Ahmad al-Assir. The preacher expresses the shock over Syria’s massacres.
Ahmad al-Assir. The preacher expresses the shock over Syria’s massacres. Photo by Reuters
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His rivals claim that he likes to drink, that he takes a cocktail of pills each workday, and that before he became a preacher he enjoyed the company of beautiful women. Actually, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was a singer in his younger days, as was his father and a brother. But "with the help of Allah I persuaded my father and brother to abandon singing and embrace Islam." Assir is now a preacher at a Sunni mosque in Sidon.

None of this is enough to make a bearded preacher a celebrity in Lebanon. The turning point came last March in Beirut. Arriving in Lebanon's capital with an entourage of hundreds including the singer Fadal Shaker, the sheikh set out to publicly denounce the massacres in Syria. It was the first such anti-Syria protest in Beirut. Before this event, Tripoli in the north, a Sunni stronghold, was the center of protest against Bashar Assad's regime.

Assir has done more than just protest against Assad. In recent days, he and his Sunni Muslim followers have been staging hunger strikes on the main highway between Beirut and Sidon. They have also set up roadblocks, burned tires and made a highly unusual demand - the disarming of Hezbollah.

"We won't move from here until the government disarms Hezbollah," Assir declared. In the meantime, in Beirut, Hezbollah is complaining that the army isn't capable of clearing away Assir's roadblocks.

Assir's protest might seem a bizarre episode in Lebanon's complex political-religious reality, but it reflects mounting chaos. Criminal gangs, private militias and petty thieves are doing whatever they want.

TV stations targeted

Last week, the Al-Jadeed television station was attacked after it broadcast an interview with Assir. "Anonymous" elements threatened to ransack the Al-Mustaqbal television station, owned by the Hariri family. Alleys in south Beirut, where Hezbollah is strong, have become hotbeds for drug deals; attacks on pedestrians are not rare here and elsewhere in the city.

Amid such a downward spiral, the Lebanese government held an urgent meeting with heads of the security forces. The result: Interior Minister Marwan Charbel proclaimed "security month."

During this stretch, soldiers and police will be deployed on Beirut's streets, especially in the southern Dahiya neighborhood; the security men will try to prevent drug trafficking and make arrests as necessary. Yet on the first day of "security month," gangs blocked the road to the highway and even burned tires.

"The feeling is that nobody is in control of the country," a commentator wrote last week in the newspaper Al-Diyar. That feeling, of course, is no novelty in Lebanon, a country that operates on a day-by-day basis.

Still, Hezbollah, which hitherto could strike a delicate balance between rival forces and stick to its agenda, is beginning to feel the heat. The pressure isn't actually the protests staged by Assir, it's what Assir represents. The preacher expresses the shock felt by many Lebanese when they view both the massacres in Syria and Hezbollah, which is considered an ally of the Iranian and Syrian regimes.

"It's impossible to know what will be the spark that ignites Lebanon, just as we did not know which spark would ignite that people in Tunisia or Egypt," wrote a Lebanese journalist. The Sunni protests, which have been joined by Christians and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, could overwhelm Hezbollah.

Nasrallah thinks things over

As a result of the events in Syria and the international pressure on Assad, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah could end up without a patron and without supply lines. Hezbollah could be forced to revisit its ties with Arab states where uprisings have taken place.

The Lebanese media have been reporting on Hezbollah's plans to make changes, especially the appointing of new leaders. Also, Hezbollah operatives have said anonymously that the Shi'ite group's leaders want to review relations with Arab states such as Egypt and Tunisia, which have new Islamic leaderships.

Hezbollah is no longer the nationalist-Islamic hero that vanquished Israel. Its name is linked with Assad, who is reviled in the Arab world. Hezbollah is also associated with Islamic movements in nearby countries, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

In the past, the Brotherhood and Hezbollah maintained close ties based on opposition to the Israeli occupation in the territories. But for now the massacres in Syria are the main object of criticism in the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood is also unlikely to forget that Nasrallah defined Egypt's revolution as the triumph of an ideology designed to remove the West from the Middle East.

For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood defines the events in Egypt as a revolution against Hosni Mubarak's corrupt dictatorship. Nasrallah was one of the first to congratulate Mohammed Morsi upon his victory in Egypt's presidential election, but such blessings are unlikely to improve the reputation of Hezbollah's leader in Egypt.