Tripoli, Lebanon: As this country becomes more embroiled in Syria’s conflict, the power struggle to fill the leadership vacuum within the Sunni community is intensifying, further exacerbating violent confrontations.
The past few months have witnessed escalating tensions in several hotspots across the country, primarily in the northern city of Tripoli, the eastern town of Arsal, and the southern city of Sidon.
Two weeks ago, 31 people were left dead and a further 200 wounded in the worst of the violence in the northern city of Tripoli after fighting between the Sunni-dominated neighbourhood of Bab el Tabbaneh and the Alawite-dominated neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen.
Earlier this week, the sense of unease was heightened following the assassination of a resident of Arsal – a Sunni town in the Bekaa Valley considered a gateway between Lebanon and Syria for Syrian rebels and Lebanese supporters of the armed opposition. Officials in the town said the assassination occurred during an ambush led by pro-Hezbollah groups in the area.
On the same day, Arsal also bore the brunt of several rocket attacks by the Syrian air force, in what President Bashar al-Assad’s military said was an attempt to root out “terrorists”.
Arsal is also where several Lebanese soldiers were killed in two attacks by armed gunmen – who reportedly fled to Syria – while operating a checkpoint on the outskirts of the town.
In Sidon, the emergence of Ahmed al-Assir, a provocative Sunni cleric, has increased tensions in the mixed southern city. Here, violent confrontations have raged between supporters of the preacher, the authorities, and supporters of Lebanon’s Shia movement, Hezbollah.
While these clashes and attacks do have links to the civil war currently taking place in neighbouring Syria, the situation on the ground also reveals a multifaceted battle, as new Sunni power centres emerge from the sidelines to fight for the leadership of one of Lebanon’s largest minorities.
‘No-one represents us’
There has been a clear shift in support from mainstream politicians to either religious figureheads usually found on the fringes of society, or street leaders who can offer physical protection in the absence of the state and its institutions.
“No-one represents us anymore, the politicians now are benefiting from the situation and using us,” Tarek al-Zabye, a resident of Tripoli’s Bab al Tabbaneh neighbourhood, told Al Jazeera. “Today, I feel like the only people who are protecting me are the Salafists.”
What you have on the streets of Tripoli today are two main groups; the Salafist-Islamist groups, and the others who are neighbourhood 'thugs', who take their legitimacy through protecting the area.
Zabye, whose house is located on Syria Street, the frontline of the fierce battles between Bab al Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, pointed out that, while he supports the Salafists, he is not an ideologue.
“I go out, I drink, I’m not a ‘Salafist’, but I support their actions because I know they’re working to protect us from the others.”
Speaking from his home in the heart of Abi Samra overlooking the city of Tripoli, Salafist cleric, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, told Al Jazeera the Sunni community was “becoming convinced with our beliefs”, hence the increase in support over the past two years.
“The targeting of the Sunnis in Lebanon with the Safawi project is what has led them to this choice,” he said, referring to Hezbollah and its ally, Iran.
“We are doing what millions fail to do; we won’t accept shame on us, and we tell the Sunnis of Lebanon to join forces to fight the Safawi project,” adding that there were elements within Lebanon’s security establishment supportive of “the Iranian agenda”.
This sentiment has been repeated with increasing frequency by the Salafist cleric and others, accusing the army of working against the Sunnis, especially in the areas of Tripoli, Sidon, and Arsal.
Shahhal, a controversial figure due to his fiery rhetoric against Hezbollah, sees his role being one of the only viable leaders and protectors of the Sunnis in Lebanon.
“[The Sunnis] see the political leaders as weak,” he said. “Today, the pulse of the street in Lebanon is with the Salafists.”
Tripoli is statistically one of Lebanon’s poorest cities, as a UN report in 2012 pointed out, where 51 percent of the population live below the poverty line, on an average of $4 a day.
Many accuse politicians in the area of profiting from the poverty – creating armed groups to serve their own purposes and consolidating power through the violence that sporadically flares.
“They are keeping people poor here so they can control them and create mercenaries to fight their battles on our streets,” Rashid al-Rashid, a business owner in the city center, told Al Jazeera.
“One hundred shells wouldn’t open the battle [in Tripoli’s neighbourhoods] unless there is political will,” he said. “What is happening in Tripoli now is extremely dangerous.”
While armed groups have seemingly always been present in Tripoli, these groups are said to have increased in size and numbers over the past two years, creating a shift in the balance of power between them and the politicians.
“What you have on the streets of Tripoli today are two main groups; the Salafist-Islamist groups, and the others who are neighbourhood ‘thugs’, who take their legitimacy through protecting the area,” explained Mazen el Sayed, head of Arab and International Affairs at the Lebanese news site Al Modon.
Previously said to be working at the behest of certain politicians, today these armed groups have the upper hand due to the lack of coherent political leadership within the Sunni community, as residents look to them for protection.
This was confirmed by a fighter from Bab al Tabbaneh, who told Al Jazeera: “We don’t answer to anyone and we don’t belong to anyone. We protect our own streets and neighbourhoods.”
“[The armed groups] have the upper hand in negotiations now,” said Sayed. “They don’t like the politicians, but they see them as facilitators, and now the climate is chaotic enough to use them.”
From Harirism to Salafism
The gradual decline of Sunni leadership began in the aftermath of the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, deemed by many here to “the last true Sunni leader”.
According to Sayed, Hariri was seen as “a true statesman who wasn’t necessarily positioning the Sunni street against others, but rather promoting the ‘suit and tie’ image”.
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Following his assassination, the Sunni community looked to Saad Hariri, the prime minister’s son, for protection and representation – but what was deemed to be weak leadership skills followed by his self-imposed exile to Saudi Arabia in 2011 left many in the community feeling let down and leaderless, as they witnessed the rise of their political opponents, Hezbollah.
This was further compounded by the violence in Syria, where many saw the passive approach of politicians as a failure to show solidarity with the Syrian people.
“This left a vacuum for the Islamist organisations which were involved in humanitarian work and later militarily, to garner support,” said Sayed, adding that the rhetoric shifted from political talk to sectarian divisiveness.
The fear of “the other” within Sunni circles moved from focusing on Hezbollah as a military-political party, whose weapons have been perceived as a threat to stability in the country, to the Shia community who, backed by Iran, appeared to some here to be attempting to impose an Iranian-Shia hegemony on the region.
This particular rhetoric has been touted by various groups emerging in the battle for Sunni leadership.
Today, the players are the traditional Salafists, such as Shahhal, who are institutional and academic, and the neo-Salafists, such as Sidon’s Sunni cleric Assir, who rose to fame bringing Sidon to a standstill last year through his demonstrations against Hezbollah.
“Neo-Salafism is not based on any theological credentials,” said Sayed. “Instead, it is playing in the fields of populism and sectarianism, and trying to capture the heat of the moment.
“A lot of people would follow the neo-Salafists because they don’t necessarily want to take a position in the religious spectrum, but rather in the sectarian spectrum.”
‘Free Resistance Brigades’
Assir on Friday called for his supporters to be prepared for a war “in the coming days, maybe hours”.
Sitting in his home the day before, he told Al Jazeera that the shift from mainstream leaders to populist leaders such as himself came as a result of the Sunni community sensing “a true grudge against them, the proof of which is what is happening in Syria”.
Assir has been hitting the headlines in recent months after his repeated road blocks, much to the ire of Sidon’s business community, coupled with his attempts to storm some Shia apartments in the area to kick out “the weapons of Hezbollah and Iran”.
Confrontations have also turned violent when his supporters clashed with authorities and groups supportive of Hezbollah in Sidon.
He also accuses Lebanon’s military establishment of having been “seized by Hezbollah and Iran”, adding that the people “sense this”.
As a result, he has established his own armed group, calling on Sunnis to join the “Free Resistance Brigades”.
“We spent a year protesting in peace, asking for all the arms of Hezbollah [to] be in the hands of the government, but when the arms of Hezbollah are stronger than the government, nothing can be done,” he said.
For him, they reached a dead-end. “The government cannot protect us, and that’s why we’ve declared an armed group, even if it means starting from scratch.”
Working towards eliminating “the Iranian project” in Lebanon allegedly aimed at targeting the Sunnis, Assir has put his military plan into action.
According to him, the Free Resistance Brigades are made up of cells of five to six men who are locally trained, and have been asked by Assir to acquire weapons “in a secret way, to defend themselves”.
“Right now this is just happening in Sidon,” he said. “But we have followers elsewhere, and once we’re done with Sidon, then we will prepare people outside.”
Despite the declarations of protection and representation by the differing groups present within the Sunni community, for Ahmed Yassin, a 41-year-old Sidon resident, there is still no legitimate representative, and the security situation continues to deteriorate.
“On the street, we are fighting each other,” he said. “As leaders, they are supported to represent the Sunni street in unison. They are not.”
“They are not working in the interest of the country, but rather for their own interests – and all these leaders, both political and religious, are now colliding with each other.”
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha