Sheikh sees Hizbullah as Lebanon's big threat


Shia Hizbullah’s links with Syria’s Assad give many Sunnis across the border reason to worry

PERCHED CROSS-LEGGED on an overstuffed bronze and brocade sofa with an iPad by his side, Sheikh Ahmad Assir holds forth on what he believes is the greatest threat to his home country of Lebanon: Hizbullah’s connections with Syria and Iran.

“Their project is the Iranian project to establish vilayet e-faqih [supreme clerical rule],” he argues. “They are using the resistance [to Israel] as a Trojan horse for this project. [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah has hijacked Lebanon for the benefit of the regimes in Syria and Iran.”

For more than four weeks, Assir, a rangy, bespectacled Sunni cleric with a long, greying beard, has camped out with a band of followers on the main highway into Sidon, a city which hugs Lebanon’s coast just south of Beirut.

He describes his protest camp as an “uprising” against Hizbullah’s weapons, long one of the most divisive issues in Lebanon’s fractious politics.

Hizbullah, which wields unprecedented clout due to its dominance of the current Lebanese government, insists its arsenal is necessary to defend the country from an attack by Israel. Critics says that role should belong to the national army alone.

Assir’s rallies regularly bring traffic to a halt. The 44-year-old, once a rather obscure preacher at Sidon’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque, prompts whoops and cheers from supporters as he praises the Syrian uprising and skewers Hizbullah.

On Friday, Assir led more than 600 people in a protest following a fiery sermon in which he denounced Nasrallah and Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, from the country’s other Shia faction, Amal, as “criminals”. He offered a “salute from the Lebanon of the free to the Syria of victory” and declared he would soon congratulate the Syrian people “on their victory over the oppressor”. His mention of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad drew chants of “leave, leave, leave” from the crowd. “There is no one left for you,” Assir crowed, referring to Assad.

Some Lebanese refuse to take Assir seriously and believe his protest is a largely media-driven phenomenon that will disappear as swiftly as it emerged.

Others see him as a product of changing dynamics in Lebanon, in which more conservative Sunnis, frustrated over a dearth of political leadership within their community, are desperately looking for alternatives while sympathising with the predominantly Sunni-driven uprising next door in Syria.

Some observers see in Assir’s boldness – he has challenged Hizbullah in a way few others would have dared before – as a realisation of the movement’s vulnerability as it faces the possibility of the collapse of its long-standing patron in Damascus. In Lebanon and across the Middle East, Hizbullah’s reputation as a popular resistance movement has been badly tarnished due to its stance on the Syrian uprising, despite applauding revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain.

The fall of Assad’s regime would be a severe blow for Hizbullah, likely rupturing what its supporters describe as the “axis of resistance” – involving Iran, Syria and Hizbullah – against Israel, as well as reducing its political leverage in Lebanon.

But analysts have detected a subtle shift in Hizbullah’s position as Syria’s crisis has deepened, with Nasrallah recently urging both sides to engage in dialogue.

In a speech hours after last Wednesday’s bombing in Damascus, which killed several senior regime figures, including the defence minister and Assad’s brother-in-law, Nasrallah reiterated that call but also acknowledged the importance of the alliance with Syria. He called the Assad regime a “bridge” and a “critical support” against Israel, noting that it had supplied Hizbullah with crucial weaponry for its 2006 war with Israel.

With tremors from Syria’s conflict being felt within Lebanon’s delicately balanced body politic – where most parties can be categorised according to either their links to or loathing of Damascus – Assir’s rhetoric can be hard to ignore. Last month he appeared to hit a nerve, triggering violence on the streets of Beirut. In a television interview, Assir accused the leaders of Hizbullah and Amal of dominating Lebanon and marginalising its Sunni community. “Either we live as equal partners or else, I swear by God, Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berry, I, Ahmad Assir, will shed every drop of my blood to prevent you from relaxing until balance is restored to Lebanon,” he said.

The following day, gunmen attacked the television station and blocked off parts of the city with burning tyres. Five cars were damaged when a hand grenade was thrown at the site of Assir’s sit-in in Sidon this weekend.

Many of the men at the protest camp have the long beards and cropped moustaches usually associated with the ultra-conservative Salafist strain of Islam, and most of the women are dressed in the full-face veil known as the niqab. They insist their protest is peaceful: “No weapons are allowed, not even a blade,” reads a large notice.

“For me our protest is a question of dignity,” says one woman, a 35-year-old teacher named Dina. “Hizbullah makes all Lebanese, but especially Sunnis, feel like we are second-class citizens in our own country.”

Assir maintains his message is for everyone. Banners at the site address Lebanon’s other sects – one refers to “all free Shiites, Christians and Druze”. Holding court in an air-conditioned prefabricated building, Assir denies any sectarian agenda.

“I don’t have a problem with the Shia as a sect. They are part of the Lebanese family – my own mother was Shia. But Nasrallah has hijacked the Shia for his own agenda.” Assir, who says he has no interest in a political career, also rejects allegations he and his acolytes are funded by hardline Sunni benefactors in the Gulf.

“Ask him where he gets the money for his spectacle,” one Hizbullah supporter said to me when I told him I was going to meet Assir in Sidon. Assir is nonchalant. “I would never accept such support. Anything we have comes from Lebanon,” he says.

Assir rejects the Salafist label, professing only to be “Muslim and Sunni”, but he acknowledges the Salafist current has become more popular here in recent years, particularly in the more hardscrabble Sunni communities of northern Lebanon.

“People are getting back to their religion not just in Lebanon but in all Arab countries and the Salafists are part of that,” he says. “It’s about reacting against tyranny and inequality.”

Assir brushes away criticism by local business-owners that his month-long protest is hurting trade. “Around 90 per cent of the people of Sidon are with us,” he claims. “The others either misunderstand our message or are with Hizbullah.” He boasts that the camp is manned day and night by a core group of up to 200 supporters, a number he says swells to thousands as temperatures drop in the evening. Assir’s plans are not limited to Sidon: he predicts the protest will spread across the country.

“We know we need perseverance and commitment because this may take a long time,” he says. “We believe we are rescuing Lebanon.”