In the Southern Lebanese city of Sidon, a rising star is threatening Lebanon’s fragile peace. Calling for a prolonged sit in protest in Sidon last week, the charismatic Cleric Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s sole cry is against Hezbollah’s military dominance in the country. A Salafi preacher, who has been relatively unknown in Lebanon, he has helped establish a protest camp in Sidon that has, overnight, risen in prominence. Heavily critical of Hezbollah, its links with the Syrian regime and generally of Assad’s crackdown of the Syrian uprising, this cleric is gaining support. He first gained notoriety after he criticized Hezbollah leadership in a TV interview in June, after which the TV station was attacked with Molotov cocktails the following day (most likely carried out by Hezbollah sympathizers).
The large Sunni population in Lebanon is feeling increasing frustrated at the events in Syria as well as against the Hezbollah backed leadership of Lebanon (under Makati) failing to act on a number of social issues. With sectarian fighting in Tripoli last month causing the deaths of at least 13 people and the recent artillery bombardment by Syrian troops on Wadi Khaled, that left 3 Lebanese dead, this outspoken critic is likely to help re ignite sectarian tensions in the country.
With Salafi’s gaining popularity in the Middle East, in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, and the events in Syria likely to spill heavily into Lebanon, this preacher’s anti Hezbollah stance could pose a risk to Lebanon’s fragile peace. For now the majority of Lebanese have distanced themselves from Sheikh Assir, but as tensions increase in the country, his anti Hezbollah stance will appeal to many. Hezbollah too will be following the preacher closely as with the group becoming more isolated domestically and regionally, how long would Hizbollah allow discontent on its doorstep?
J Robinson – Twitter: @jprobinsons