BEIRUT: Presidential election fever in the southern province of Swaida has generated tension after Druze religious figures attacked a campaign rally featuring blaring music and a woman dancing in traditional dress.
Anti-regime activists from the city said the incident took place Friday, when some two dozen religious leaders, or mashayekh, were informed about the rally taking place in front of the provincial governor’s office in the Druze-majority city.
They hurried to the location and discovered a small number of Baath Party members and intelligence operatives looking on as the woman, holding a picture of President Bashar Assad, was dancing to the accompaniment of loud music played from a public address system.
An activist told The Daily Star that the mashayekh, some of whom were armed, assaulted the gathering, wrecked the tent and audio equipment and escorted the woman away.
He said that the mashayekh first heard that a “religiously observant” woman had decided to dance in public holding the picture of the president, but when they arrived, they discovered that the woman seemed to suffer from a mental disability and might have been coerced into taking part.
“They took particular exception to the sight of a woman wearing traditional, or ‘religious,’ clothing,” he said. “They don’t want religion to be exploited for such purposes.”
The tent and loudspeakers for the mobilization in support of Assad’s re-election were set up again the following day and lower-key rallies have continued, the activist said.
“There have been mediation efforts to calm the situation between the mashayekh and the intelligence bodies, but these have failed up to now.”
The activist said that only small numbers of people had been gathering for election rallies even though fewer than 200,000 people are believed to reside in the province, which is now home to thousands of refugees.
He said the rallies are mostly attended by party officials or schoolchildren, accompanied by their teachers, as the majority of the public views the daily spectacle with “disgust” and stays away.
Separately, the activist said that a Baath Party official from the town was only “briefly interrogated” by the authorities after expressing harsh criticism of the party’s performance during a meeting last month.
An anti-regime activist group, the Swaida Coordination Committee, had originally said the official, Bassam Saab, remained under arrest. Saab told the party meeting that public posts, including that of the presidency, should not be limited to a single family or group. The committee later issued an apology for “unprofessionally” relaying the news of his ongoing detention.