Friday, March 15, 2013

Assir unrest stokes minority fears

[Originally posted at NOW, with Yara Chehayed]

For a mosque reported by its imam to be “under siege” by the army, the Bilal bin Rabah mosque in Sidon’s Abra neighborhood looked remarkably calm when NOW arrived Thursday afternoon. Though there was a pair of armed personnel carriers (APCs) on a parallel street, no attempt was made to prevent our approach, and none of the half-dozen partisans of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir standing outside his mosque appeared at all distressed. Indeed, on the surface, it seemed a more or less typical day in the city of Sidon as a whole.

Yet beneath this superficial calm lie widespread fears among the city’s residents, not least those belonging to the minority Christian and Shiite communities. Just a five minute drive uphill from Assir’s mosque, the long beards and face-veils give way to posters of (now former) Pope Benedict XVI, signaling one’s arrival at one of Sidon’s few remaining Christian neighborhoods.

It is here, in upper Abra, that NOW meets the village mayor, Elias Mchantaf – the kind of well-heeled, middle-aged Christian who habitually breaks into French while talking, and who looks uncannily like a green-eyed brother of the Michel Suleiman portrait hung on the wall behind him. Abra, Mchantaf tells us over coffee in his office overlooking an expansive olive grove, was entirely Christian before the outbreak of civil war in 1975. Migration (and emigration) over the course of the many battles that have since struck Sidon have brought the Christian presence down to about 15% today. For those who remain, Ahmad al-Assir is in many ways symbolic of their decline – his mosque, built with the mayor’s permission in 1997, was the first in the area.

Mchantaf insists that the Christians have no problems with their Muslim neighbors, and that his personal relations with Assir are cordial. But there are hints throughout the conversation of a more complicated picture. The sheikh certainly keeps him busy. “Ten days ago, [Assir] told me Hezbollah was using two apartments in Abra to stock weapons. The owners of the apartments came to me and said, ‘Here are the keys if you want to check yourself.’ Then Assir told me there was an attempt to kidnap him, so we sent the army to secure his mosque, and he started saying the army was targeting him. Now there’s this problem with his friend’s car,” referring to the dispute that led to the alleged “siege” on Tuesday and consequent blocking of roads by his supporters across the country.

Such frequent unrest in the area keeps local Christians ill-at-ease. One upper Abra resident, requesting anonymity, told NOW that, “Of course we are scared. Our problems here are worse than in Tripoli, because we have [the Palestinian refugee camp] Ain al-Hilweh.”

That sentiment was echoed by a Shiite schoolteacher NOW met in central Sidon. “The new danger is the camp. If Assir is allied with militants there, this is a game-changer.” Ain al-Hilweh witnessed lethal clashes earlier this week between secularists and Islamists amid reports that one faction threatened “war” against anyone targeting Sunnis in Sidon. Moreover, there has long been speculation that Fadel Shaker, a celebrity partisan of Assir’s, has cultivated ties with militants inside the camp via his brother, a leader of the jihadist Jund al-Sham outfit.

Back in Abra, NOW managed to secure a quick interview with Assir himself in his press office across the street from his mosque (newly covered, incidentally, with a thick metal roof – see above photos). Reclining in his usual armchair, with a pair of fuzzy slippers on his feet, the sheikh could not have looked more relaxed. “Nothing is happening today,” he admitted. “Tomorrow, we’re calling on our brothers from all over Lebanon to come to the mosque and end the siege peacefully. We told them to have no confrontations with the army, even though the army insults us when we come to pray, and arrested a teenage boy the other day.”

We ask about Ain al-Hilweh. “I’ve had several calls from the camp, from people saying we are ready to support you, but on a personal level I have no connection with the fighters or their groups.” Regarding the Fadel Shaker rumours: “Sheikh Abdul Rahman Shmandar has served his sentence in Roumieh [prison], and is now living with Fadel Shaker, and neither of them have any connection to Jund al-Sham.”

As for the fears of Sidon’s minorities, Assir becomes somewhat exasperated. “As I’ve said several times, our problem is not with the Shiite sect. You can go down to Sidon and see all the shops owned by Shiites are open and people are working normally.”

That much is true. In the predominantly-Shiite Haarat al-Saida neighborhood, NOW spoke to shopkeepers selling Hezbollah, Amal, and black Shiite religious flags, whose tones were more defiant than afraid. “Why should we care if Assir is holding a protest tomorrow? He does it every week,” one said.

Nor were they concerned about the economic impact of Assir’s protests on their businesses. “On the contrary, it’s their loss and our gain. When he closes the streets there, more customers come to us here.”

Yet not everyone in Haarat al-Saida was quite so sanguine. “We are scared,” admitted a Palestinian woman a few shops down the street.

“In fact, we are thinking of leaving this area, permanently.”

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