Abou-Zahr is a senior journalist on the foreign desk of an-Nahar, a leading
Lebanese daily. She writes on Afghanistan, Iran, and the Arab Spring. Follow Sawssan on Twitter.
It was supposed to be
an ordinary Sunday afternoon. I had been visiting my father at Abra, a suburb of
Sidon, my home town and the chief city in southern Lebanon. When we heard gunshots,
we at first dismissed them as the kind of lower level violence we had lately
grown all too used to.
A few days earlier,
Abra had been the scene of clashes between loyalists of Ahmad al-Assir, a local
salafi sheikh, and people supporting Hizbullah. Those had lasted three hours, and
we expected the fighting that broke out on June 23rd to be the same.
But something wasn’t
right. The sounds were surprisingly intense. It felt more like a war and its
target was the Lebanese Army. From our living room on the eighth floor, I saw a
military tank hit. The explosion was huge and dark smoke filled the street. Braving snipers’ bullets and the risk
of stray shells, I took this picture.
I had reported from
Afghanistan, but this time I found myself turned into a war
correspondent (Arabic) in my own neighbourhood. Soon we learned that soldiers
had been killed. It was chaos. Masked militiamen roamed many streets in Sidon.
Civilians were trapped. Rumors began to spread that Hizbullah loyalists had got
involved, either by shelling Assir’s stronghold (which includes a mosque), or
by fighting on the ground alongside Army soldiers. The men came from Haret
Saida, the Shiite suburb of Sidon.
Over the previous
months, Assir, himself Sunni, had gained undeniable popularity amongst
fundamentalist Sunni youth all over Lebanon, and even attracted the support of
some Christians. He had staged demonstrations in Beirut, and a sit-in in Sidon,
demanding that Hizbullah be disarmed, condemning it as an Iranian party, and
denouncing it for fighting beside the Syrian army against the rebels there.
The combat in Abra
lasted a day and a half. Spent ammunition cases lay on the ground, shattered
glass and burnt cars all around. The devastated buildings near Assir’s
stronghold brought back almost forgotten memories of my childhood during the
civil war. It felt like the Libyan city of Misrata, from which I had reported
Opinion divided on sectarian
lines. In the nearby Ain El Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, the biggest in
Lebanon, a young man told me “the Sunnis had been crushed for some time now and
Assir was standing up for them.” In Shiite Haret Saida, older men denied
Hizbullah was involved in the “incidents” and were happy to see Assir gone.
Three weeks have
passed. Assir’s whereabouts are still unknown, as are those his confidant Fadl
Shaker, a one time romantic singer turned religious fundamentalist. Some claim
he is hiding out in the Ain El Hilweh camp, others that he managed to escape to
areas controlled by Salafi militias in Syria. They are fugitives now. Supporters
compare them to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, hiding out and releasing tapes. Opponents
do the same, and hope they end up the same way.
The sheikh has issued
an audio recording accusing Hizbullah of attacking his compound, while his
supporters have massed in demonstrations after Friday prayers. Other people
were angry too. Young men died in the compound, fighting to defend Assir and
their mosque. To their families and friends, they are “martyrs,” killed by
Hizbullah and the Army.
The army had its
martyrs too. Videotapes confiscated from Assir’s compound cameras revealed shocking
conversations between the sheikh and his men. He ordered them to kill soldiers,
calling them animals. One armed man asked for permission to shell a tank, quite
possibly the one I saw being blown up.
Last week, Dahieh, a Southern
suburb of Beirut and Hizbullah’s stronghold, was hit by a car bomb. It was a
big blow to the party and shattered confidence in its much vaunted security
system. The attackers planted it on what is to some Shiites the first day of
Ramadan, and the eve of the holy month to other Shiites and Sunnis.
accused Israel of the attack, many believed it was the result of its
involvement in Syria, and perhaps retaliation for its role bolstering Assad’s
forces in Qusair and Homs. Assir’s supporters were not alone in rejoicing. Many of the Shiite party’s other opponents joined
in. Their “enemy” had been hit. Political condemnation of the blast was
nominal. Once more, sectarian rifts have grown deep amid a political stalemate.
General elections have
been postponed and the Prime Minister designate has not been able form a
government in more than three months. Political alliances shift constantly. All
eyes are turned to Homs, Aleppo, and most importantly Damascus. The crucial
question in Lebanese politics is Syrian: will Bashar Assad remain in power or