Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Aoun rumors costing Future support on ground

[Originally posted at NOW]

Speculation that the Future Movement might back Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun for president is angering supporters across Lebanon.

TARIQ AL-JADIDEH, Lebanon – On the restless streets of this crowded south Beirut neighborhood, where posters of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri vie with Sunni Islamist graffiti for dominance on the walls, the most common reaction NOW got from residents Tuesday to the rumors of Hariri’s possible support for arch-rival Michel Aoun’s presidential candidacy was one of simple disbelief.

“It just can’t happen,” said an incredulous shop-owner. “For ten years, their policies have been opposed, how can they support each other now?”

Others went further, clearly angered by the idea. “[Hariri] will be a traitor if he does it,” said a woman pedestrian in a colorful hijab. Asked which candidate she would rather see the Future Movement leader support, her young friend instantly replied, “[Lebanese Forces head Samir] Geagea.”

Geagea is still Future’s official nominee, as the bloc reiterated in a statement Tuesday. But speculation remains that Hariri might make a surprise switch to backing the Hezbollah-allied Aoun, whose son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, lunched with Hariri in Paris Tuesday in a meeting he described as “positive.” One report Wednesday claimed Hariri had in fact already accepted Aoun’s candidacy, on the condition that the Free Patriotic Movement leader agreed to align himself politically with his current foes in the March 14 coalition.

Even a concession on that historic scale, however, would be unlikely to appease most Tariq al-Jadideh residents, many of whom recall the war days when they were on the receiving end of Aoun’s – and Geagea’s – military attacks.

“Neither Geagea nor Aoun [for president],” was a response NOW heard several times. “It has to be someone independent, with no blood on his hands,” said an elderly man sitting outside a sandwich shop. Asked who might meet those criteria, he thought for some time before offering Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh.

Others said they simply didn’t care who became president. “We’re not going to benefit from any of them,” said a telephone accessories shop owner. Despite his apparent apathy, however, he was convinced of one thing: “No one here will accept Hariri backing Aoun.”

Such hostility to the idea is even sharper in pro-Future areas that have felt a more direct impact from the neighboring Syrian war, in which Aoun’s ally Hezbollah is a key participant. In the view of Ahmad Fleeti, deputy mayor of the border town of Arsal, Hariri would be “covering up [for] Hezbollah” if he backed the FPM leader.

“If Hariri supported Aoun, he would be giving away [March 14’s] principles, especially [that of defending Lebanon’s] sovereignty,” Fleeti told NOW. “Whenever one of March 14’s members gives away its principles, they will not get the support of their followers.”

Like the woman in Tariq al-Jadideh, Fleeti said “the only” acceptable candidate was Geagea, on account of his refusal to join the current cabinet due to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.

Indeed, Geagea also received endorsement from another perhaps unlikely source in the southern city of Sidon. A sympathizer of the fugitive Islamist cleric and militant Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who declined to give his name, told NOW by telephone that the LF leader was the only “non-hypocrite” among all Lebanese politicians. Hariri, by contrast, would be “betraying the Cedar Revolution and the blood of the martyrs” by backing Aoun’s candidacy.

Similarly, in Tripoli, where another Aoun ally – the Syrian regime – has been implicated in the bombing of mosques, many also staunchly oppose any Hariri-Aoun reconciliation. Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, an imam who narrowly escaped death when his Al-Salam mosque was car-bombed in August 2013, told NOW, “We would consider that Hariri gave away all his previous [stances] and principles, and ours as well,” if he backed Aoun.

“Future is losing a lot of supporters because of [the Aoun rumors],” said Tripoli-based civil society activist Shadi Nashabi. At the same time, Nashabi told NOW, the presidential question ranks relatively low on many residents’ list of priorities, given the more immediate concerns of ongoing armed violence and instability in the northern city.

In the face of such widespread objections, Hariri would clearly find it tough to sell Aoun’s candidacy to his supporters, and vice versa, according to Hussam Itani, an analyst at the al-Hayat newspaper.

“It is not only a problem for Hariri’s supporters, but also for Aoun’s, especially after all the campaigns he led against the Future Movement and Hariri,” Itani told NOW.

Nonetheless, Itani believes that if the decision were made, both groups of partisans would ultimately have little choice but to fall in line.

“In Lebanon, politicians take decisions regardless of the opinions of their supporters, [and those] supporters end up accepting the decisions,” he told NOW.

Indeed, as an elderly woman in Tariq al-Jadideh told NOW with an amused grin: “We Lebanese are always ready for surprises.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sudden prisoner releases raise suspicions

[Originally posted at NOW]

Some activists allege clandestine political bargain behind the abrupt release of two anti-Hezbollah Shiite clerics with a pro-Hezbollah businessman.

The unexpected release of three high-profile, Hezbollah-linked Lebanese prisoners in the last few weeks has drawn accusations from some activists of political interference in the judiciary.

The three convicts – businessman Saleh Ezzedine and Shiite clerics Sheikh Hassan Mshaymish and Sayyid Muhammad Ali al-Husseini – had officially been serving time for unrelated crimes: financial fraud in Ezzedine’s case, collaboration with Israel in the others’. Yet all were released almost simultaneously, before the ends of their sentences, with the bail amounts in Mshaymish’s and Ezzedine’s cases both being 5,000,000LL ($3,333). The similarities have led some to argue an under-the-table political agreement forced the judges’ hands.

“Obviously there was a kind of deal, which [stipulated] that all three, coming let’s say from two different parts of the political spectrum, were released,” said Lokman Slim, an activist who has long campaigned for the release of Mshaymish and Husseini, whom he argues were imprisoned on false charges at the behest of Hezbollah, to which the clerics are vocally opposed. NOW was unable to obtain comment, at the time of writing, from the courts responsible for the men’s release.

In Slim’s view, the alleged political deal is a result of broader efforts to calm tensions between the various regional actors that wield influence in Lebanon.

“The timing is interesting […] because at least in the cases of Mshaymish and Husseini, the release could have happened several months ago,” he told NOW. “I think it’s very simple to explain. All of them were ‘caught’ [during] the Saudi-Syrian rupture, or divorce. So now that we’re seeing a new honeymoon between, on the one hand, Hezbollah, and on the other, its opponent. It’s a way to get rid of these files which are no longer useful.”

Moreover, the alleged deal represents a net gain for Hezbollah, Slim argues.

“If the price of releasing Ezzedine is only the release of Mshaymish and Husseini, it’s a cheap price.”

Indeed, Ali al-Amin, another longtime campaigner for Mshaymish’s release, told NOW any political strings that were pulled would have been on Ezzedine’s behalf, rather than the clerics’.

“Ezzedine has people he can reach out to. Mshaymish didn’t even get the smallest of his rights.”

Husseini, for his part, agrees his case was politically motivated from start to finish, though he distanced himself from Mshaymish, whom he accused of striking a bargain with Hezbollah to obtain his release.

“I was arrested because of political issues, and I think I was released for the same reasons as well,” Husseini told NOW. “The investigating judge, Riad Abu Ghaida at the military court, decided to stop the trial because [there was no evidence] I cooperated with Israel.”

Instead, Husseini believes, it was his courting of Iranian opposition groups, including the Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK) organization banned in Iran, that led to his being framed. Iran is the principal state sponsor of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

“All I did was create an opposition within the Shiite community […] against wilayat al-faqih [a religious and political ideology shared by Hezbollah and the Iranian state],” said Husseini. “I communicated with Iranian opposition Shiites and the MEK, and that was the [reason]. It is in Iran, not in Lebanon or Israel.”

Another aggravating factor was his opposing Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, he claimed.

“I also said that Syrian people have a right to determine their politics regarding Bashar al-Assad and we should not interfere in this,” he told NOW. “These three issues – my dealings with Iranian opposition in general, with the MEK in particular, and what I said about Syria – were the reason behind my detention.”

NOW was unable to reach Mshaymish or Ezzedine, or their lawyers, though Mshaymish’s lawyer has previously told NOW that all charges of collaboration made against his client were based on falsified documents. The charges made against Ezzedine, by contrast, have never been disputed.

While corruption at almost all levels of Lebanese state institutions is a poorly-kept secret, specific allegations such as Slim’s are all but impossible to verify. Lawyer and legal expert Marwan Sakr told NOW he found the claims “far-fetched,” adding that it was not uncommon for judges to request the same bail amounts for separate crimes. But with military court proceedings being secretive by nature, few people besides the judges themselves will ever know the facts with certainty.

Who they are

Sheikh Hassan Mshaymish: A Shiite cleric and former member of Hezbollah until the late 1990s, Mshaymish subsequently became an outspoken critic of the party and its wilayat al-faqih ideology. In 2010, he was arrested in Syria on undisclosed charges, a detention criticized by human rights groups including Amnesty International. He was transferred to Lebanon in 2011 and sentenced in 2013 to five years’ imprisonment for collaboration with Israel. He was released in April 2014 for a bail of 5,000,000LL ($3,333).

Saleh Ezzedine: A once highly-regarded Lebanese businessman on warm terms with Hezbollah, Ezzedine became nicknamed “The Lebanese Madoff” after he was found in 2009 to have defrauded investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars through ostensible investment funds that were, in reality, little more than Ponzi schemes. Among his victims were several senior Hezbollah officials. Detained since 2009, he was released in April 2014 for a bail of 5,000,000LL ($3,333).

Sayyid Muhammad Ali al-Husseini: A Shiite cleric who, like Mshaymish, was once a Hezbollah member and even claims to have been a personal friend of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, Husseini turned against the Party in the mid-2000s. Details of his earlier life are murky, though he was reportedly once jailed in Iran. In 2007, he claimed he was the victim of an assassination attempt at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Tyre. Then, in 2009, he told NOW he had formed an independent militia, the Arab Islamic Resistance, to rival Hezbollah in fighting Israel. His open courting of the Iranian opposition Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK) group was, he claimed to NOW, the real reason behind his jailing in 2011 on charges of collaborating with Israel. He was released in 2014.

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Legalize it?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Calls for regulating and taxing Lebanon’s thriving cannabis and sex trades may make economic sense, but face myriad sources of opposition.

An old and patronizing cliché has it that Lebanon is the “Switzerland of the East,” but writers in search of an easy phrase may soon update that to something more like the “Amsterdam” of the region if an unusual new proposal from one former minister is ever taken up.

In a controversial suggestion to boost Lebanon’s strained and ailing state revenues, which are currently under scrutiny following renewed demands from public sector workers for long-awaited raises, former Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud has called for legalizing – and taxing – the country’s reputedly substantial cannabis and prostitution industries. These steps – just two out of a total of twenty-five proposed by Abboud – would not only raise considerable revenues but also undercut organized crime, he argues.

“We are simply trying to remove the pimp from prostitution […] and make a bit of money for the government,” Abboud told NOW, clarifying that he only endorsed legalizing the cultivation and export of cannabis, not its domestic consumption. Though he initially estimated the potential state revenues from prostitution alone to be “in the region of $50-60m,” he later said it was “very difficult to say” exactly how much might be raised in total.

Economists agreed, telling NOW no concrete data were available on the matters, though there is little doubt both are thriving and lucrative businesses in Lebanon.

“I have no idea [how much money could be raised] to tell you the truth, and I have never tried to estimate that, but probably these are two recession-proof sectors,” said Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Byblos Bank, with a laugh. Dr. Jad Chaaban, professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, told NOW he knew of no reliable estimates of the industries’ monetary values.

NOW’s own estimate, calculated using data from twelve media reports on Lebanon’s hashish trade, is that annual income to local farmers from the crop likely ranges from $30-80m, depending on the area cultivated and the market price, both of which fluctuate for various reasons. The dealers to whom farmers then sell, however, are believed to make between four and ten times that much, putting the total value of the industry at anywhere between $120m and $800m per annum (approximately 0.3%-1.8% of GDP). Other unofficial estimates have put the figure at $875m. To these should be added an estimated $140m generated by the sex trade, amounting to a potential combined total of nearly $1bn available for taxation – not a trivial sum, compared with the roughly $1.6bn required to fund the public sector wage increase.

More contentious than the economics, however, is Abboud’s defense of his proposals on humanitarian grounds. Describing the so-called “super nightclubs” that he says function as de facto brothels across the country, Abboud told NOW “the system is inhumane. We break every single law in the world of human rights. [The women] are nearly imprisoned. They are locked in hotels with steel doors. Even fire exits in these ‘super nightclubs’ are locked” to prevent their escape. “These women should have rights” – rights, he says, which would be guaranteed if the business were regulated by the state.

Some human rights activists take a different view, though.

“When you legalize prostitution, you are acknowledging that women are for sale,” said Maya al-Ammar, spokesperson for KAFA, an NGO focusing on violence against and exploitation of women. “[Abboud] actually reinforced the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies […] Even if he framed it in a humanitarian [way,] he’s still saying I want to regulate it because I want to fund something.”

Moreover, legalization seldom leads to improvements in prostitutes’ welfare anyway, Ammar argued.

“Even in the countries where prostitution was regulated, women were not protected […] Legal or illegal, it never stops being or happening underground. So it doesn’t really solve the problem.”

And while KAFA does not advocate the criminalization of prostitution per se – “You don’t criminalize the women, you criminalize the industry that is exploiting them,” said Ammar – it believes working to eradicate its root causes is the far preferable approach to full legalization.

“It’s better to invest in designing strategies, exit programs, support programs, fighting poverty […] and trafficking […] than to think of how we can take advantage of these women,” she told NOW.

Moral questions aside, Abboud’s proposals are unlikely to come to fruition any time soon, as he himself admits.

“The establishment, political and non-political, are benefiting” from the status quo, Abboud told NOW, alleging widespread bribery of officials by those managing the illicit trades.

Prof. Chaaban agrees. “You’re not only fighting organized crime, you’re also fighting habits, you [need a] rigorous policing system, it’s something beyond any foreseeable implementation scenario” he told NOW.

“I’m for legalizing, but I don’t think it can be done now in Lebanon.”

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hezbollah mourners clash with Syrians in east Beirut suburb

[Originally posted at NOW]

Passing on the way to work this morning through Burj Hammoud, the largely Armenian neighborhood on Beirut’s eastern outskirts, I saw an unusual new poster on the walls, departing from the more customary themes of “Never Forget April 24” and “Fuck Turkey”: a notice informing residents of the recent “martyrdom” of a Hezbollah commander, Hassan Nayif Dandash, aka Abu Ahmad, in Syria.

I say unusual because, while these things are everywhere now in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the Beqaa Valley, and the south, I’d never until today seen one in Burj Hammoud itself. Hezbollah does, however, have a visible presence in the adjacent quarter of Nabaa, and so aside from making a mental note of the poster, I thought nothing of it thereafter.

There turns out, however, to be more to it than I knew. Unreported by all but a few Arabic-language news sites, there had in fact been a clash between Abu Ahmad’s mourners and Syrian residents in Nabaa during the funeral procession on Saturday. Accounts vary on the details: one site says mourners smashed shops owned by Syrians; another says “a problem occurred” between “two Shiite youths” and “Syrian refugees;” while a third says the mourners forcibly closed shops owned by Syrians. Claims that the army and internal security forces had to intervene to restore order appear to be corroborated by photos.

Does this portend a wider communal rift, leading inevitably to an outbreak of more serious violence? Probably not. Instead, in its banality – so commonplace it didn’t even warrant coverage by mainstream Lebanese media – it opens a window on the small acts of bigotry visited every day upon a Syrian community as despised as it is downtrodden.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Armenians in Syria and Lebanon: Displaced again

[Originally posted at The Economist]

GREY circles around bloodshot eyes accentuate the deep grooves of a face that has seen decades of labour in the sun. It is clear that Hagop, a farmer, has had little rest in the fortnight since he fled his home in northern Syria. “We’re all still dizzy,” he says, looking around his new refuge, a single-storey house in the eastern Lebanese-Armenian town of Anjar, in the agricultural plains three kilometres from the Syrian border.

Hagop (a pseudonym, as he would only speak on condition of anonymity, fearing for relatives still in Syria) arrived ten days ago from Kassab, an Armenian town on the Syrian-Turkish border. The resort town was captured by Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda-linked groups, on March 21st, sparking now-discredited allegations of a massacre of the Christian Armenian population.

In yet another example of a propaganda war being waged alongside the conventional one, Syrian and their allied Russian officials backed the claims. An online “Save Kassab” campaign won celebrity endorsement from the likes of Armenian-American reality TV star Kim Kardashian. Schools and shops in Beirut’s Armenian neighbourhoods closed to mark the “tragedy”.

Yet Hagop looked bewildered when asked if he had heard of such a massacre. He says no one was killed—a statement repeated by Anjar’s mayor, Sarkis Pamboukian.

[Continue reading]

Notorious Hizbullah checkpoint removed amid internal reshuffle

[Originally posted at NOW]

Residents of Arsal relieved to see end of checkpoint at which intimidation and even beatings were reported.

A controversial checkpoint manned by Hezbollah militiamen in the Beqaa Valley town of Labwe, at the only exit from the border town of Arsal, has been removed more than two months after it was first established.

The surprise move was greeted with relief in predominantly anti-Hezbollah Arsal, according to the town’s Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fleeti, who told NOW residents were “of course [more] relaxed now the checkpoint is gone.” Reports of abuse – including serious physical beatings – at the checkpoint were numerous, often discouraging locals and the town’s more than 50,000 Syrian refugees from leaving.

NOW was itself stopped and searched at the checkpoint in February, though without incident. “Please excuse us,” said the eldest of four gunmen after ruffling through bags and tapping the doors of the car to check for explosives.

Other journalists, however, had very different experiences. A television crew from the Lebanese MTV news channel reported its members had been intimidated and threatened at the checkpoint in February. “If you stop the car one more time, you will cease to exist,” one of the gunmen allegedly told them, adding that one of their photographers’ names was “on our list now.”

And, as NOW first reported in February, five humanitarian NGO workers were once reportedly detained for six hours at the checkpoint, during which time some were beaten and left with “serious injuries.” The NGO subsequently ceased its activities in Arsal.

But perhaps most notorious were the reports of assaults of wounded people leaving Arsal in need of urgent medical care. In what local doctors said was not an isolated case, a Syrian youth with a bullet wound in his leg was allegedly beaten while comatose in an ambulance by Hezbollah’s gunmen at the checkpoint in March.

The official reason for the removal of the checkpoint over the weekend is the implementation of the Lebanese authorities’ new plan to bolster national security. “There will no longer be any unofficial checkpoints or armed forces along the roads in the region of Baalbek-Hermel,” said Interior Minister Nuhad al-Mashnouq Saturday, declaring that the measures taken against gunmen in Tripoli in recent days would be replicated in the Beqaa. Perhaps by way of reassuring supporters in the area – which has for weeks been targeted by both car bombings and Syrian rebel rocket fire, resulting in over a dozen civilian deaths – Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview published Monday that the risk of car bombings has significantly decreased since the defeat of rebel forces in the adjacent Syrian Qalamoun region.

Yet the move also comes at a time when Hezbollah is said to be trying to tackle a breakdown in its once-renowned internal discipline. Recent reports claim senior Iranian military officials are assisting the party in restructuring its security apparatus, following damaging leaks to Israeli intelligence and “missteps in dealing with the sensitive security situation in Lebanon.” If the latter was part of the reason Hezbollah agreed to dismantle its Labwe checkpoint, this would be consistent with the precedent of its previous checkpoints in Beirut’s southern suburbs, abandoned in September 2013 following the killing by party gunmen of a Palestinian refugee at an entrance to the Burj al-Barajneh camp.

Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland specializing in Hezbollah, says it’s unsurprising that discipline is slipping when the posting of more experienced fighters to a brutal and costly war in Syria has left more junior forces manning the party’s checkpoints.

“On the ground, the fact that [Hezbollah’s] forces are heavily committed to the front, there have been bombings, and that this is a very polarizing conflict – particularly internally” mean that “issues like the black shirts causing problems are bound to happen,” Smyth told NOW.

Accordingly, with no end to the Syrian war in sight, Arsal’s more than 80,000 inhabitants are hoping the checkpoints don’t return, says Fleeti. Similarly, they’re concerned that state security forces might not necessarily make for much of an improvement. Fleeti points to the example of the Syrian woman and child shot dead by soldiers last weekend when their driver failed to stop at an Arsal checkpoint.

“These officers, who are representative of the Lebanese army and the state, should calm down before they start shooting at people, refugees, who don’t have their papers and are avoiding checkpoints,” Fleeti told NOW. “The rumors that are coming out on media say the people getting stopped are all [Jabhat al-]Nusra, and then it ends up being they just didn’t have their papers. So the refugees are afraid to go by the checkpoints, so they’re trying to circumvent them and then they get shot at.”

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

UK Islamists heading to Beirut to rally for Bakri

[Originally posted at NOW]

NOW speaks to Anjem Choudary, British protégé of Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, who plans to protest the “satans” of the Lebanese army this Friday.

Within the coming 36 hours, a group of European Islamists, including two Britons formerly jailed for solicitation to murder, plan to arrive in Beirut to hold a protest Friday afternoon against the Lebanese authorities’ attempt Tuesday to arrest Tripoli-based cleric, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad.

The group, comprising at least six Britons and one Swedish national, is headed by Anjem Choudary, a former leader of several now-banned British Islamist organizations. Choudary was a protégé of Bakri’s during the latter’s residence in the UK in the 1990s and early 2000s, when he led Hizb ut-Tahrir, among other parties. The other members of the delegation are also followers of Bakri – two, indeed, are his sons, Muhammad Fustuq and Abd al-Rahman Fustuq.

Their plan, according to statements posted by Choudary on his Twitter account, is to rally this Friday at 2pm, either outside the Lebanese Armed Forces headquarters at Yarzeh, or outside the Beirut office of the United Nations in Riad al-Solh Square (the details have yet to be finalized). When NOW spoke to Choudary via telephone Wednesday morning, he said the aims of the “peaceful” protest were four-fold.

“Our main message is, hands off the Muslims in north Lebanon,” Choudary told NOW. “Number two, hands off Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad and his family.”

“Thirdly, we will be condemning the conspiracy of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Lebanese regime, who have a long history of cooperation,” said Choudary, adding, “I think there’s a man called [Maj. Gen. Abbas] Ibrahim, I forget his name now […] the one in charge of security, this one, I think he’s the one now just arresting people and sending them [to Syria].”

Finally, Choudary told NOW, “Our message will be to call for the sharia [Islamic law] and the khilafa [caliphate]. The only solution for this region, the only time we ever had peace, was when we had the khilafa system. As soon as the British and the French started to support their respective parties, the Druze and the Maronites, a couple of hundred years ago, we never had anything but sectarian strife. So I think it’s about time we went back to the law of God, and implemented it, and I think that is the solution for the whole region, not just Lebanon, but obviously Iraq, and Syria, and other countries in the Middle East.”

It’s unclear how warm a reception the group will get from Lebanese officials upon their arrival either Thursday or Friday morning, particularly at a time when authorities are cracking down on hardline Sunni Islamist movements across the country. While Lebanese law requires the interior ministry’s permission for all public demonstrations, Choudary told NOW his delegation had not obtained such permission and did not plan to seek it.

“We don’t need permission. We don’t recognize the Lebanese government […] so why should we ask permission from people who we don’t believe are legitimate in the first place?” he said.

NOW was unable to get an official reaction from the ministry to the planned demonstration, though an advisor to Interior Minister Nuhad al-Mashnouq, who spoke on condition of anonymity, reiterated that any protest carried out without ministerial approval would be in violation of the law.

Also uncertain is how significant the turnout will be on Friday, assuming the protest does go ahead. Several prominent clerics in Tripoli, including Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal and Sheikh Nabil Rahim, told NOW they had not even heard of it. Sheikh Bilal Duqmaq, head of the Read Association, told NOW he doubted the protest would go ahead at all, saying it was merely a media stunt intended to exaggerate Bakri’s limited influence on the ground.

In any case, by Choudary’s own admission, the demonstration is not being coordinated with any established Lebanese parties or movements, being instead initiated “by the extended family of Sheikh [Bakri] and others who we are in contact with,” whom he declined to “put in jeopardy” by naming. When NOW called a Lebanese number provided in one of Choudary’s press releases, a man confirmed there would be no official parties taking part in what was “an independent call by [Bakri’s] supporters.” As soon as NOW asked the man his name, he hung up and subsequently switched off his phone.

Thus, we may not know until Friday afternoon itself what exactly will transpire. Choudary, however, continues to make preparations in the meantime. On Wednesday afternoon, he posted a link on Twitter to readymade placard templates that prospective attendees can print at home. It’s safe to say the slogans, if used, may raise a few eyebrows: “Khilafah For Bilad Ash-Sham [“The Levant”]! Lebanese Army Shiateen [“Satans”]! Shia Raafidah [Rejecters] You Will Pay! Ahlus Sunnah [The Sunnis] On Their Way!”

Nadine Elali contributed reporting.