reuters)

"We really don't know at this stage," Ayad told MEE. "Whether voting rises to the level of material support, that area is still unclear. It's still unclear through our own government, and it's not clear in the courts."

Given the ambiguity of the law, voters who choose Hezbollah candidates may be taking a risk, Ayad said.

He said only the Department of Justice, which prosecutes terrorism cases, can address the question adequately.

People who are already on US government watchlists run the risk of greater scrutiny if US authorities find out that they voted for slates that included Hezbollah-affiliated candidates, he said.

"Is it likely that they would charge you with material support? No. Is it possible? Yes," the lawyer said.

The Department of Justice did not respond to MEE's request for comment.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the freedom to verbally support blacklisted organisations, but not all advocacy in that area is protected. If such speech is made in coordination with the group, it falls under material support.

As Ayad put it: "You can legally wave a Hezbollah flag in the US, but if the government finds out that an operative from the group directed you to do so, you're in trouble."

Secret vote

The secrecy pledge from the embassy has not alleviated the widespread concerns.

Jawad said he has no confidence in Lebanese consulates to protect voter information.

"In Lebanon, loyalties lie with political parties, not the state," he said. "When the loyalty is partisan, there is no trust."

The privacy of voters in the diaspora has been reportedly breached already. A former minister has been accused of using registration data from the Lebanese embassy in Paris to send election ads to voters.

Ayad said the US government is not to be trusted either.

"Just like your bank account and medical records are supposed to be private, but if the US government wants to do an international investigation for terrorism, they'll get that information," he said.

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Legal issues aside, there is also a question of whether Lebanese Americans should vote in the elections of a country where they do not reside.

Advocates of allowing expats to vote have argued that the Lebanese abroad are major contributors to their homeland's economy; they also represent the country wherever they are in the world.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based think-tank, said only people who live in the country should be able to vote, acknowledging that it's a controversial position.

"I want Lebanese Americans to vote in American elections," Zogby, who is Lebanese American himself, told MEE.

"I want them to elect people here who will be decision-makers that will do good to countries in the Middle East. I don't want them to vote in foreign elections where they don't have to pay the consequences for who gets elected."