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Lebanese Shiites' Divisions Intensify Over Syria

The murder of a student leader of an anti-Hezbollah Shiite group has served as a reminder of historical and shifting divisions within Lebanon’s Shiite community.
Lebanese Shi'ite politician Ahmad al-Assaad, head of the Lebanese Option group, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in Hazmiyeh, near Beirut, May 5, 2009. Picture taken May 5, 2009. REUTERS/Cynthia Karam (LEBANON POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTXES0U

On June 23, around 20 Shiite supporters of Ahmad al-Assaad, the president of the small anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Option Party, arrived in front of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut to declare their objection to Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian war.

This protest followed another that took place at the end of last week for the same purpose. Supporters backing Assaad and his Shiite party gathered in front of the embassy and a clash erupted between them and Hezbollah supporters, leading to the death of the head of the party’s student body, Hashem Salman. In the wake of the incidents, there were reactions accusing Hezbollah of repressing any opinion opposing it within the Shiite community.

Some considered the murder of Salman a message from Hezbollah to its Shiite rivals to warn them against expressing their discontent with the party’s decisions.

There are several symbolic aspects to the challenge launched by Assaad against Hezbollah, yet they do not stem from an objective ability to defy the latter. Assaad’s popularity among Shiites does not exceed a few thousand supporters at best, while Hezbollah enjoys huge popular Shiite support. However, this tug of war unmasks a repressed historic and social aspect within Shiite society that is attempting to recreate itself, even if it had to use new justifications. Yet, there are serious doubts that it will succeed.

Assaad comes from a noble feudal Shiite family that had imposed its power over the Shiites of South Lebanon for many decades. At the top of the family tree there is “Ali al-Saghir.” Saghir was a nickname for the family at the time, before it became known as the Assaad dynasty.

In 1649, Saghir, who was born 16 years earlier and who escaped with his mother from the coup of their rivals, the Chokr family, succeeded his father as a political and military leader. At the time, he planned to attack the Chokr family while they were celebrating a big wedding. This coincided with the beginning of the Ottoman rule in Lebanon, which gave the Assaad family power over Jabal Amel in south Lebanon. His grandchildren and children continued walking in his footsteps and took over the Shiite leadership in Jabal Amel. With Lebanon’s independence, Ahmad al-Assaad was on top of the Assaad leadership, and then his son Kamel al-Assaad, father of the current Lebanese Option Party leader, took after him and used techniques of persuasion to demand the historical right of his family to lead Lebanese Shiites, especially those in the south.

When Ahmad al-Assaad was in his early youth, he witnessed how things turned against his father’s leadership during the 1980s. The Amal Movement, which was gaining organizational and military momentum during the civil war, attacked the palace of his father in the town of Taybeh (representing the historical glory of the family) in south Lebanon and burned it down. Along with the palace, the legacy of the feudal Assaad leadership for the Shiites in Lebanon had effectively come to an end. Instead, it was replaced by a joint factional leadership between Amal and Hezbollah — one that persists to this day.

While Ahmad al-Assaad, son of Kamel al-Assaad, was challenging Hezbollah and its ally Amal last week, he looked like his great grandfather Saghir when he was defying the Chokr family. Yet, the current times are marked by a change in circumstances. Consequently, it is hard to imagine the Shiites’ return to feudal leadership, although Ahmad al-Assaad appears two-faced. On the one hand, he likes to maintain his quality as a descendant of the noble Assaad family. Yet, on the other hand, he insists on focusing on his image as a modern man who studied in Paris and stood up against the authority of clerics, whom he considers backward thinkers and partisans of Velayet-e Faqih in Tehran.

However, the return of the feudal Shiite families to the spotlight of events in Lebanon in the past two weeks was not restricted to Ahmad al-Assaad.  Anti-Hezbollah satellite channels in Lebanon broadcast the photo of Rashed Hamadeh, another descendant of a political feudal family that was popular in the Bekaa, specifically in Baalbek, during the mid-20th century. Hamadeh is the son of the Shiite leader whose power over Shiites in the Bekaa matched that of Kamel al-Assaad in the south. During the era of the First Lebanese Republic, Assaad monopolized the position of parliamentary speaker, a monopoly that could only be broken by Sabri Hamadeh.

We notice that both the Assaad and Hamadeh families  established a civil and Shiite religious leadership, while Hezbollah  set the stage for a solely religious Shiite leadership. The Assaad and Hamadeh families are similar in the sense that they both collapsed at the same time, paving the way for the bipartite alliance of Amal and Hezbollah.

Perhaps the importance of Hezbollah stems from the fact that it succeeded in uniting the demographic Shiite distributions in Lebanon, in the Bekaa and in the south under its flag. Despite the intense social differences and geographic distance between the Bekaa and the south, Hezbollah has managed to unite both regions under its wing over the past 20 years. The party has lured in the Bekaa’s Shiite tribes, whose men have become the fighting pulse in its ranks. During the 1990s, former Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Sobhi Toufaily — who hails from the Bekaa and is strongly opposed to the leadership of the party’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who comes from the south — tried to create a protest movement in the Bekaa against Nasrallah. However, the latter succeeded in oppressing Toufaily with the help of Syria, which was still powerful in Lebanon at the time, before it surrendered to international pressure and withdrew its troops from the Lebanese territories in 2005.

A few days ago, Hamadeh declared that he was in the process of establishing a Shiite movement with yet another line of action that opposes the current Shiite alliance between Amal and Hezbollah. He stated that his movement calls for making moderate Lebanese decisions, not ones related to Tehran. Moreover, he accused Hezbollah of leading the Shiite sect in Lebanon into the unknown because of its politics related to an Iranian agenda.

Ahmad al-Assad has used harsh rhetoric loaded with arrogant language, reminding the Lebanese Shiites of his connection to the leadership of his father and ancestors — which was marked by monopolization and social injustice.

As for Rashed Hamadeh, he adopted a speech that does not challenge the vast majority of Lebanon’s Shiites that glorifies Hezbollah's resistance against Israel. Yet, his speech was centered on tempting some of them to reconsider the rightness of some of Hezbollah’s decisions and options, such as fighting alongside the Syrian regime, and going too far in using the language of force with its compatriots of other sects.

In conclusion, Salman’s death was an occasion to show that Hezbollah is in conflict with part of the Shiite community, regardless of how limited it is. This unprecedented paradox is linked to the following issues: First, this environment keeps the memory alive of the sociopolitical and familial history of Lebanon’s Shiites. Second, Hezbollah’s leadership era has begun to experience criticism voiced by Shiites, while such criticism was once limited to non-Shiite constituencies in Lebanon.

Last week, the Shiite feudal families awakened from decades of dormancy. Yet, the politically outdated phase is unlikely to be repeated in the Lebanese Shiite milieu, which is led by both the Amal and Hezbollah parties at present. The two major parties represent new rising Shiite social classes. They resulted from deep structural, economic, political, cultural and social shifts and interactions — which have taken place in the Shiite community over the last 30 years.

At times, Al-Monitor withholds the bylines of our correspondents for the protection of our authors. Different authors may have written the individual stories identified on this page.

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