Fault lines between Lebanon’s largest sects deepening
- It has been a year of dreaming dangerously for some Lebanese Sunnis who see the perpetually impending downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an opportunity to reassert their historical dominance over the country’s Shia.
February’s escalation of the long-running feud between pro-Assad Alawites and anti-Assad Sunnis in Tripoli set a polarizing tone for 2012; tensions spilled south with anti-Hezbollah Salafis protesting in Saida. This came almost concurrently with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s self-imposed exile from Lebanon. Hariri, leader of the country’s largest Sunni political party, the Future Movement, first announced his departure was for personal safety; later he tweeted that he was busy managing his overseas businesses.
Hariri’s departure left a vacuum and a new Sunni personality soon emerged: Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, whose posters have been slowly replacing Hariri’s in Sunni strongholds across Lebanon. A Salafist preacher, Assir first garnered widespread media coverage in March by staging a rally in Downtown Beirut, giving him a national platform for his extremist, anti-Shia sectarian rhetoric — a stark contrast to Hariri’s more ‘moderate’ line.
Militant Sunni anger then erupted again on May 20, when Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed, a prominent anti-Assad Sunni cleric, was shot dead after an altercation at a Lebanese army checkpoint in North Lebanon. That night masked gunmen in Beirut’s Sunni enclave of Tariq El Jdeideh opened fire on Lebanese Army soldiers, and clashes elsewhere in the country, spurred by enraged Sunni partisans, left two people dead and 18 wounded.
Two days later, a Syrian opposition group kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Aleppo. Family members and friends protested in Beirut’s streets, with widespread retaliatory attacks reported against predominantly Sunni Syrian laborers.
Assir’s vitriolic attacks against Lebanon’s two most prominent Shia leaders — Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Amal leader Nabil Berri — on Al Jadeed TV provoked Shia thugs to assault the station’s offices on June 25. After burning tires out front and firing shots at the building, they were arrested, setting off protests in Shia neighborhoods.
In August the Free Syrian Army posted a video of a beaten Hassan Salim al-Meqdad, who they had captured in Damascus and accused of being a Hezbollah member working for the Assad regime. In response, the Meqdad clan began a wave of kidnappings targeting Syrians in Lebanon, specifically Sunnis.
The Syrian conflict’s impact on sectarian identity in Lebanon is profound. Many Lebanese Sunnis view the revolt, especially since it became an armed conflict, as the uprising of their Syrian brethren against an oppressive Alawite regime allied with Shia interests. On the other side, many Lebanese Shia see the Syrian conflict as a foreign-backed conspiracy and, should Assad fall, they worry about being regionally isolated in a sea of Sunni vengeance. The Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti funding that has poured in to the Syrian opposition since it took up weapons has only entrenched these sectarian characterizations.
When Sunni intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan was assassinated in a car bomb in Beirut on October 19, sectarian animosities hit fever pitch across Lebanon. Angry Sunni protesters accused Hezbollah and Syria of the killing, demonstrators attempted to rush the Grand Serail (the administrative headquarters of the Lebanese cabinet), road blocks isolated Beirut from the rest of the country, masked Sunni gunmen manned checkpoints and demanded identification cards to identify Shia motorists, while belligerents in Tariq El Jdeideh fired rounds toward Shia neighborhoods in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
This aggression saw little response from the Shia side, however — a show of remarkable restraint that may have saved the country from a slide back into civil war.
In November, clashes erupted again in Saida, when Assir issued an ultimatum to Hezbollah to take down posters commemorating the Shia holiday of Ashoura. Attempting to follow through on the threat, Assir and supporters confronted Hezbollah members in the neighborhood of Ta’amir; the ensuing clashes left three dead. In response to the incident, Hezbollah’s Nasrallah called for patience and restraint, urging Sunnis and Shia to remain vigilant of sectarian incitement, while Assir announced the formation of an armed “resistance brigade” in Saida, then later reneged.
Thus, 2012 nears a close with the gulf between Lebanon’s Shia and Sunni communities only widening. This hate between communities has been stoked by the likes of Assir, who has ridden its wave to take himself from obscurity to prominence. Unfortunately, this terrible tide shows no sign of receding as we move into 2013.
Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut