Syria’s sectarian splits creep into Lebanon (WASHINGTON POST) By Alice Fordham TRIPOLI, Lebanon 05/16/12)
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TRIPOLI, Lebanon — A small but increasingly vocal number of Lebanon’s
Sunni Muslims are backing Islamist leaders’ calls for regime change
in neighboring Syria and voicing their fierce discontent with their
own government, a sign that the sectarianism splitting Syria may be
deepening Lebanon’s longstanding divides.
Rallying in the central square of this northern city, hundreds of
men, many of them followers of the Salafi branch of Sunni Islam, have
spent more than two weeks protesting the detention without charge of
dozens of Sunnis in Lebanon and calling for the downfall of President
Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Inspired, they say, by the largely Sunni uprising in Syria, the group
has refused to leave the square, even after clashes with security
forces last week ignited days of fighting between Sunnis and minority
Alawites in Tripoli. Sectarian tension has worsened during 14 months
of Syrian unrest as Syrian refugees and wounded fighters have flooded
into the city.
“What happened in Syria — and in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen — let us smell
the beautiful smell of freedom,” Omar Bakri Mohammed, a prominent
Salafi leader, said Tuesday, surrounded by supporters in al-Nour
Square. Criticizing the Lebanese government for closeness to Assad,
he said that the sit-in would encourage authorities to “take us
seriously for once in their lives,” darkly hinting that the
protesters may in the future want to remove the Lebanese government
Violence in Syria showed no signs of ebbing Tuesday, as a bomb attack
struck a convoy of vehicles in Idlib province that were part of a
U.N. monitoring mission. No U.N. observers were hurt, but as many as
21 people were killed in the attack, according to activists.
Analysts attribute the surge in assertiveness among Tripoli’s Sunnis
to a series of political shifts and security incidents that have left
Lebanon’s Sunni society and political groupings marginalized. The
Shiite political party and militia Hezbollah, meanwhile, has steadily
increased its dominance over the country, which still bears the scars
of a sectarian civil war that ended 20 years ago.
From the assassination of Sunni former premier Rafiq al-Hariri in
2005, to a display of force by Hezbollah when it took over part of
Beirut in May 2008, to the 2011 fall of the government led by
Hariri’s son, Saad, under pressure from a Hezbollah-dominated
political bloc, many Sunnis have been left feeling deeply
“It’s been defeat after defeat,” said Paul Salem of the Carnegie
Middle East Center in Beirut. The presence both of unarmed Sunni
protesters and armed Sunni fighters on the streets of Tripoli, Salem
added, may have been prompted by a confluence of issues including a
sense of empowerment after the uprisings in the Arab world as well as
anger at the brutal treatment of Sunnis in Syria.
“This is a ratcheting up by the Sunnis of the north as to the level
at which they can express a view on the Syrian issue, display their
guns openly and defy some of the parts of the government which are
Hezbollah-dominated,” Salem said.
In Tripoli, politicians and protesters struck a defiant tone. “We are
expressing our right to support the Syrian revolution in facing a
regime which is killing its unarmed people with tanks and air force,”
said Hassan Khayal, of the political bureau of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya,
the Lebanese branch of the moderate Sunni Muslim Brotherhood group.
The spark that triggered violence in al-Nour Square after 10 days of
a peaceful sit-in came when a local man with ties to Salafi groups
was arrested Saturday in connection with links to terrorist groups.
A spokesman for the Lebanese security forces confirmed that Shadi al-
Mawlawi was informed that he should come to a center in Tripoli that
distributes money to the needy to collect a contribution for hospital
treatment for a relative. Once there, he was detained under suspicion
of communicating with an al-Qaeda member, but not immediately
charged. The arrest sparked outrage among the demonstrators who had
been calling for the release of Sunnis detained without charge, and
as the peaceful sit-in became an angry mob, shots were fired at
Accounts of what happened next vary, but Khayal and local residents
report that a teenage Sunni boy was shot and killed in the flashpoint
Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood. The impoverished cluster of high-
rises sits alongside the Jabal Mohsen area, home to a community
mostly composed of Alawites, the Shiite offshoot faith that Syria’s
Assad also follows.
Fighting between the Sunnis, who support the Syrian uprising, and
Alawites, who side with president Assad, did not die down until
Monday night. Eight civilians were killed, as were two members of the
security forces, said the security forces spokesman.
In Jabal Mohsen on Tuesday, one house with posters of Assad pasted up
outside was a still-smoldering ruin inside. Fresh bullet holes dotted
shabby apartments already plentifully sprayed with gunfire over the
decades the neighborhood has served a barometer for the city’s Sunni-
Alawite tensions. Hundreds of soldiers patrolled calm but tense
Mustafa Alloush, the local coordinator of the Future movement, a
large, moderate political group headed by Hariri and backed by most
Sunnis in the country, said that the sit-in and the response to the
arrest of Mawlawi represented an increase in numbers and influence by
Islamist political leaders.
Alloush insisted that the number of people embracing Salafism
remained small, but said that some young Sunnis, feeling failed by
the Hariri-led Future group, may have become more influenced by
Islamist figures with a more aggressively sectarian attitude.
“Tripoli definitely in general has major animosity with the Syrian
regime,” Alloush said, “and what we are seeing now is essentially
related to what’s happening in Syria.” (© 2010 The Washington Post
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