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  1. Florida Politics

Lebanese expats in Tampa Bay area vote in historic election

LUIS SANTANA   |   Times Representative information for the Lebanese Force Party as well as voting information packets on display in the party office. Lebanese citizens vote in their nation's elections at the Doubletree by Hilton in Tampa. This marks the first time in Lebanon's democracy that citizens, living outside the country, will have the ability to vote for their representatives. [Sunday April 29, 2018] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
LUIS SANTANA | Times Representative information for the Lebanese Force Party as well as voting information packets on display in the party office. Lebanese citizens vote in their nation's elections at the Doubletree by Hilton in Tampa. This marks the first time in Lebanon's democracy that citizens, living outside the country, will have the ability to vote for their representatives. [Sunday April 29, 2018] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published Apr. 29, 2018

Like many Americans, Ziad Sakr is concerned about the state of the economy, the plight of refugees and ongoing wars in the Middle East.

But Sakr, 49, considers how these matters affect both the United States — his adopted homeland for the past 23 years — and his native Lebanon.

Sakr votes regularly in the United States. On Sunday, he again had a say in the future of Lebanon.

For the first time in the country's history, Lebanese nationals living around the world could vote for its 128-seat parliament, with those residing in the United States casting ballots on Sunday.

Local voting took place at the DoubleTree by Hilton Tampa Airport Hotel, at 4500 W Cypress St.

"Everybody is supporting and voting for what they believe," Sakr said at the polling station.

A member of Lebanon's Free Patriotic Movement political party, Sakr is originally from the northern part of that nation.

Lebanese expatriates residing in 33 countries around the world voted Sunday, two days after thousands voted in six Arab countries.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Lebanese Information Center, besides Tampa, Florida had polling locations in Jacksonville and Coral Gables. Nationally, there were 22 polling places in 14 states.

According to Lebanon's state-run news agency, while there are millions of nationals living abroad, about 83,000 registered voters live outside the nation.

Sakr, who assisted in organizing for his party at the polling place, said 201 Lebanese are registered to vote in the Tampa Bay area. Over 10,000 registered for the election throughout the United States. All maintain Lebanese citizenship, even if they are U.S. citizens.

Sunday's vote count won't be published until after Lebanon's parliamentary elections are completed on May 6.

"We will always have a connection to Lebanon," Milad Wehbe, 48, said at the Tampa polling place. A member of the Lebanese Forces party, he moved to the United States from northern Lebanon 20 years ago.

Wehbe was also organizing for his party.

"We have friends and family there, so we want it better for them," he said. "Some may want to return there someday. It runs in our blood."

The Lebanese elections are the first in nine years after being postponed by parliament due to security concerns over the war in neighboring Syria. Terms were set to expire in 2013 but lawmakers have approved several extensions since then, the last one this past June for another 11 months. Activists have accused politicians of delaying the vote for political reasons.

Beirut native Elie Choueifati, 47, has lived in the United States for 18 years. He said four Lebanese political parties are represented in the Tampa area: the Lebanese Forces, of which he is a member and a polling organizer; the Free Patriotic Movement; the Progressive Socialist Party and the Future Movement.

While Choueifati said the parties agree on many major issues, including restoring an economy stalled by decades of strife in and around Lebanon, like the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, the Lebanese political parties have stark differences as well.

But in the bay area, Choueifati said political differences do not separate the Lebanese.

"We know we all want what is best for our country," he said at the Tampa polling place. "We have different parties but are one community. Our kids play together. We eat together. We are a family here."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.