Why Lebanon's Sunnis resent Hezbollah's new influence

Many of Lebanon's Sunnis once supported Hezbollah for its resistance of the Israeli occupation. But now, they feel the Shiite group has turned on them.

By , Correspondent

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    Supporters of Lebanon's outgoing premier Saad al-Hariri carry flags from the Future movement, led by Hariri, as they take part in a candlelight vigil during a march against the appointment of Najib Mikati as Prime Minister in Tripoli on Jan. 27.
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At the entrance to the Sunni quarter of Tarek Jdeide, an armored personnel carrier with Lebanese soldiers sitting on top clattered down the darkened street. Its caterpillar tracks ground over the smoking embers of rubber tires set alight by Sunni protesters.

At one end of the street, huddled in the shadows, stood a small disconsolate crowd of young Sunni men, all of them supporters of Saad Hariri, who was replaced as prime minister this week by Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman backed by the militant Shiite Hezbollah.

A “day of rage” to protest Mr. Mikati’s appointment turned violent with protesters clashing with troops. But it soon fizzled out, leaving these Sunni demonstrators feeling angry and frustrated.

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“The army used force against us and tear gas. We don’t have any weapons so it’s easy for them, but when demonstrations are in the Shiite areas, the army does nothing,” says one young man who called himself Ahmad.

Another man interrupted. “We don’t want to live under a government backed by Hezbollah and Iran. We may have lost the battle, but not the war.”

Mr. Hariri is the leading Sunni political figure in Lebanon and regarded by his followers as the natural choice for the premiership, which under Lebanon’s sectarian political system is always given to a Sunni.

But the Hezbollah-endorsed Mikati’s appointment as premier on Jan. 25 was a stark demonstration of the shifting balance of power in Lebanon between the Sunnis – a backbone of the Lebanese state since independence nearly 70 years ago – and the Shiites – historically underrepresented, but today the largest of Lebanon’s 18 sects.

The protests that greeted Mikati’s appointment were a rare and cathartic release of a frustration that has been building within Lebanon’s Sunni community in recent years.

The Sunnis lack the organizational dynamism that has been a hallmark of Lebanon’s Shiites since the community began to mobilize politically and socially in the 1960s and reached its apotheosis with the emergence of Hezbollah two decades later. Hezbollah today is the strongest political and military force in the country and the power behind the new government currently being formed by Mikati.

“We don’t feel we are protected by anyone,” says Ali Abdel-Khaled of Muslims Without Borders, a relief charity. “We have given up. There’s a sense of hopelessness here.”

Why Sunnis no longer support Hezbollah

Mr. Abdel-Khaled’s hometown of Majdal Anjar, located close to the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley, has long been considered a Sunni bastion of Al Qaeda-style militancy. Some young men from here fought in Iraq against coalition forces after the 2003 invasion.

Lebanese troops have manned checkpoints on all the roads leading into Majdal Anjar since October, when militants ambushed and killed an army officer. For many residents, the heightened security measures around their homes are emblematic of the marginalization they feel and their inability to counter the influence of Hezbollah.

“This is a reality, and not just in Majdal Anjar. We are dominated by the Shiites and Hezbollah,” says a prominent Sunni cleric in the town who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hezbollah has always attempted to bridge the intra-Muslim divide, and many Sunnis who once supported the Shiite group for resisting Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in the 1990s. But now, the calculus has changed.

“The resistance is no longer fighting Israel, but fighting us internally,” says the cleric. “People here feel very insecure and the future is uncertain and dark.”

Concern that Al Qaeda types will exploit Sunni anger

Rumors persist that some Sunni political leaders linked to Hariri’s Future Movement are recruiting and arming their followers, although there is little evidence of wholesale arming among Sunni political parties.

Of more concern, however, is the possibility that Al Qaeda-inspired militants may seek to exploit Sunni frustrations and carry out attacks against Shiites, whom they view as apostates.

“The person who feels targeted will defend himself,” says Sheikh Dai al-Islam Shahhal, the leading Salafist cleric in Lebanon. Salafism is an austere back-to-basics form of Islam that traditionally eschews politics and violence, although Al Qaeda follows a more extreme interpretation of the sect’s ideology.

In an attempt to tap into Sunni frustrations, an hour-long propaganda film began circulating in Sunni areas of Lebanon some six months ago with the clear intention of inciting anti-Shiite feeling. Titled “The Oppressed Sect,” a reference to Sunnis, the film purports to have been produced by the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades, an Al Qaeda offshoot.

Using archive footage dating back to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, the film lists historic Sunni grievances against Shiites. But some Islamist clerics who have studied the film question its authenticity. Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafist cleric who has recently begun to support Hezbollah, says it “smells of nationalism and secularism” and suggests that Hariri’s Future Movement fabricated it.

Another prominent cleric, Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the leading Islamic figure in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon, also notes that “the Islamic terminology is wrong” and believes it is an “intelligence deception.”

But when asked whom he thinks was responsible for the film, Khattab gives a discreet smile and says, “We like to blame such things on Israel.”

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