Lebanon Salafist Gains Support Since Sit-In

The March 8 movement’s attempt to diminish the Future Movement has actually strengthened its influence, writes Muhammad Shukayr. Even though most Sunni agree with the leader's goals, they have in the past opposed his methods. Recently, his group is increasingly being seen as the “lion.” 

al-monitor Lebanese Sunni Muslim Salafists are holding an open-ended sit-in after their leader Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir called on Lebanese armed parties, especially Shi'ite Hezbollah, to give up their arms and have the army and the security forces be the sole possessors of arms in the country. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

Topics covered

sidon, sheikh ahmad al-assir, sectarianism, march 8 movement, march 14 movement, lebanon, hezbollah

Jul 4, 2012

A sit-in has been organized by Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in front of the Bilal Ben Rabah mosque on Sidon’s eastern highway. It is calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah. Some members in the majority bloc are dealing with this sit-in as if the Saad Hariri-led Future movement is behind it. Political, economic and religious actors in “the southern capital” did not provide any political protections for the action. Nor did they raise any objections to its goals, though they were against the method that was being used to achieve them.

Sources close to the Future movement confirmed that they object the method that Sheikh Assir is using to express his legitimate rejection of illegal arms, just like how they objected to tactics that were previously employed by Hezbollah. In January 2006, Hezbollah supporters besieged the Fouad Siniora government in the Serail and organized a one and a half year protest in Beirut’s central business district. This sit-in was not lifted until the Doha agreement between the main political parties was reached.

The same sources stressed that the Future movement and the opposition are not directly linked to Sheikh Assir. According to the sources, the accusations that the movement is encouraging Sheikh Assir are intended to divert attention from the true reasons behind this phenomenon. The sit-in is currently confined to Sidon, as Sheikh Assir has not been able to find any positive responses during his visits to the Bekaa valley region or the North.

The sources pointed out that Sheikh Assir started the sit-ins after the Future movement was attacked. The movement’s leader, Hariri, practiced an open policy with Hezbollah’s leadership [when he was the prime minister] and even met with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in an effort to preserve security and political stability in Lebanon. This openness was welcomed by Saudi Arabia, but it was met by a Syrian-Iranian decision to remove him from his post. Pro-Syrian parties rushed to support this decision and strictly opposed his return to the prime minister position.

Political sources following the Assir phenomenon said that those who are trying to neuter the Future movement’s political activities shall assume direct responsibility for the establishment of such a phenomenon. Even though they wished to gradually weaken Hariri’s influence is his hometown of Sidon, diminishing his influence led to the growth of Assir’s movement.

The sources asked if those who are behind eliminating Hariri’s political role have discovered that they are chiefly responsible for extending this phenomenon to other Sunni areas in the Bekaa and in the North. In their confrontation with the Future movement, they did not fully calculate the consequences of their actions.

The sources also questioned the hidden political objective behind the mobilization of dozens of Shaker Berjawi’s Arab Movement Party loyalists near the Kuwaiti embassy in Bir Hasan. They are staging their own sit-in on the pretext of rejecting the Assir sit-in in Saida. They have declared that they will not leave until the Assir sit-in is dissolved.

The sources said that those who are trying to show that the political landscape in the Sunni street is limited to the confrontation between Assir and Berjawi will soon discover that they are wrong, and that faking the situation will not last. According to the sources, Sunni public opinion is not far from Assir’s positions, but they refuse to embrace his method or provide him with a political cover. Leaders in Sidon agreed with this notion unanimously.

The sources added that containing the Assir phenomenon and its negative economic repercussions in Sidon and the South cannot be made by force. It can only be contained by examining it and identifying the underlying reasons of this tension.

They asserted that restoring calm and stability in Sidon will not be possible just by increasing the presence of the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces. Examining the reasons behind the instability and working to contain it through a political method are also necessary actions. Sidon MP Bahia Harir used to be the first to act at the right moment when she felt that there was eminent danger in Sidon. She has traditionally dealt with local disturbances, whether by meeting with Palestinian officials in the Ain Al-Helwe refugee camp or by interacting with civil society organizations in the city.

According to the sources, some people in Sidon have no interest in using the Palestinian issue for their own benefit. These people assert that that responsibility lies first and foremost within the state, but the state has done nothing to address the sharp political divisions. These divisions are being exacerbated because the majority of the Sunni community feels that there are plans to remove their leadership from the political scene and marginalize Hariri’s role.

Again, these sources believe that remedying this sharp division requires more than just increased security measures. It is also necessary to explore the reasons why the Sunni leadership is being undermined and why Saad Hariri is blamed for any movement; even ones that targets him. The sources added that any remedy must be political, first and foremost, especially since recurrent security problems in Tripoli have not been fully addressed by the military or by the official security forces. This was despite the fact that Hariri was the first to support the military institution, rushed to lift the political cover off the rioters and insisted on containing them politically.

For this reason, protecting civil peace from any internal or external breach and preventing the Syrian crisis from spilling over into Lebanon will not be achieved until the political forces that are behind Hariri’s removal recognize that they had made a mistake that there is still a chance to rectify the situation.

Resolving the Assir sit-in issue has been given priority in the ongoing talks between President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Minister of Defense Fayez Ghosn, Minister of Interior and Municipal Affairs Marwan Charbel and leaders of the security forces. They are discussing how to convince Assir to move his sit-in to another location in order to lift the siege on some of the Sidon’s streets.

Al-Hayat knows that using force to end the protest is out of the question. This is a result of the ongoing communication between former prime minister Siniora and other political leaders. Meanwhile, Minister of interior Marwan Charbel is closely following up on the contacts between different actors in Sidon. These talks may force Assir to take a bold decision and move the sit-in to another location, as keeping the protest in the middle of the eastern highway tightens the grip around Sidon. Even though its political forces support the Assir’s goals, they oppose his method.

Therefore, the sources believe that maintaining stability and promoting civil peace first and foremost requires a political climate that is capable of mitigating the country’s sharp divisions. These divisions are causing some security implications in various areas. Efforts should be made to foster a more suitable political climate, rather than fueling the current one or betting on some protests to ultimately weaken the Future movement only to ask its leaders to act as a state during critical situations. Even then, they are being attacked by some parties in the majority bloc. These protests provide a pretext for others to introduce themselves as defenders of the Sunni community’s rights. They act as “lions,” while the Future movement is turned into “sheep”, since it has already used all the cards that can be used to adjust the political situation. Note that the Future movement’s leader did not hesitate to provide any concessions in exchange for the protection of civil peace, and yet he was still attacked by Hezbollah and the head of the Change and Reform bloc, Michel Aoun.

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