Lebanese Sunni Muslim Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Asir celebrates with his supporters in the southern city of Sidon, on July 18, 2012, following an explosion which killed at least three of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s top brass.
© AFP
Lebanese Sunni Muslim Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Asir celebrates with his supporters in the southern city of Sidon, on July 18, 2012, following an explosion which killed at least three of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s top brass.
Last updated: August 23, 2013

Shaykh Ahmed al-Assir as a Lebanese phenomenon

Banner Icon Deep socio-economic issues in Lebanon remain unresolved and represent a source of continuous grievance among different groups. Figures like shaykh al-Assir can take advantage of this situation and upset the fragile balance of political forces, writes Feras Klenk.

In the aftermath of shaykh Ahmed al-Assir’s failed attempt to ignite a sectarian conflict in Sidon, it is important to engage the Lebanese context from where he emerged and how his message became resonant among certain sectors of Lebanese society. It is critical to see him not only as a part of a global Jihadi movement but also as an actor in Lebanon’s politico-sectarian landscape.

The shaykh emerged from relative obscurity: he was a preacher and a former supporter of Hizbollah who broke with them “when he saw the truth” over the Syrian conflict. Hassan Nasrallah’s rhetorical and later material support for the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad against a Sunni Muslim insurgency created a political space in Lebanon, which al-Assir was not shy to exploit. Indeed, Lebanon’s confessional political system, where power and resources are divided according to sectarian affiliation, provided him access to a national (Sunni Lebanese) audience and allowed him to position himself as the “guardian of Sunni interests” in Lebanon.

Figures like shaykh al-Assir can take advantage of this situation

According to al-Assir, the Lebanese Sunni community lacked a “leadership figure” who would advocate for their interests. This can be and was seen as a sharp critique of Saad Hariri and his Movement of the Future or Al-Mustaqbal. Following the assassination of his father Rafiq Hariri in 2005, the mantle of Sunni leadership passed to his son. Additionally, Saad is the nominal head of the March 14th movement, a coalition of political parties that was created in the aftermath of the Cedar Revolution and is seen by many observers as oriented toward the West and the Gulf States.

The collapse of Saad Hariri’s government in the “coup” of 2011 and his subsequent exile to Paris at the hands of Hizbollah weakened his authority over the Lebanese Sunni community. This episode among others was interpreted in the context of rising Sunni-Shia tensions and identity politics in the Arab world. It quickly became a part of a larger sectarian narrative in which the departure of Saad Hariri was seen by some as a political victory of Shia over Sunnis and not the complex manoeuvrings of Lebanese politics.

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It is important to recall that over time members of Al-Mustaqbal have created “working relationships” with Salafi groups in Lebanon. The support that Salafists enjoyed among the working class Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut, Tripoli and elsewhere served the interests of Al-Mustaqbal: Salafists would mobilize the Sunni community during the elections and in times of political tension in return for political cover and patronage by the Sunni Muslim establishment.

Shaykh al-Assir was not a part of this system and greatly benefited from his “outsider” status. Couched in sectarian terms, his message targeted poor and unemployed Sunni Muslims, who have experienced social and economic marginalization and have limited access to state services. In addition to the familiar “khidma” idiom, his belligerent stance against and the criticism of Hizbollah laid bare the tensions and provoked clashes with Hizbollah supporters. The subsequent conflict between the shaykh’s militia and the army reproduced the feeling of Sunni victimization and persecution.

Hence, this recent episode from Lebanese politics reveals three points. Firstly, the shaykh’s discourse and actions are not only part of a global jihadi enterprise, but are largely informed by the complexities of the Lebanese context. Secondly, deep socio-economic issues of Lebanon remain unresolved and represent a source of continuous grievance among different groups. Figures like shaykh al-Assir can take advantage of this situation and upset the fragile balance of political forces. Finally, the sectarian vision of the state and government makes politics zero-sum games, in which, over the long run, there are no winners.

A version of this article was originally published by SISMEC. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East or SISMEC.

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Feras Klenk
Feras is a Research Fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC), and a PhD Student in the School of Middle East and North African Studies (MENAS) at the University of Arizona.
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