A Lebanese Salafist cleric who has emerged over the past year from obscurity to become a leading and controversial Sunni activist has launched a sit-in in this port city to press for the disarming of the powerful Shiite Hezbollah organization.
A year ago, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was known only to a small group of followers who attended his sermons at the Bilal bin Rabeh mosque in Sidon. But with neighboring Syria mired in ever worsening violence, the sheikh's calls for support for the Syrian rebels and his outspoken criticism of Hezbollah have earned him a national platform and drawn admirers among frustrated Lebanese Sunnis who feel overshadowed by their powerful Shiite rival.
"The imbalance in Lebanon, all the economic problems in Lebanon, all the political problems are a result of the weapons of the Resistance [Hezbollah]," he told the Monitor in an interview. "But every time we raise the subject of the non-state weapons, they accuse us of being [pro-Israel] traitors."
The fate of Hezbollah's weapons is at the center of the political divide in Lebanon, evenly splitting the country between those who support the Shiite group's private arsenal to defend Lebanon against future Israeli aggression and those that distrust Hezbollah's motives and argue that only the state and the Lebanese army has the right to bear arms to defend the nation.
Sheikh Assir and most Lebanese Sunnis belong to the second camp, arguing that Hezbollah uses its weapons not to challenge Israel but to threaten other Lebanese and gain political leverage.
Still, while Sheikh Assir's sit-in has drawn national attention and praise and criticism from rival quarters, it is unlikely that it will hasten the dismantling of Hezbollah's formidable military infrastructure, given the party's political power as the dominant influence in the Lebanese government.
Shutdown of a highway
Sheikh Assir and his followers have blocked off a 200-yard stretch of the main highway bypassing the city center which connects south Lebanon to Beirut, 23 miles north of Sidon. The Lebanese security authorities have chosen for now not to intervene to avoid a confrontation with the cleric.
Tents and awnings of cotton sheets have sprung up along the road providing shelter from the searing summer sunshine. Dozens of men, almost all of them with shaved heads and long beards in the Salafist style, wander along the street or lounge in the shade chatting to each other. A few women also were present, all of them dressed entirely in black chadors with black sunglasses covering their eyes.
"We are getting organized," Sheikh Assir says. "We have people who are preparing new tents, others do the cooking, others clean the streets each day."
He added that there were several hundred protestors at the sit in, almost all of them from Sidon, a mainly Sunni city.
"I have not issued a call for everyone to come here yet," he says. "I am giving the president and the prime minister a chance to resolve this problem of non-state arms."
Cleric argues for 'balance'
The cleric is certainly media savvy. His polite, smiling walkie-talkie-carrying aides quickly usher reporters into his presence and ply them with bottles of water and cups of coffee as Sheikh Assir delivers his message - an unusually bold one at that.
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.
"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."