Nov. 16, 2012
Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir is a polarizing figure in Sidon and the rest of Lebanon. (AFP photo)
Many who have met the bespectacled and certainly controversial sheikh of the Bilal Mosque in Sidon are taken back by his charisma. Ahmad al-Assir is frank and approachable, they say. “Assir is so forthcoming in all he tells you about himself,” wrote the Independent’s Robert Fisk back in July, “that it’s impossible not to have a sneaking respect for the guy.”
From relative anonymity outside Sidon at the cusp of 2011, Assir shot to prominence with virulent speeches that denounced Hezbollah and its weapons in the harshest terms, creating an aura of potency that many Sidon residents say has been missing from mainstream Sunni politics for many years.
Whether supporters or detractors, the majority of people interviewed by NOW believe that Qatar is supporting Assir financially. Whether accurate or not, the perception is important as it illustrates the belief that that Assir is part of a larger regional power struggle being played out in Lebanon.
Hajj Rashid, a pious follower of Assir and owner of the Amir Rashid restaurant, best sums up the view supporters have of the sheikh, presenting him as selfless and honorable. “The sheikh does not want any political gains. He doesn’t want to become an MP or minister,” Rashid said. “He considers that the Sunni sect is suffering from injustice and humiliation.”
Samir Salaman, a middle-aged chef who identifies himself as a Future Movement supporter, also sympathizes with Assir’s strong rhetoric. “He defends the Sunnis,” Salaman said, adding that he agrees with Assir’s opposition to non-state actors like Hezbollah keeping arsenals. A young man named Fadi who was eating at Salaman’s restaurant said that Sunnis like himself still felt humiliated by the May events in 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies took over West Beirut in a matter of hours and found little resistance by Sunni fighters. Those events, coupled with Future Movement leader Saad Hariri’s absence from the country since early 2011 and a March 8-led government, have pushed people toward a strong figure like Assir, Fadi feels.
But for others, Assir’s actions are stirring the sectarian pot, which, in a country polarized by the war in Syria and shaken by the assassination of intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last month, is already dangerously close to boiling point. They rebuke Assir for bringing trouble to Sidon and worry that Sunday’s bloody clashes in the Taameer Ain al-Hilweh neighborhood between several Hezbollah supporters and men affiliated with Assir is unlikely to be the last of its kind.
Sara, a cosmetics shopkeeper in the city’s souqs who asked for her real name not to be used, says sharply, “I hate him.” She is deeply concerned that Sidon will again bear witness to clashes that will widen the sectarian divide in the city.
Although the Lebanese economy as a whole has taken a sharp hit compared to last year, Sara holds Assir largely responsible for the reduction in business many shop owners in the souq have experienced in the past 12 months (sales in her shop have dropped by “at least half” compared with a similar period in 2011, she said).
Lebanon’s third-biggest city has in recent years attracted consumers from neighboring areas and the South as a whole, but increasing sectarian tensions are keeping many shoppers at bay. Sara maintains she still receives Shiite customers with whom she’s long maintained business relationships, but other shopkeepers in the vicinity, she says, do not have as many Shiite patrons as they used to.
“Once a sectarian issue is brought up inside, it is normal that people from the South will no longer come to Sidon,” laments a café owner in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Hara. “I used to see people of all categories and sects [in my café]. Now I just see one.”