Alex Rowell

June 22, 2013

Sidon residents brace for further violence

Locals tell NOW they expect worse to come, though analysts downplay talk of a “new Tripoli”




Lebanese Army
Sheikh Assir
Sheikh Assir

Rina Hassan has only just returned to her apartment in Sidon’s Abra neighborhood, four days after fleeing heavy gun battles that raged on her street between partisans of Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and those of the Hezbollah-affiliated Resistance Brigades, leaving one dead.


“When it started, [Assir’s] fighters were under my house. They blocked the street with burning oil so no cars could get in or out, and then began firing RPGs and machine guns non-stop. For two hours, I sat in the corner of my bedroom because it was the only room with no windows.”


Terrified and alone in the house, Hassan then received a call from her son imploring her to come to the comparative safety of his restaurant nearby, which has an underground kitchen.


“He came to my front door and said, ‘Close your eyes, don’t look around, it will just take two minutes.’ Getting there was a real risk. We stayed for two more hours in that kitchen with two fighters outside firing M16s at any car that approached.”


When negotiations between Assir and the city’s Mufti, Sheikh Salim Sousan, brought the fighting to a close, Hassan decided to leave Sidon for her native southern village.


“I called a friend who had a friend involved with Assir’s movement, and he told us of a safe exit route. We had to tell them exactly what cars we would be in so they would know it was us. Many people in Abra were doing the same thing.”


“Today, I returned to Sidon, because I heard that Assir had agreed to postpone any military action for now. But I’ve prepared a bag in the house. The moment I feel tensions are rising again, I’ll get out of here.”


Hassan’s attitude is a widespread one in the city today, which residents fear could become the site of increasingly frequent and bloody clashes in future. Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a pro-Hezbollah cleric who survived an alleged assassination attempt in Sidon earlier this month, accused Assir on Thursday of wanting to turn Sidon into a “new Tripoli,” referring to the northern city that for years has witnessed repeated bouts of deadly sectarian violence.


Certainly, Abra locals NOW spoke to on Friday felt worse was yet to come. “There will be clashes again, of course,” said a roast chicken vendor directly across the street from Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque. “Sheikh Assir agreed to postpone them until after school examinations [concluding on 6 July]. Next time, the fighting will be more intense, yes.”


Assir himself also appears to be taking precautions. The side-street leading up to his mosque now sports a new metal barrier, flanked by heavy concrete blocks and sandbags. A friendly young man, possibly in his teens, raises the barrier to allow a car to enter the complex. Like the two men standing on the corner behind him, he carries an AK-47, evidently undeterred by the heavy deployment of Lebanese Army troops on the adjacent street below. No, he says, we can’t take photos of him. But if we like, we can snap the large new holes on the building’s exterior – the results, he claims, of RPGs fired by the Resistance Brigades from Haaret Saida, the predominantly Shiite quarter two kilometers to the southwest.


In Haaret Saida, where Hezbollah and Amal flags line the streets, another restaurateur initially shrugs off the prospect of further clashes before launching an animated speech about how dangerous they could become.


“The problem of sectarian hatred here is huge. In Sidon, we have every sect: Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Christians, Palestinians. These Islamists are playing with fire. Since when did they care about school exams? Are children’s exams more important than children dying?”


NOW also spoke to the mayor of Haaret Saida, Samih al-Zein, who was the target of a public death threat from the celebrity Assir partisan, former pop singer Fadel Shaker.


“I made a formal complaint to the judiciary,” he said with regards to the threat. “The attorney general and the security apparatus will deal with this. We don’t have a personal reaction – we won’t sink to that level.”


Al-Zein played down the possibility of further clashes, implying that Hezbollah and Amal would seek to avoid confronting Assir.


“We won’t respond [to further provocations] because we won’t give them the chance to have sectarian fitna [strife].” He added that Assir’s movement was “too small to attack us.”


That is, in effect, the view shared by analyst Hazem al-Amin, author of The Lonely Salafi, who told NOW the chances of Sidon’s violence reaching the levels seen in Tripoli are slim at the moment.


“Assir is weaker than his opponents in Sidon, and the deciding party is Hezbollah, not Assir. If Hezbollah wants to create tension, it will. However, Sidon is an important road to the South, so it is not now in their interests to create clashes there.”


Al-Amin added the situation in Sidon would be largely determined by events in Syria.


“We’re operating on Syrian realities. The essential [factor in Tuesday’s clashes] was the results that Hezbollah has had in [Syria]. This has created a tense environment, which will continue and maybe increase – but the full-on explosion isn’t for now.”


Some of the above names have been changed at interviewees’ requests.


Yara Chehayed and Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.


Read this article in Arabic