The young Sunni fighters who describe themselves as the defenders of the neighborhood disavow affiliations or even sympathies with the extremist organization. Indeed, they say they have no connections to any group, including Hariri’s Future Movement, ostensibly the country’s largest Sunni political faction.
But the strife that erupted in the wake of the recent assassination of a prominent Sunni intelligence chief exposed some worrying shifts in the allegiances of Lebanon’s Sunnis that have been underway in the years since the Shiite militia Hezbollah seized control of the streets of mostly Sunni West Beirut in 2008, inflicting a humiliating defeat on Hariri loyalists.
Tariq al-Jdeideh was the only enclave not to be overrun by Hezbollah, after the Lebanese army intervened to prevent further bloodshed. It remains a flash point, where tempers flare whenever sectarian tensions are stoked, as they were after the killing of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a meticulously executed bombing on Oct. 19.
The clashes have since subsided, along with concerns that his death, blamed by Sunnis on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, would herald a spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, at least for the time being.
The anger remains, however, exacerbating a growing sense of alienation from a political system that many Sunnis feel has brought them few rewards.
“Our sect doesn’t help us. No one helps us. Here, it is every man for himself,” said Abu Ammar, the leader of a group of fighters who participated in the recent clashes and had gathered at a small kebab shop to discuss their grievances. “We work three jobs just so that we can buy our own weapons.”
The fighters hang the black flag not to display allegiance to any particular group but because “it represents Sunnis,” said another of the men, Mohammed Sharif, 25. “We have no leaders, and we follow no one,” he said.
‘We have a vacuum’
Analysts say much of the blame for the disaffection lies with Hariri, a wealthy businessman who assumed leadership of the Sunni community after his father, Rafiq, was assassinated in 2005 in a bombing on Beirut’s seafront also blamed by Sunnis on Syria. Hariri lives in Paris for his safety and for the sake of Lebanon, his supporters say, a decision that they say is vindicated by the death of Hassan, who was killed less than 24 hours after returning from an overseas trip.
“It’s not about Saad Hariri. It’s about what would happen to the country if Saad Hariri got killed,” said Nadim Koteich, a prominent political talk show host with Hariri’s Future TV network. “So when Saad Hariri secures himself, he is securing his country.”