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World

Salafis in Lebanon look confidently ahead

The situation in Lebanon is getting increasingly out of control as radical Sunnis openly challenge the dominant Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Many Lebanese sympathize with the Sunni hardliners.

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir, a Sunni cleric, has a clear goal. He does not just want to see the end of the Hezbollah militant group's supremacy in Lebanon. Al-Assir wants the Shiite group to completely lose power.

The sheikh isn't afraid of using drastic means to achieve his goal. For several weeks, he and his followers have blocked the main route to southern Lebanon, which goes directly to the city of Sidon.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah (Foto:Bilal Hussein/AP/dapd)

Nasrallah has close ties with the Syrian regime

"We need to finally move ahead and exert more pressure," he said. "Making claims and passing judgment won't change Hezbollah policy"

Al-Assir views his blockade as a success, claiming to have seriously disrupted the main route Shiite officials take to reach their southern spheres of influence for weeks. Security forces have held back from disbanding the blockade to avoid violent clashes.

Al-Assir, 44, is imam of a small mosque in Sidon's eastern Abra district. Black and white flags wave outside the mosque's entrance, where the Islamic creed can be read in flowing Arabic script.

Al-Assir dreams of mounting a protest like the one on March 14, 2005, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country. Now he believes the Sunnis should force the disarmament of Hezbollah, which means the "Party of God" in Arabic.

Provocative and threatening

Disarmament is one of the Lebanese opposition's key demands. Sunni and Christian forces formed the opposition alliance on March 14. The group is pursuing a political path to achieve its goals.

Al-Assir, however, is challenging, provoking and threatening both leaders of Lebanon's Shiite parties - Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, and Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal Movement.

Lebanese soldiers partrol northern Lebanon, site of clashes that have spilled over from Syria (REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim)

Lebanese soldiers partrol northern Lebanon, site of clashes that have spilled over from Syria

Some Sunnis support Al-Assir's populist, sensational approach. Mohammed, the owner of a laundry shop in Sidon, recalls how Hezbollah used the same method in 2007 while occupying the center of Beirut for several months. Back then, he says, no one dared voice a word of criticism.

"Why are they allowed to do this and we aren't?" he asked.

When using the word "we," Mohammed means Sunnis.

Lebanon's radical Sunni groups stand to the margins of the country's political scene. The majority of them are mainly focused on spreading their strict religious beliefs in mosques and schools. Even so, they draw plenty of attention in times of crisis.

Political tensions between the Shiite-dominated Lebanese government and the Sunni opposition are grist to the mill for radical groups in the country. For them, the uprising in Syria is a revolt of the entire Sunni Islamic world against the disbelieving regime in Damascus. At the same time, the growing self-consciousness of Islamist movements in Arab countries such as Egypt and Tunisia has given the Salafis a boost.

Power play

Several months ago, Al-Assir hardly knew anyone in Lebanon. Now he is the leading figure in the country's Islamist scene.

Mohamed Abi Samra, Journalist, Copyright: DW/Mona Naggar

Abi Samra takes a nuanced view of the situation

Mohamed Abi Samra, a journalist and expert on Sunnis in Lebanon, has studied the rise of the Salafis and the Al-Assir phenomenon.

"I would be careful to not view this phenomenon as part of a Shiite-Sunni conflict," Abi Samra said.

The journalist said in stark contrast to Hezbollah, Lebanese Sunnis have no armed organization and no clear political aims. He views Al-Assir and his supporters as a reactionaries against those that created the "Party of God," and not as a movement deeply anchored in society.

Tense situation

"There is certainly a yearning among many Sunnis - and not only them - for a figure like Nasrallah and for an organization like Hezbollah to be simply strong," Abi Samra said.

Meanwhile, in spite of Lebanon's extremely tense political situation, Al-Assir has announced more actions to come. Many Lebanese, like a physics teacher named Marwan, worry whether peace can last. He believes everyone should be able to voice their opinion, but is opposed to blockades.

"The sheikh is only increasing tension and hostility among people here," he said.

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