For reasons that are clear to see, Lebanese politicians yesterday rushed to announce their support for the surgical step taken by the Lebanese army in Sidon, the capital of south Lebanon, to eradicate the phenomenon of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, imam of the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, and his followers in Abra.
Although reasons vary from one faction to another, the support was almost unanimous in a country where leaders and their followers are split on almost everything.
One faction voiced their support because they believe the Lebanese army, even if only in theory, is one of the very few remaining governmental institutions that transcend sectarianism; thus, it is the duty of those who believe in a “state of institutions” to gamble on the military successfully combating a sectarian and illegitimate armed group.
Many Lebanese have said over the past years that the presence of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Assir and his bellicose rhetoric represent the best political weapon for HezbollahEyad Abu Shakra
Another faction believes that the Assir phenomenon has been nourished and supported in order to strip the Future Movement, and those who represent moderate Sunnis, of their support base. Accordingly, this phenomenon has served the political factions aimed at “demonizing” Sunni Muslims and inciting hatred against them—whether intentionally or not—resulting in accusations of prejudice and apostasy. This is precisely what the Syrian regime has done and continues to do whenever it addresses the international community.
There is a third faction that is deeply sectarian and publicly opposes any popular uprising against the state of affairs that has been imposed on the Lebanese government and people since May 2008. This sectarian faction goes even further in humiliating Sunnis, particularly following the battle for Qusayr in Syria. This faction pursues this approach by fabricating the lie that it represents an entity that is far from sectarian, and sides “with legitimacy and sovereignty” against sectarian takfirists who oppose this legitimacy and sovereignty. From this point, this same sectarian faction is now encouraging a new generation of Maronite Christian “facades” to present their “credentials” for the presidential elections scheduled for next year, based on their support of the elimination of Assir, the siege of Aarsal, and Hezbollah’s project and actions at home and abroad.
Hezbollah’s political weapon?
Many Lebanese have said over the past years that the presence of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Assir and his bellicose rhetoric represent the best political weapon for Hezbollah, who exploited this to strengthen its Shiite sectarian support base. This is not to mention helping MP Michel Aoun and Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi scare Christians with the prospect of “Sunni takfirist extremism.” It is something that to a large extent resembles Israel’s implicit satisfaction with Hassan Nsasrallah’s bellicose rhetoric, which gets more belligerent the further away he is from the borders of Occupied Palestine, but which is causing ever-increasing sectarian polarization in Lebanon and the entire region.
Supporting the military
Let’s return to the issue of supporting the military. Just like all security, civil, judicial and administrative bodies in the government, the Lebanese army is a legitimate governmental institution that is duty-bound to rise above factional and sectarian differences. However, first, it can only perform this role if there is a state to serve. Second, it can only fulfill this role when military and security leaders and judicial and administrative officials are appointed based on the criteria of proficiency and qualifications, irrespective of hidden and overt political deals.
What I mean to say is that if it is the duty of the military—as an institution—to fight against any faction threatening the state’s legitimacy and sovereignty, the Lebanese citizens in turn have the right to question the political allegiances of the military and security leadership, particularly those who were appointed based on recommendations and political deals that are well-known to the public. In an official statement on Tuesday morning, the Lebanese government unreservedly endorsed the measures taken by the army and its strict and decisive handling of the Assir phenomenon.
In light of this, the Lebanese people should expect two highly important steps in the coming days.
First, they should expect assurances to Lebanon’s Sunnis that they are not being targeted by what prominent Sunni figures have called a “policy of double standards.” The Lebanese government can demonstrate this by launching an official investigation into the original attack on the army checkpoint that started the fighting and the general undermining of security. In fact, some Sunni religious scholars demanded the launch of an investigation before the army stormed Assir’s headquarters, killing dozens of his supporters.
Second—and this is the more comprehensive and important step—the Lebanese state must exercise sovereignty and defend legitimacy in a proper, comprehensive and complete manner, including putting an end to the mini-state in Lebanon that operates in the name of “army–people–resistance.” Indeed this slogan has been recently shortened into a “resistance” that has refrained from resisting Israel since 2006, occupying itself instead with subjugating those who criticize it, accusing those who oppose it of treason, hindering the establishment of the state, and waging wars outside the country’s borders without asking the people’s opinion or showing any regard for the Lebanese army.
A sad shame
Lebanon is a beautiful country and its people are optimistic, have a great love for life, and enjoy partying all year round on the slightest pretext. Therefore, it is absurd that these people should live in a state of constant denial. Only days ago, the minister of tourism—affiliated with Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement—issued over-optimistic statements at the opening of the Jounieh International Festival. Somebody who does not live in Lebanon or is concerned about what is happening there could imagine that the minister is living on another planet.
At the same time that the army was shelling Assir’s headquarters earlier this week, a Lebanese MP allied to the minister of tourism said: “The military must not stop in the middle of the road.”
What road is he talking about? What is “the middle of the road” between sovereignty and legitimacy?
Furthermore, the interior minister, a professional and respected military officer, issued a statement of striking naivety, indicating that those in authority still deal with state institutions—including the army—as if they were window-dressing, while they dealt with the Lebanese people as if they were little children.
We are facing an issue of explicit denial and an intentional neglect of a bitter reality. We are face to face with a state that occupies itself with appearances and ignores the structural problems affecting the essence of the homeland.
In short, it is impossible to establish a nation based on double standards.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on June 27, 2013.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with An-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. Joned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.
Breaking down Ahmad al-Assir: the man behind the beardAhmad al-Assir, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim cleric, was virtually unknown two years ago before the conflict in Syria erupted. His strong statements ... Profiles
Lebanese army hunts radical cleric Assir after clashesLebanese security forces began a hunt on Tuesday for Ahmad al-Assir, a radical cleric, after a brief skirmish with Assir’s supporters in the ... Middle East
Sectarian clashes in LebanonSectarian Clashes in Lebanon Perspective