Monday, July 30, 2012

Stalemate in Sidon

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Bassem Nemeh]

In his private portacabin in his Sidon sit-in, Ahmad al-Assir tells NOW Lebanon that, despite the recent violence, nothing will prevent him from continuing to block the highway (NOW Lebanon/Alex Rowell)

Reclining on a leather armchair in the air-conditioned portacabin erected in the middle of his Sidon sit-in on Friday afternoon, Ahmad al-Assir seems remarkably relaxed when the explosions start. An aide bursts in with a walkie-talkie, saying two stun grenades—he uses the word for “bomb” in Arabic—have been thrown at us by a passing car. Outside, dozens of men begin shouting frantically. The Salafist cleric casually instructs him to seal the surrounding roads. “Scared?” he asks us with a teasing smile.

It is only the latest in a series of apparent tit-for-tat exchanges between Assir’s supporters and local opponents. On Friday, residents burned tires to block the road near al-Murjan roundabout to protest Assir’s sit-in, now in its fifth week, which he vows to continue until the government takes “serious” steps to eliminate non-state weapons, chiefly Hezbollah’s. Shortly afterward, Assir led hundreds of supporters to the nearby coastal road, briefly blocking it, in defiance of explicit warnings from security officials not to leave his sit-in. These demonstrations came a day after fights broke out between Assir supporters and passersby, again on the coastal road, in one of which an AFP photographer was beaten by the Internal Security Forces (ISF). Late Thursday night, members of the Popular Nasserist Organization (PNO) smashed shop windows in response to the beating of a PNO affiliate by Assir’s supporters. And last Sunday, a live grenade was thrown by an unidentified man at Assir’s sit-in, damaging five cars.

Assir described Thursday’s events to NOW Lebanon, admitting that it was one of his supporters who threw the first punch. “Before sundown, a Nasserist came to our roadside demonstration and started hurling insults at the ISF, the army and us. He then started blaspheming, and this is something we could not accept during Ramadan. A brother punched him in the shoulder, and then the ISF immediately stepped in to break it up. When it died down, he turned his car and sped toward me in an attempt to run me over, but the ISF stopped him. They impounded his car as a tool to commit a crime, but after [PNO leader] Osama Saad and others called and exerted pressure—and of course with the dominance that comes with [non-state] weapons—it was released. We have pressed charges of attempted murder.”

He accuses the PNO of a widespread harassment and vandalism campaign since then. “On Thursday night, groups of Nasserists started closing roads and targeting veiled women and bearded men. They vandalized shops belonging to our young men, such as the al-Amir Rashid restaurant and others. They even attacked people who aren’t associated with us, like the imam of the [Hajj Bahaeddine] Hariri mosque. The son of Nadim Hijazi, who runs Jamaiyat al-Istijabat al-Salafia [Association of the Salafist Response] was beaten with a rifle butt. So the young men of the Istijaba took to the streets, possibly with arms.

“[Friday] morning, they set fire to the car of a young girl because she was wearing a veil. Now they are destroying our cars [referring to the stun grenades that went off during the interview].” For Assir, the PNO’s belligerence is a natural consequence of what he sees as the fundamental problem of non-state weapons. “It is impossible that Saad would do all this without the arms and cover given to him by [Amal leader and Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri and [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah.”

Esmat Awwas, media spokesman for the PNO, tells a somewhat different version of Thursday’s events, accusing the ISF of sympathizing with Assir’s supporters. “Assir’s demonstration on the coastal road naturally led to congestion. Add to that the Ramadan fast and the heat, and a few verbal exchanges took place between Assir’s people and those stuck in traffic,” he told NOW. “Assir’s people then attacked two men in their cars, Ali Skafi and Hassan Jradi, and the ISF aided them in the attack. They were acting as if they were Assir’s helpers and were carrying out his orders.” Awwas denied any knowledge of the stun grenades thrown on Friday.

Assir rejects the accusation. “Some say that I collaborate with the ISF, with the fire department, traffic control, the army. Are all of these my accomplices? One of the men at the sit-in, who comes from Shebaa, was falsely accused of buying a Kalashnikov clip by the military intelligence, and he has been held for a month now. Even if it were true, why is the army targeting a man from occupied territory when there are so many other weapons on the street?”

The coming days look set to be tense for Sidon, with both sides vowing to redouble their efforts against the other. “There is consensus in the city that Assir’s sit-in is causing great damage in terms of security, stability and the economy,” said Awwas. “We agree that we must be rid of this abnormal phenomenon. So we call on all parties to join a general strike on Monday.”

Assir, however, is unflinching. “We took a decision at the start of Ramadan to go on a march after every sermon, because there has been no response to our demands. We will no longer accept the dominance of those holding weapons. There is not a power in Lebanon or the whole world that can stop us from demonstrating peacefully.”

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