Three people were killed and five others wounded this week in the south Lebanese
city of Sidon as Hezbollah members clashed with supporters of the Sunni Salafi
preacher Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir.
The clashes came at a tense time for
Lebanon, with all eyes fixed on the civil war in neighboring Syria.
was the first serious violence in Sidon since the outbreak of the rebellion in
Syria. The city has become a focal point, alongside Tripoli in the north of the
country, for the activity of Salafi Islamists in Lebanon. The events were an
ominous indicator of possible further sectarian strife to come.
fighting in Sidon broke out following an argument between Hezbollah members and
Salafis over the placing of Hezbollah posters in the city. Shi’a Muslims in
Lebanon and elsewhere are preparing for the festival of Ashura.
festival, a central date on the calendar of Shi’a Islam, marks the killing of
Imam Hussein bin Ali by Umayyad forces at the Battle of Kerbala in the year 690.
Hussein is a central martyr and a person of veneration for Shi’a.
of their preparation for Ashura, Hezbollah supporters began to put up posters
celebrating their movement, raising the ire of Sunni Salafis in the town. Sheikh
Assir, in a sermon at the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Sidon, issued an ultimatum
giving Hezbollah 48 hours to remove the posters.
When associates of
Sheikh Assir sought to remove a long-standing banner showing the face of Hezbollah leader
Hassan Nasrallah, Nasrallah’s supporters attacked them and a gunfight broke out
in the Taameer neighborhood, close to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein
al-Hilweh Two of Assir’s bodyguards, Ali Samhoun and Lubnan al-Azi, were shot
dead. A young Egyptian was killed in the crossfire.
A Hezbollah official,
Sheikh Zaid Daher, was wounded.
This was the worst act of violence in
Sidon since the civil war of 1975 to 1990.
Senior officials, including
President Michel Suleiman, called for calm following the killings and for the
arrest of those responsible. Given Hezbollah’s de facto dominance of Lebanon,
however, few expect that arrests will be rapidly forthcoming.
media reports following the funerals of the two bodyguards speculated as to the
possibility that the incident might trigger the founding by Sheikh Assir of an
A senior Sunni cleric, Sheikh Muhammad Ali Jouzo, said that
the highest Sunni religious authorities in Lebanon could not prevent Assir from
arming his men when “Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Syrian Socialist National
Party and the Ba’ath Party have weapons.”
The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar
newspaper called the incidents “a dress rehearsal for a civil war, featuring
sectarian incitement followed by armed attacks.”
Assir’s press office,
meanwhile, accused Hezbollah of trying to kill the sheikh, referring to the
movement as the “party of Iran.”
Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir has in recent
months emerged as a focal point for Sunni opposition to Hezbollah’s de facto
hegemony in Lebanon.
With a Sunni rebellion now advancing against the
beleaguered Assad regime in Syria, Lebanon’s Sunnis are
Hezbollah’s domination of the country derives from its superior
power. This in turn owes much to the presence of the pro-Iranian Assad regime,
which has acted as an essential hinterland for the movement and a conduit for
Assad is now fighting for his life. Meanwhile, across the
region, Sunni Islamists have emerged as the big winners of the Arab upheavals of
last year. These facts have not gone un-noticed in Lebanon.
They make it
possible for Lebanese Sunnis to hope for a change in the sectarian balance of
power in the country – to their advantage.
But such a change will have to
be fought for. And Hezbollah is a formidable opponent, with or without Assad’s
support. The organization is well-armed, and capable of great brutality. It
enjoys the backing and sponsorship of a powerful sovereign state:
In the events of May 2008, it contemptuously brushed aside an
attempt by the then government of Fuad Siniora to exert its sovereign
Hezbollah and its Amal allies at that time took over west
Beirut in 48 hours.
The hastily assembled armed element among Saad
Hariri’s supporters proved unable to mount even a semblance of resistance to the
Lebanon’s Sunnis lack a notable martial tradition. Hariri’s
movement is characterized by a determination to avoid renewed civil war and a
desire to propose a commercial and civil Lebanon in opposition to Hezbollah’s
ideal of mukawama
The problem with this orientation of
Hariri’s, of course, is that it proved defenseless before Hezbollah’s
It is for this reason that Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir of Sidon has
achieved his unlikely eminence over the last 18 months. Before the outbreak of
the uprising in Syria, the grey-bearded cleric was little known outside of his
But his fiery speeches against Assad and his willingness to
openly challenge Hezbollah’s unspoken authority have made him a focal point for
the Lebanese Sunni Islamist desire to remake the balance between Sunni and Shi’a
in Lebanon in their favor.
The murder of senior intelligence officer
Wissam Hassan in Beirut last month has further fueled Sunni anger and
Hassan was closely associated with the Hariri movement. Many
Sunnis suspect Hezbollah and the Assad regime of responsibility for the
Ultimately, events in Lebanon are likely to be driven by the
course of developments in Syria. The rebels in that country are making slow but
steady progress against the Assad regime. The dictator has money, international
support and equipment – but he lacks a sufficient number of loyal fighters to
retake control of the country. As a result, he is losing ground.
fighting has reached Damascus. Previously untouched suburbs such as Kafr Soussa
and Mezze are the targets of rebel fire. It isn’t over for Assad yet – perhaps
it won’t be for a long while – but he is losing.
If and when Assad’s fall
looks imminent, it is likely that the Sunnis in Lebanon will launch a bid to
remake the sectarian balance of power in Lebanon. The first shots in this bid
may have been fired this week in Sidon. •