A follow up from my earlier post, Signs of Trouble For Hezbollah, a piece talking about the recent protest camp established in Sidon by the Sunni Cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Assir, over Hezbollah’s military dominance over Lebanon. Despite this protest only established 3 weeks ago, the cleric has gown to really threaten Lebanon’s fragile peace. Established on 28 June, the camp currently blocks the main road into North Sidon from Beirut. It is becoming more and more established with substantial shelters and barbed wire being erected at the site. Supporters too are growing, with many Sunni followers arriving from the northern city of Tripoli last Friday (13 July) to bolster numbers.
“I won’t end the protest until our demands are met” Sheikh Assir tells reporters, a message that indicates that the protest is set to continue for some time yet. This is bad news for the merchants and business owners in Sidon, who are being heavily disrupted by the protest camp on a major route into Sidon. The camp is affecting in their supplies and links with Beirut. The same day Sheikh Assir made his comments, a number of business owners protested outside Lebanon Electric’s headquarters in Sidon over the protest camp and its affect on their livelihood on Thursday 12 July. The Sidon Merchants Association also said in a statement that they might take “escalatory measures” and call a general strike in an attempt to force the authorities into acting.
At the time of writing, there has been no comment from the authorities in Sidon or the Lebanese government over the issue, but it is understood that the Lebanese Army are conducting drills near Sidon that involve practicing breaking up street protests. Many think that these have been designed with Sheikh Assir’s camp in mind. But with his supporters sharing the Sheikh’s “we came here to die” attitude, this may prove a dangerous move by the Lebanese Government if implemented.
So what of the future? On 25 July, a fresh round of National Dialogue between the government parties and Hezbollah will occur It is hoped by many in Sidon and in Lebanon that Hezbollah will meet Sheikh Assir’s demands and discuss its weaponry. However, with the Shia group feeling more and more isolated in the long term, both regionally (with dropping support from Iran and Syria due to recent events) as well as domestically, it is unlikely that Hezbollah will put the weapons issue on the table for discussion. With the camp in Sidon growing in numbers from around Lebanon, growing frustration in Sidon and the Sheikh’s resolve getting stronger, any violence at the site (by Hezbollah or the Army) would easily escalate into a serious situation in Lebanon, that could fail to be contained. The Lebanese government want to be careful as the Sheikh is also media savvy, using the internet and reporters to his advantage, and from previous events in the Middle East, we all know how successful the use of social media can be in a revolt.
J Robinson – Twitter: @jprobinsons