Friday, 16 November 2012
Nov. 16, 2012
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.”
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.
“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.”
Posted on 11/16/2012 4:39 PM by Hugh Fitzgerald
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