Saida is often referred to as the “capital city of South Lebanon,” lying 40 km below Beirut and acting as a gate through which most on their way further south must pass. A coastal city that has been inhabited for 6,000 years, the current population of Saida is predominantly Sunni, though it is also home to Christians, Shia and Alawis. There are Palestinians living in Saida and in the Ain al-Hilweh and Miyeh Miyeh refugee camps on the outskirts of the city-district, though they are not citizens and thus cannot vote. Of those in Saida who can cast a ballot on June 7, a total 51,395 are registered to vote this year.
Figure: Sectarian make-up of Saida voters in 2005, from the Office of Statistics and Documentation
**The three main Christian sects: Maronites, Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox
Regardless of the city’s diverse religious makeup, the Sunni residents are the ones being courted by candidates for the two seats (both Sunni) up for grabs, as this sect made up almost 80% of the voters in the 2005 elections (see figure above). Christians, who accounted for over 11% of the voters in 2005, mostly support the Hariri family, and their voting patterns will most likely remain unchanged this year.
While in 2005 Saida voted in March 14 MP Bahia Hariri and March 8 MP Osama Saad, the only candidates in the running for the seats, this year the Future Movement has put forward a second candidate, current Premier Fouad Siniora, which has created quite a controversy throughout the district because two out of three candidates are with the majority, which March 8 has called unfair.
While analysts say that Siniora has a high chance of winning against his opponent, Osama Saad is a local powerhouse who will definitely put up a fight.
Since 1992, current Education Minister and MP Bahia Hariri, who is the sister of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has been one out of the two deputies representing Saida. As a native of the city and with her close links to her highly-popular brother, she is expected to easily take the seat she is running for. Perhaps because of this, there are very few posters of her hung in the city, though many pictures of her brother, Rafik Hariri; his son, Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri; and fellow candidate PM Siniora are to be found decorating Saida’s streets.
Osama Saad, looking out to secure the second Sunni seat, comes from one of two prominent families that have been involved in Saida’s political scene since the 1950s. Osama Saad himself has served one and a half parliamentary terms so far (the half term was served starting in 2003 following the death of his brother, Mustafa, whose health deteriorated following an explosion that blinded him and killed his daughter in the 1980s). Saad’s father Maarouf, who founded the Popular Nasserite Movement in Lebanon, also served in parliament until he was assassinated while participating in a protest by fishermen in 1975. The elder Saad has been credited with bringing pan-Arabism to Lebanon, an ideology that is still strong in Saida.
The other historically prominent family in Saida is the Bizris, and though Abdurrahman Bizri is the current head of the municipality, a member of the family has not served in parliament since the Hariris joined the political scene in the early 90s. Nonetheless, the Bizris are known to have a strong popular base, and their support for Osama Saad in the current election has a positive impact on his chances.
Osama Saad is known for being “close” to the people, often seen chatting with fishermen over steaming plates of foul moudamas, or passing time with local workers and poor people. He is also closely aligned with March 8 – often flashing his “resistance” credentials as a representative of a city in the South, a region Hezbollah and Amal dominate. Though it has not publically said so, locals say that Hezbollah is the Saad campaign’s principle funder.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is running for the first time in Saida, and while he has served in the cabinet several times, some of the district’s residents believe that Siniora has been too long absent from his home town to be a viable representative. Some, especially supporters of Osama Saad, even claim that Siniora is an American puppet who wants to change the dynamics of the city’s representation and change it to all March 14.
However, Future supporters say they have wanted Siniora to run for a seat in parliament for years, and that with his weight in the government and his resources, he, along with Bahia Hariri, will be more efficient in improving and developing the city. With Future Movement supporters making up a majority in Saida, there is big chance that Siniora will indeed get the second Sunni seat.
The biggest change that Saida has witnessed since the elections in 2005 (besides there now being three candidates instead of the usual two), is the fact that, for the first time since 1960, the city is its own district this year, and with two Sunni seats to fill, it is the only constituency in the South where the electoral battle is taking place among Sunnis only. As the rest of the South is predominantly composed of opposition-aligned Shia voters, Osama Saad’s March 8 backers will not be as effective in helping him win as in the past, when Saida was part of the vast district of the South, and voters from other cities helped bring him in to power.
As Ossama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, told NOW Lebanon, this year’s elections will “create an identity for Saida, which the people of Saida have been wanting for a long time.” In essence, it is a fight between voting for a purely March 14 identity or a hybrid March 14-March 8 identity.
The biggest factor affecting the votes is, as usual, personal loyalties based on longstanding family ties and traditions, as well as political leanings, rather than electoral platforms. One Saida resident told NOW Lebanon that electoral campaigns mean so little “because here, people don’t look for programs or work; only for political view,” and those with Osama Saad will continue to support March 8 and vice versa.
However, the violent May events of last year have arguably created a group of voters who, after witnessing the opposition-led attacks against Sunnis and Future Movement institutions in Beirut, are more ambivalent toward Osama Saad because of his endorsement by March 8. Still, analysts like Safa argue that by the time of the elections, talk of May 7 will “die down.”
In addition to the alliances among prominent families, the votes of Jamaa Islamiya supporters will affect the outcome. The party’s independent candidate in Saida, head of the Jamaa political bureau Ali Sheikh Ammar, will in the next few days withdraw from the race as part of a deal with the Future Movement in which the Jamaa’s Imad al-Hout has been included on the March 14 list in the Beirut III district. While it is still unclear how many Jamaa supporters will cast ballots in Saida, it is fairly certain they will vote March 14, which is good news for Hariri and Siniora.