By: Moe Ali Nayel
Published Friday, January 31, 2014
Following Saad Hariri’s recent announcement to participate in a government with Hezbollah, Beirut’s Sunni youth find themselves looking for alternative leaders they feel can offer them true protection.
At an engagement ceremony last week in Chiyah, a neighbourhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut, two families decided to challenge the current confessional polarization between Sunnis and Shia and gather under Ziad and Sherine’s umbrella of love.
Shortly after the rituals were complete, the celebratory atmosphere was interrupted by sounds of nearby gunfire. Concerned, the families remained silent until they heard that former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was on TV, and the source of fire were celebratory shots coming from the Qasqas area in neighbouring Tariq Jdideh.
It was this evening, January 21, that Hariri announced he would participate in a national unity government alongside Hezbollah, a movement he has long accused of being responsible for his father’s assassination in 2005 and the increasing instability in the country stemming from its military role in Syria.
“I have made this decision for the sake of Lebanon’s interest, rather than my own,” Hariri said during his televised interview from France.
“We are never going to vote for these fraudulent politicians, they just want us to kill each other for their own interests. I wish God would take them away and save us,” said the mother of the groom, a sentiment shared by all those present.
Yet, on this occasion, the usual rounds of celebratory gunshots in Tariq Jdideh that follow a Hariri speech were not fired into the air – an indication that his announcement was not well received by his supporters.
A Fading Legacy
Over the last decade, the Hariri family has enjoyed a cult-like following within Beirut’s Sunni community, which increased dramatically following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
However, the Hariri legacy is slowly fading away. With Saad in self-imposed exile for the last three years, only speaking to his supporters via Twitter or televised interviews from his mansions in Paris or Riyadh, some Beirutis are now replacing Hariri’s posters with those of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. The younger majority have shown admiration for firebrands such as Salafi cleric Ahmad al-Assir, who, now in hiding following deadly clashes with the Lebanese army in June 2013, gained notoriety for his abrasive rhetoric against Hezbollah and Iran, accusing the Sunni politicians of not doing enough to protect the Sunni sect.
This current disillusionment with the Hariri family is also coupled with a deteriorating national economy, and the low-income majority within the Sunni sect feel their representatives are no longer looking after the interests of their constituents.
Mohammed Bader, 36, from Ayshi Bakar in the Ras Beirut area, is a former Future Party member. He has been unemployed for three months and is waiting to hear back on various job opportunities in Dubai and Qatar. Bader’s unemployment, in addition to the high cost of living in Beirut, has left little room for positive thinking.
Disenchanted with the Hariri legacy, Bader said, “Back in the days when Rafik was alive, he did not favor us [Sunnis], if anything he impoverished us! When we wanted things done we used to bribe and buy gifts for the local Syrian mukhabarat [intelligence] officer who supported us with wasta [connections] for jobs and bureaucratic transactions, and protection when we need it.”
Like many Beirutis affected by Hariri’s liberal-economic policies, Bader’s family lost their property in downtown Beirut post-civil war to Solidere, the construction giant founded by Rafik in 1994.
“There’s nothing left for us in Beirut,” Bader lamented. Bader, a divorced single parent, said, “Departing Lebanon now is the best move I can make to support my family and spare myself.”
“Everyday I’m convinced that we are going through another May 7, 2008 phase,” he said, “and in this scenario I know I’ll be obliged to hold a gun to protect my family and prevent another humiliation, but never again in defense of Saad.”
A Sign of Things to Come
Following the December 27, 2013 assassination of former Finance Minister Mohammed Shatah, March 14 figures jumped at the opportunity to resurrect the 2005 “Cedar Revolution,” which originated in the aftermath of Rafik’s assassination. They repeated the same slogans: “We are the culture of life,” and “They killed him because he loved life.”
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a speech following the burial of Shatah: “We will not be fearful. We will continue our battle, and we will practice civil, peaceful, and democratic resistance.”
Unlike in 2005, Siniora’s speech and March 14 politicians’ attempts to rally the masses did not echo in the streets – a sign that the street, in this case the Sunni street, is no longer an exclusive affair of one party or family.
The events that unfolded at the December 29 funeral of Mohammed al-Shaar, a young teenager killed in the explosion targeting Shatah, further explain the frustrations felt by the once-loyal Sunni society. Angry mourners rallied around the mosque and barricaded in Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, along with several members of the March 14 movement who had attended the funeral. After two hours, the Lebanese army had to evacuate the mufti in a tank as the crowd pelted them with stones.
Samir, 17, was one of the somber young men who attended the funeral. He said the crowd was provoked by the sight of the “Zou’ama [political/sectarian leaders] who arrived in tuxedos and were led by armed bodyguards.” These leaders “brushed us aside, as if we were insects.”
During the funeral, Samir – who dropped out of school at age 14 and now delivers ready-to-smoke argileh on his scooter – was one of the many who attacked the front row of politicians at the Khashogji Mosque. “It was not only the mufti who was attacked. March 14 MPs Ammar Houri [of Future] and Imad Hout [of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya] were both targeted,” he said.
“Those liars don’t represent us anymore, they came intruding,” one of Samir’s friends chimed in. Samir and his friends are furious with March 14 politicians who claim to speak in their name but only repeat the same empty promises. “They took advantage of our boiling blood on many occasions. During Mohammed al-Shaar’s funeral, we saw them for who they are – imposters.”
Fraying the Confessional Fabric
Before the shattered glass from Shatah’s assassination could even be cleaned up, sectarian-based rumors dominated the headlines.
“Those who assassinated Mohammed al-Shatah are those who assassinated Rafik Hariri …” declared Hariri on Twitter, in a clear reference to the Hezbollah suspects currently indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
“Iran’s security system is collaborating with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah to dominate Lebanon, and those are the ones behind the assassination of former minister Mohammed al-Shatah,” said Future MP Khaled Daher. And these rumors flowed to the streets.
“Lebanon in the coming months will turn into an Iranian state, and there will be no consolation to those who were busy watching ‘Dancing with the Stars’ while Hezbollah was busy training for this day,” was just one message which circulated on Whatsapp during Shaar’s funeral.
“The Sunni sect’s leaders, symbols, and security figures are being targeted by the Baathist regime and Hezbollah!” yelled Imam Ahmad al-Omari, the cleric leading the prayers at the funeral.
Goading the already riled-up mourners, he continued, “You must be distrustful of the party of the devil!” in reference to Hezbollah.
It comes as no surprise that just weeks after the rage-fueled funerals, silence reigned the streets following Hariri’s announcement to form a national unity government. After three years of being fed a rhetoric of agitation and victimization of the Sunni sect, his supporters are now far more radicalized than his “moderate” line of politics would dictate.
Back in Qasqas, Tariq Jdideh, Tarek, 19, another of Samir’s friends, said: “Long story short, we are with these men now.” He pulled out his phone and displayed photos of al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani and Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, both in in combat-military gear.
Samir, wearing skinny blue jeans and a black waterproof jacket, insisted on showing videos of clashes from Syria, and fighting in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli, saying, “Those are the real men.” His friends squawked “takbeer!” at the images.
Tarek said, “Since Rafik Hariri was killed, no one was able to protect the Sunnis in Lebanon. These are our leaders, heroes of the Sunnis, they speak in our name and they represent us.”
The attention given to the rhetoric emanating from the likes of Assir, and others – whereby they call on Lebanon’s Sunnis to battle against the “Safavid project” in Lebanon, or the “Shia invasion” – has come about as a result of this heightened sense of victimization and disillusionment felt by the Sunni youth.
It was in the Beirut neighbourhood of Qasqas, for example, that groups of men armed with pistols and Kalashnikovs gathered on the streets to protest the death of Abdullah Azzam Brigades leader, Majed al-Majed, a Saudi national whose group claimed responsibility for the November 2013 Iranian embassy bombing in Beirut, which killed over 20 people. Leading the grapple of men that night was a relatively unknown man who goes by Abu Aisha.
These leaders have come to replace the politicians. They are the ones who dictate when to go to the streets and when to stay at home. As the politicians continue to preach from their ivory towers and ignore the very real socioeconomic issues on the ground, they are steadily losing their grip over the streets, unwittingly handing the reins over to those who farm suicide bombers.
One only need look at 19-year-old Qotaiba Mohammed al-Satem, the suicide bomber who killed four people and injured dozens more in the January 3, 2014 attack in Haret Hreik. Satem, who hailed from North Lebanon, felt compelled to go on a suicide mission against his fellow Lebanese civilians.
Yet, as Lebanon’s security situation deteriorates, rumors persistently pop up on television screens, further fueling the sectarian distrust between the two communities.
Today, neighbors in the same residential building eye each other suspiciously, while on the streets, packs of men huddle in opposing corners, holding turf, the tension occasionally broken by fist-fights whenever political sectarianism is being stirred up on the airwaves.