Whilst the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli has been a flashpoint for occasional scuffles between the largely Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, weary eyes have now turned to Sidon, the home of the strident Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir.
The Imam of Bilal bin Rabah mosque has emerged on the scene with a vengeance, slowly transcending the walls of his small mosque in Sidon, both figuratively and literally. In addition to his fiery Friday sermons, Al-Assir has staged a month-long sit-in in Sidon, repeated protests in the southern city, Beirut, Tripoli and even a recreational trip with supporters to a ski resort, which some local residents with a slippery slope argument tried to block.
What initially appeared as a clownish sheikh playing foosball, riding a bike and a horse amongst other shenanigans, soon came to be regarded as a serious threat to what is already precarious stability in the country. Al-Assir’s frequent media appearances, sermons and speeches calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah, which he calls “the party of resistance”, putting an end to its “hegemony” and the humiliation of the Sunnis, has helped ordain him as their “new guardian”.
“The Al-Assir phenomenon”, as it has come to be called, can be linked to Hariri’s self-imposed exile and the series of incidents that have left most Sunnis in Lebanon feeling aggrieved. In addition to the infamous May 7, 2008 events, later labelled by Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah “a glorious day”, some Sunnis in Lebanon were outraged by the January 2011 ouster of then-PM Saad Hariri in violation of the Doha Accord and alleged Hezbollah involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Al-Assir, who is rumoured to be close to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has also accused Hezbollah and its backers, Syria and Iran, of assassinating Wissam al-Hassan, a leading Sunni security chief in September of last year. Furthermore, the Sunni lion, as his supporters call him, has repeatedly riled his audience against Hezbollah’s support of Syria’s Assad (Arabic for lion). Hezbollah, meanwhile, has largely ignored Al-Assir’s taunts but its Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned its foes against going too far last month.
In November of last year, clashes erupted in Sidon as Al-Assir’s supporters marched to remove Hezbollah posters from the city. The armed clash left two of Al-Assir’s bodyguards and a bystander dead and a Hezbollah local commander injured. More recently Al-Assir demanded the removal of allegedly Hezbollah-affiliated residents from an apartment near his mosque.
Heightened security has so far managed to contain the Sheikh’s roving and provocative marches. While he is by no means the only provocative leader out in the minefield that is Lebanon, the fear remains that Al-Assir, Arabic for ‘hostage’, and his sectarian demagoguery, may take more than Sidon hostage.