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A Day in the Life of a Long-Term Observer in Lebanon

Marwa Alkhairo is a long-term observer in the Carter Center's election observation mission in Lebanon. This is her first election mission. She graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service with a master's degree in Arab studies in 2008 and certificate in refugee and humanitarian studies. She has had expansive experience in international NGOs, research institutes, film, and advocacy work as related to issues in the Arab world.

After becoming an overnight expert on Lebanon's real estate market during my quest for a furnished apartment, I started my real job as a long-term election observer based in Tarablus (Tripoli) in northern Lebanon. The upcoming parliamentary elections are creating a lot of excitement. Leaders are telling passionate citizens that their country's fate could go different directions depending on which way they vote. 'Elections' is definitely a buzz word around the streets of Tripoli. Campaign posters are being put up in large quantities, especially on private balconies; rallies and campaigns are starting; and political squabbles beginning. We are being told, 'politics is the national sport of Lebanon.'

My colleague and I were eating dinner in a neighborhood restaurant a couple of days ago after a long but very exciting and rewarding day of meetings, analysis, observing, and report writing. The same waiter, Bilal, is always assigned to our table and he has come to memorize, and even laugh, at my food preferences. In the midst of being poked fun of for changing my meal three times, loud gunshots were fired in the air outside while army tanks drove by on the main road. This didn't seem to phase the young and beautiful, who continued to blow their argeela (hookah) and sip their strong Turkish coffees. Meanwhile Bilal continued hitting his pen against his notepad waiting for me to make my final decision. Political events and wars in Lebanon have created numbness to such sounds, which would normally horrify others. 'This is Lebanon,' many Lebanese will tell you, implying that anything is possible and anything can happen at any time.

Tripoli has not had a good reputation recently because of violent outbreaks between different factions in its society. In fact and to my surprise, many criticize it for being a host to extremism. However, there are dangers in overwhelming generalizations and oversimplification. Tripoli has a complex geopolitical reality, social class, and educational levels; a rich history; and a strong desire to maintain its traditions and cultures. Anyone who drives through Lebanon and speaks to its citizens quickly takes notice that the same thing can be said of each region and each district. It is this very diversity and these complexities that make observing the upcoming parliamentary elections so fascinating. 'Simple' would definitely not be used as an adjective to describe Lebanon.

As long-term observers we have the privilege to take these layers apart, which is in my opinion the most rewarding part of election observation. The diversity in each of the districts where we monitor, their people, and individual histories formulate parts of the larger Lebanese mosaic.

As the geography changes from the seacoast, to the cedar forests in the north, and to the snow-filled mountains I joke that Team al-Shamal (the North) has gone through the four seasons of the year in one day. As diverse as the geography is in Lebanon, the political opinions of its people are even more varied.

One item remains the same across districts in both cities and villages alike. Wherever we go, we are always greeted by the same exchange. We begin our meetings by presenting ourselves as long-term observers from The Carter Center. Right away our host asks, 'Carter Center, the one founded by Jimmy Carter?' Nodding yes, an automatic smile of recognition and ease is shown on their face. One said, 'If I did not know the work of Jimmy Carter, I would have refused to meet you.' President Carter carries a lot of respect and weight in the Middle East as a result of his work and focus, especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This certainly eases our job in a country that is new to international election observation missions. Undoubtedly, we still receive some resistance from skeptics.

Many of the individuals we have spoken with have expressed their deepest gratitude for the Carter Center's work and believe that international observation helps bring transparency to their election process. Interlocutors have been extremely thankful that our team has come to observe the elections and begin each meeting with a warm felt 'ahlan o sahlan' (welcome in Arabic), Lebanon is your country, and we are your family.'

Marwa Alkhairo
Carter Center photos

Carter Center long-term observer Marwa Alkhairo in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Campaign Posters

Campaign photos displayed prominently in Tripoli, Lebanon.


Lebanon's Minieh-Dinieh district at sunset.

Learn more about the Carter Center's work in Lebanon

Learn more about the Carter Center's Democracy Program

Read about Carter Center long-term observer Roger Bryant's experiences in Lebanon

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