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The Lebanese sheikh who's leading a sit-in against Hezbollah

Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir has shot to fame by rallying to the cause of Syria's rebels and taking on the most powerful faction in Lebanon.

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In an interview on Lebanon's Al-Jadeed television on June 23, Sheikh Assir accused Hezbollah and the leader of the Shiite Amal Movement of using their political weight to dominate Lebanon and isolate the Sunni community.

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"Either we live as equal partners or else, I swear by God, O Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, I, Ahmad Assir, will shed every drop of my blood to prevent you from relaxing until balance is restored to Lebanon," he said.

The offices of Al-Jadeed were firebombed two days later by suspected Shiite supporters of Mr. Berri, who is also Lebanon's parliamentary speaker.

Serious protest or diversion?

On Tuesday, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, a senior Hezbollah official accused Sheikh Assir of attempting to switch attention away from the support given by some Lebanese Sunnis to the armed opposition in Syria.

"Their focus on the Resistance's arms at this point in time is aimed at diverting attention from their smuggling of weapons to Syria," he said.

Still, not every Sunni supports Sheikh Assir's sit-in. The section of highway blocked by the cleric and his supporters keeps customers away from local businesses. On Wednesday, some 220 employees of Baba Sweets, a leading confectionery in Sidon, marched up to the barricades carrying banners reading "We want to eat, we want to live" and "Release us from this captivity."

Even Sunni politicians from the mainstream Future Movement, itself a bitter rival to Hezbollah, have criticized the sheikh's tactics even while agreeing with his core message. However, Sheikh Assir's uncompromising rhetoric and activist stance threaten to undermine the more moderate established Sunni politicians.

The popularity of the Future Movement, the main Sunni political group in Lebanon, has declined over the past year, partly because its leader, Saad Hariri, a former prime minister, has lived outside Lebanon since April 2011 and also because his financial patronage has dwindled. Sheikh Assir and other firebrand clerics are emerging to fill the Sunni leadership vacuum, offering a bold confrontational discourse that taps into Sunni frustrations and bitterness but also threatens to escalate Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon.

Still, not all Sunnis are against Hezbollah. The Shiite party traditionally champions Sunni-Shiite harmony, believing that Muslims should unite to face the greater threat of Israel. Hezbollah has spent years winning over Sunnis to its cause. One long-standing Sunni ally of Hezbollah is Osama Saad, a former MP and scion of a leading family in Sidon. On Sunday evening, Mr. Saad marshaled his supporters on the streets of Sidon to toss flowers and shower praise on Shiite families driving from south Lebanon to their homes in Beirut at the end of the weekend.

"This protest is creating tensions in Sidon and it reflects negatively on peace and security in this area," Saad says. He says he blames Arab Gulf countries and their backers in the West for attempting to create a fitna, or schism, between Sunnis and Shiites.

"He [Sheikh Assir] is being used as a tool to create a fitna on behalf of this agenda," Saad says.

But Sheikh Assir is unrepentant and says that his protest will continue.

"We have reached the point of no return," he says. "Even if they bribe us with palaces, we need to keep our dignity."


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