Behind the Lines: A sign of things to come?

Clashes between Salafis, Hezbollah in Sidon point to the Sunni community’s desire to change the sectarian balance of power in Lebanon.

LEBANON’S HEZBOLLAH al-Mahdi boy scouts 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
LEBANON’S HEZBOLLAH al-Mahdi boy scouts 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
This 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.
The 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.
This 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.
As part 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.
Lebanese 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 armed wing.
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 restive.
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 Iranian arms.
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: Iran.
In the events of May 2008, it contemptuously brushed aside an attempt by the then government of Fuad Siniora to exert its sovereign authority.
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 Shi’a forces.
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 (resistance).
The problem with this orientation of Hariri’s, of course, is that it proved defenseless before Hezbollah’s guns.
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 local area.
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 concern.
Hassan was closely associated with the Hariri movement. Many Sunnis suspect Hezbollah and the Assad regime of responsibility for the murder.
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.
The 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. •