Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Abra fiercely divided after Assir defeat

[Originally posted at NOW, with slideshow of photos from the scene]

Cars roasted to the bare metal, with Assir's mosque in the background (NOW/Alex Rowell)

The apartment block in which Assir's mosque is housed, seen from the south (NOW/Alex Rowell)

Stepping through the wreckage of Sidon’s Abra neighborhood Tuesday, the once-quiet residential street which until Monday housed the mosque and operational headquarters of Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir looks as though it has been struck simultaneously by a tornado and a series of lightning bolts. The windowless, tireless remains of cars roasted to the bare metal sit beneath balconies charred jet-black by fire. Craters the size of fruit bowls punctuate the tarmac, the results of the innumerable RPGs whose casings litter the floor, adding to the layers of rubble, shattered glass, and blood.

Even on the parallel street, Abra’s main commercial thoroughfare, the heavy machine gun cartridges, bullet-speckled windows, and toasted vehicles extend for hundreds of meters in both directions. From this angle, one sees entire wall panels blown off the multi-story apartment block above Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque, which is otherwise thoroughly mangled and punctured by rocket strikes. Solemn as the scene is, it hasn’t stopped some enterprising Lebanese from seeing an opportunity: tucked under the windshield wiper of one smashed-up Mercedes is a crisp business card, promising a highly competitive price for repair.

For the residents re-opening their shops for the first time since clashes broke out Sunday, the defeat of Assir’s militiamen at the hands of the Lebanese army (and, reportedly, Hezbollah-affiliated forces) has sharply polarized opinions, with some deflated, some delighted, and most somewhere in between.

“We feel sorry for the people who died, especially in the army,” said a roast chicken vendor whom NOW previously interviewed on Friday. “The people who died from Assir’s side were also good people, but they got brainwashed.”

“Fine, the army got rid of Assir, but they left us with the [Hezbollah-affiliated] Resistance Brigades, who are also thugs,” said a resident living just outside the mosque complex. “We want all weapons to be with the state only. We don’t want Hezbollah’s ‘resistance,’ because their idea of resistance is a lie.”

Others disagreed. “We are with the army and Hezbollah to stop Israel, which is the real enemy,” said a sweets vendor, who claimed to be Sunni although his arm bore a tattoo of Zulfiqar, the sword of Imam Ali, the reverence of whom is most commonly associated with Shiite Islam. “We love [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad], because he gave full support to us during the fight against Israel. In Lebanon, there is too much segregation, between Sunnis and Shiites, etc., but the army is united. Priority number one is to follow the army.”

Just meters away, NOW encountered a group of youths whose views could scarcely have been more different.

“Today, we are sad, because we are pro-Assir. This army is not a Lebanese army, it’s Hezbollah’s and Iran’s army,” said one.

Asked what they think Assir – whose whereabouts remain unknown – will do next, they spoke enthusiastically of revenge.

“God willing, he is in Syria now. Hopefully he’ll finish off the [Assad] regime and then come back,” said one.

“This is not the end, this is just the beginning,” said another. “The Free Syrian Army will come back and help Assir defeat Hezbollah. For Syrian people, Hezbollah is now the number one enemy, even more than Bashar. Syrians remember how in 2006 they took in Lebanese refugees with hospitality, and now those same refugees are killing them in Syria.”

Nor, despite Assir’s vow to stay in the mosque until “martyrdom,” were these supporters disappointed by his decision to flee. “He fled because if he was martyred yesterday, his movement would be finished. He only lost the battle, not the war.”

Others, too, gave indications that further unrest may yet be in store for Abra.

“People are only hating each other even more now,” said the chicken vendor. “Earlier today, there was a fight between a Sunni and a Shiite. Later, a Shiite youth walked past us and made a ‘victory’ sign.”

Indeed, for the first time since Assir’s movement gained local prominence in late 2011, on Tuesday Hezbollah supporters were able to openly display their allegiance. As NOW spoke to the youths, a car drove down the busy main thoroughfare playing a loud recording of a fiery speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. And on the devastated parallel street, one block away from the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, a large Hezbollah flag appeared on a balcony – apparently the same balcony that had been attacked by Assir’s gunmen a week earlier, sparking the clashes that anticipated the heavier ones that followed on Sunday.

“They’re humiliating us,” said a car mechanic, referring to the flag. “Doesn’t Hezbollah have weapons? Doesn’t the Amal Movement have weapons? OK, then, why am I as a Sunni not allowed to have weapons?”

It was precisely such sentiments of sectarian victimhood that Assir repeatedly emphasized in his weekly sermons and public speeches. Evidently, the frustrations that fuelled his movement have not disappeared with him.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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