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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 / January 27, 2011

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.

Omar Ibrahim/Reuters

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Beirut and Majdal Anjar, Lebanon

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.

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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.

“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.

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