“We have no more dignity or honor,” Assir said during a prayer meeting last week, banging a fist on a lectern. “They keep violating our pride, but we will make them pay. We will make them walk around like crazy people talking to themselves.”
The audience erupted into wild cheers and clapping.
Lebanon has long been the battleground for regional rivalries. Many Lebanese accuse Syria in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, in 2005, even though a U.N. investigation concluded that Hezbollah operatives carried out the attack.
As a result, the political scene has been defined by those who support Syria, primarily Hezbollah and its allies, and those who oppose Syria, including the majority of the Sunni community and their allies.
Assir is gaining a following among Lebanon’s Sunnis, who for years have felt threatened by Hezbollah’s well-trained militia and have been outmaneuvered in the country’s cutthroat politics. In the past two weeks, Assir has ratcheted up the pressure with a sit-in blocking a key access road in Sidon, his home town, to demand that the government confront Hezbollah over its arms caches.
Now, the uprising in neighboring Syria is bringing the tensions to a head. The conflict in Syria is becoming more of a sectarian battle as the opposition, which is predominantly Sunni, struggles to oust a regime dominated by Alawites, members of a religious sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Lebanese Sunnis understand that the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could significantly weaken Hezbollah, Syria’s closest ally in Lebanon, and they are speaking out forcefully in support of the opposition.
And no one is speaking out more brazenly and more frequently than Assir, who has held anti-Assad rallies that draw large crowds.
“The Islamists in the region think they have to move now with the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Egypt and now Syria. They feel it’s their time to rise up. Assir is trying to do this in Lebanon,” said Mohammad Obeid, a Shiite intellectual and former member of the Amal party.
A shift from secular mold
Unlike in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line religious groups have traditionally not been the leaders of the Sunni community in Lebanon. Most Lebanese Sunni leaders after the 1975-1990 civil war have been relatively secular and pro-Western. Assir’s popularity signals a shift away from that mold.
Assir’s formula for success has been simple: denounce Hezbollah and other Shiite parties as often as possible and accuse them of being pawns of Syria. He has even taken personal shots at Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, a red line rarely crossed in Lebanon’s highly charged sectarian political environment.