x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Lebanese sheikh takes on Hizbollah

Supporters plan to maintain protest camp until Hizbollah agrees to discuss movement's arsenal.

SIDON, LEBANON // Sheikh Ahmed Al Assir does not mince his words.

Sitting under a canvas shade where his supporters have set up a protest camp, the Sunni imam takes on one of Lebanon's most volatile issues - Hizbollah's weapons. "We want a serious discussion about weapons. We are not moving until we see a serious discussion," he says.

He doesn't stop there, taking on two of Lebanon's most revered and feared figures: Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, and Nabih Berri, the Amal leader and speaker of the Lebanese parliament. "The reason I am so well known is because I stood up to Berri and Nasrallah. No one before me dared to do this," he says.

Sheikh Al Assir has risen in just a few months from being a relatively unknown imam in Sidon to a national figure for his support of the uprising in Syria.

Now he is using his new-found fame to take on one of the most divisive issues in Lebanese politics, demanding that the government confront Hizbollah over its weapons.

While the message resonates with some Lebanese, his rhetoric has raised concerns about inflaming sectarian tension.

Hizbollah and its allies maintain the movement's arsenal, believed to include tens of thousands of short and long-range rockets, is necessary to defend Lebanon from an attack by Israel. Opponents argue that only the Lebanese state and the national army has the right to carry weapons to defend the country.

The issue, which has long clouded Lebanese politics and divided public opinion, has once again come to the fore with the current round of all-party talks.

Hizbollah has threatened to bring down the government, even take its grievances to the street, if attempts are made to confiscate its arms caches.

Last week in Sidon, dozens of people tried to hoist a large canvas cover over a stretch of road that Sheikh Al Assir and his followers have occupied for the past fortnight.

Holding two-way radios, his security team check who passes the blockades set up on Sidon's eastern highway that leads towards Beirut. The sheikh's protest camp has been criticised by political and business leaders for cutting off the road and taking an economic toll on the city.

But local politicians and the government have so far failed to find a way of mediating an end to the protest, which the sheikh calls an "Uprising for Dignity".

"We can live on little food, clothes, electricity," he says. "But not without dignity. My speeches are what everyone wants to say, but cannot."

Sheikh Al Assir blames Hizbollah and its allies for the political tension in Lebanon and for marginalising Sunnis and other religious groups since they became such a dominant force in Lebanese politics. It is the group's weapons, he says, that give them leverage.

He appears to taunt Hizbollah, which he refuses to refer to by its actual name, which means Party of God. Instead he uses Hizb Al Moqawama, which translates as "party of the resistance".

Sheikh Al Assir openly criticised Shiite leaders in an interview on Al Jadeed television last month. The following night, the station was attacked and streets in Beirut blocked by burning tyres.

The 44-year-old imam's rise to Lebanon's political stage has been rapid, since he preached at the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Sidon. He captured media attention with his support of the Syrian uprising and for organising rallies in solidarity with those opposing the regime of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

In Lebanon's charged and divided political environment - largely split between those who support Syria, including the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah, and those against the Assad regime - he has found an audience.

Some have simply dismissed the imam as a media phenomenon. Others believe he has tapped into a sentiment that resonates with a certain segment of the Lebanese population.

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, attributes some of this appeal to a leadership vacuum within Lebanon's Sunni community.

"This man is a vocal phenomenon, nothing more. He'll stick around for a while, until there are changes in the Lebanese political situation, maybe for example, the return of Saad Hariri," he said. The former prime minister and leader of the Future Movement been abroad for more than a year.

"There are limits to Assir's rise, even if there continues to be a vacuum. He doesn't represent a significant cross section of Lebanon's Sunnis."

On face value at least, his appeal appears to speak to conservative Sunnis.

The women seated separately from the men at the protest camp are almost all swathed from head to foot in black niqabs and abayas.

A 35-year-old in the crowd, who would identify herself only as Dina, said they were looking for "tangible solutions" to the question of Hizbollah's weapons.

"We are calling on all Lebanese women to come here so we can get the equilibrium back," she said.

Many of the men at the protest camp have the shaved heads, close-cropped moustaches and long beards associated with the ultraconservative Salafist strain of Islam. Sheikh Al Assir maintains his message is not geared towards Lebanon's Sunni population, but to all Lebanese. Banners hung along the blocked Sidon road proclaim solidarity with other sects - "all free Shiites, Christians and Druze", one reads.

Mr Khashan, however, says this is simply the "empty talk" that all Lebanese political figures have to subscribe to.

"He is making waves right now when there is little if any political activity in Lebanon."