Roy Tohme has high hopes for the presidency of Donald Trump. The Lebanese lawyer, 31, says Trump and his policies on the Middle East have been misrepresented and misunderstood.
“We realized soon after Trump won that the rhetoric was like, ‘Trump is against Arabs and Muslims, and Muslims and Arabs are against Trump’,” says Tohme, who lives in Beirut and spoke to TIME by phone. He says that is simply not true, and that Trump’s agenda and policies are being welcomed by some people across the region. “At first some people were afraid. Now that he won, everyone’s coming out.”
In the week since President Trump issued his executive order targeting refugees and citizens of seven countries in the Middle East and Africa, more than 40,000 people have 'liked' the 'Friends of Donald J. Trump in Lebanon' Facebook page. Most of the members seem to be Lebanese but some are from Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Many in the online community praise Trump’s strongman talk of fighting terrorism and ask him to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), using the hashtag #MakeTheMiddleEastGreatAgain.
“We love you mr president keep going,” reads one comment. “He has every right to protect his own people from any foreign threat,” reads another. Others have more simple requests: “Love u trump and my dream is to go to America.”
Perhaps the support for Trump in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. The Obama administration has been criticized here for being too soft on Iran, prioritizing the nuclear deal over solving the Syrian conflict while looking the other way at Tehran’s support of President Bashar Al-Assad's regime. Allowing Iran to pursue an expansionist agenda has a big effect on its areas of influence across the region — especially in Lebanon, where Iran lends support to the powerful Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah. “Lebanese feel they are under the domination of Iran,” says Toufic Hindi, a veteran Lebanese politician and commentator.
Trump, however, has taken a different tack. "He’s put Iran on notice," says Hindi admiringly of national security advisor Michael Flynn's comments on Wednesday after Iran reportedly carried out a missile test. Trump’s promise to play hardball with Iran play into a regional dynamic where Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran compete for influence. Most of Trump's supporters here say they expected that if elected, Hilary Clinton would have had a similar regional approach to Obama.
Some have confidence in Trump due in part to Walid Phares, a Lebanese-American who acted as an advisor on the Middle East for the new president. Hindi was with Phares during his time as part of the political wing of the Lebanese Forces movement during Lebanon’s civil war. “It’s not like having an American advisor,” says Hindi. “He is from the region and he knows well the Arab world from experience.”
There has been some regional backlash against Trump’s ban on nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries and the halting of the U.S. refugee program. Both Iraq and Iran have signaled they may ban U.S. nationals, but there has been more outrage and protest in the U.S. than in the Middle East about these executive orders. Indeed, Kuwait has had similar visa prohibitions on citizens of certain Middle East countries, including Iraq and Syria, since 2011.
Those active on the "Friends of Donald J. Trump in Lebanon" board appear to be overwhelmingly Christian though Tohme says supporters are near equally divided between Christians and Muslims, roughly representing the country's demographics. Trump has clear support from some Muslims too.
Ali Nehme was driving his taxi in Beirut when heard on the radio that Trump had won the election. “I was so happy,” says Nehme. He thinks Trump will be more effective in fighting ISIS than his predecessor Barack Obama. “I would have voted for Trump.”
ISIS still controls swathes of territory in the Middle East right up to the Lebanese border. Obama’s policy in Syria was largely seen as weak and unresponsive, even by opposition groups Washington supported. “I like someone who takes decision, and takes action,” Nehme says.
Nehme shrugs off the ban on the seven majority-Muslim countries and says he doesn’t see it as ban on Muslims, only on terrorists. Lebanon is not one of the countries affected by the ban and like many Lebanese Nehme doubts that ban could ever be extended to his country.
Many on the Facebook page cheered on the ban and Tohme says the U.S. has right to protect itself and temporarily ban nationals from some countries. “Half of those countries don’t have functioning governments,” Tohme says.
What does Tohme hope Trump will accomplish in the next four years? “First, we hope it will be eight years,” says Tohme. “And if America becomes great again, we are sure Lebanon will tag along.”