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memri
May 19, 2014 No.
1092

Al-Mustaqbal Losing Ground As Representative Of Lebanese Sunnis

Introduction

Former Lebanese prime minister Sa'd Al-Hariri, and the Mustaqbal stream, which he heads, have long been considered moderate elements and the traditional representatives of most Sunnis in Lebanon. Recently, however, cracks have appeared in this support among various Sunni elements – political and religious, extremist and moderate – that could eventually damage Al-Mustaqbal's status as representative of the Sunnis in the country. This shift in support for Al-Hariri and his stream is reflected by the rise of extremist Sunni and Salafi leaders, primarily in the Lebanese Sunni strongholds of Sidon and Tripoli.

Radicalization among the Sunnis in Lebanon is connected to several crucial events in country's history, among them:

- The February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Sunni prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri and the trial of his accused killers – five officials in the Shi'ite Hizbullah organization.

- Hizbullah's armed takeover of Beirut during the events of May 7, 2008.

- The establishment of the Sa'd Al-Hariri government in late 2009, after he agreed to grant the Hizbullah-led March 8 Forces veto rights in his government and after he absolved Syria, during a visit to this country and a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, of responsibility for his father's assassination – even though he had previously blamed Assad for it.[1]

- Hizbullah's toppling of Al-Hariri's government in early 2011, which it achieved by utilizing its veto power.

- Hizbullah's mid-2011 establishment of the Najib Mikati government, which marginalized Al-Mustaqbal.

- The repeated threats to Al-Mustaqbal by Hizbullah and the media supportive of it.

- The assassinations of numerous Sunni officials.

- The August 23, 2013 detonation of car bombs near two Sunni mosques in Tripoli.

The Sunni-Shi'ite tension in Lebanon worsened after Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged, in May 2013, that Hizbullah members were fighting in Syria with the Assad regime, and claimed that the rebels were nothing but extremist Sunni terrorists.

The radicalization of Lebanon's Sunnis is also tied to the Sunni-Shi'ite tension across the Arab and Muslim world, which has been steadily increasing in recent years, and specifically that between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This tension escalated greatly after the onset of the Syria crisis, prompting the rise of extremist Sunni elements in Lebanon that support the Syrian rebels.

These internal and regional events have caused many Sunnis in Lebanon to feel marginalized and unfairly treated by Shi'ites and by their main representative in the country, Hizbullah, and also to feel that their traditional representative, the Al-Mustaqbal stream, is too moderate and ineffective and is not sufficiently protecting their interests. Furthermore, since his government was brought down, and throughout many of the events that followed, Sa'd Al-Hariri has been outside the country because of death threats against him. As a result of the decline in support for him, a number of extremist and even jihadi Sunni and Salafi leaders and elements have emerged, particularly in Sidon and Tripoli, considered the strongholds of Lebanon's Sunnis.

The bitterness on the Sunni street, and its sense that the Al-Mustaqbal stream has given up on protecting Sunni interests, can be traced back to late 2009, when Sa'd Al-Hariri facilitated the establishment of his government by taking several steps that blatantly contravened his principles. Specifically, he granted the March 8 Forces, headed by Hizbullah, veto rights, and agreed to visit Syria and meet with President Assad even though he had previously accused him of his father's assassination. This bitterness grew more powerful in the recent months, causing further erosion in Sunni support for Al-Mustaqbal, inter alia because Al-Mustaqbal agreed to serve in a government with Hizbullah, leading it to be perceived as abandoning its principles on the matter of Hizbullah's involvement in the Syria war and other issues. It has even reached the point where radical Sunni elements in northern Lebanon have accused Sa'd Al-Hariri of betraying the Sunnis, and, according to reports, have even issued death threats against Al-Mustaqbal officials.

This report will review the erosion of Al-Mustaqbal's status as the representative of Sunnis in Lebanon, particularly in the past few months.

The Rise Of Extremist Sunnis In Sidon And Tripoli – And Their Challenge To Al-Mustaqbal

The Sunni community's slow but steady drift towards extremist streams that followed the increased Sunni-Shi'ite tension, and the attendant erosion in the status of the moderate Al-Mustaqbal stream, can be clearly seen in Sidon, considered the cradle of the Al-Mustaqbal movement and one of its strongholds in Lebanon; in the past two years, extremist Sunni Salafi cleric and bitter Hizbullah rival Ahmad Al-Asir has been growing steadily stronger at the expense of Al-Mustaqbal.[2] In contrast with Al-Mustaqbal, which has always avoided direct conflict with Hizbullah and has over the years preferred compromise and agreements, Al-Asir does not hesitate to confront Hizbullah, even militarily, and has even accused Al-Hariri and Al-Mustaqbal of collaborating with Hizbullah against him. According to Al-Asir, this collaboration eventually led to the June 2013 takeover of his mosque and his Sidon compound, in which several dozen of his men were killed and he was forced to flee the city. In a video released in March 2014, Al-Asir claims, inter alia, that these events had come about because Sa'd Al-Hariri had decided to eliminate him from the arena due to his fear of Al-Asir's increasing influence.[3]

Another manifestation of the eroding support for Al-Mustaqbal can be seen in Tripoli, also a stronghold for the movement and for Sunnis, where, in the last two years, extremist Sunni Salafi streams have strengthened their support base among Sunnis at the expense of support for Al-Mustaqbal. Their gains there are connected largely to the civil war in Syria – they support the rebels in a number of ways: logistical aid, recruiting efforts, weapons smuggling, sheltering rebels, and more – as well as to their own armed struggle against 'Alawi elements in Tripoli,[4] and, more recently, to the fight between some of them and the Lebanese military.

Al-Hariri Accused Of Betraying Sunnis

In recent months, opposition to Al-Mustaqbal has grown fiercer; Al-Hariri's status and influence have been challenged, and he has even been accused of betraying the Sunnis. The shift followed Al-Mustaqbal's decision to join the government that includes Hizbullah, which was formed February 15, 2014 by March 14 Forces member Tammam Salam.[5]

For nearly a year prior to this decision, Al-Mustaqbal and many other Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels had adamantly opposed serving in a government with Hizbullah as long as Hizbullah members were fighting with the Assad regime in Syria. Thus, by joining the Tammam Salam government, Al-Mustaqbal had effectively reversed its position. Sa'd Al-Hariri had announced his decision to join the government about a month before its establishment, in a January 17, 2014 interview with Reuters that followed the convening in The Hague of the international tribunal to investigate his father's assassination.[6] He reiterated his statements in a January 20 Al-Mustaqbal TV interview, saying that this government was "in a certain sense, [a government] of conflict resolution."[7]

This change of position surprised and astonished many Sunnis, who felt that Al-Mustaqbal and Al-Hariri were enabling Hizbullah to continue killing Sunnis in both Lebanon and Syria – especially since Al-Hariri's announcement came right after the start of the trial of his father's accused killers. The following day, extremist Sunni elements in Tripoli said that Al-Hariri had betrayed the Sunnis in order to gain a political post, and some rejected him altogether as representative of Lebanese Sunnis.

In an LBC TV interview following a night of Sunni-'Alawi clashes in Tripoli, Ziad Al-'Alouki, a leader of one of the Sunni groups involved in the clashes, said: "What caused the clashes [in the city] was Al-Mustaqbal and Sa'd Al-Hariri's conspiracy against the Sunni sect. These people [Al-Mustaqbal] are laughing at the Sunnis. Every day, they set us further back. They have sacrificed the martyrs and [Al-Hariri's] father [Rafiq], all for a seat and a post. What else do they want to bring us to? [Sa'd Al-Hariri] should remain in France and not come to Lebanon... Now he gives Hizbullah a certificate of exoneration, as if it has never killed or done a thing. We had martyrs... in the [August 2013] attacks by 'Always and Hizbullah near the [Tripoli] mosques.

"We have not forgiven and we are not backing down… We have nothing left to lose. Either we go or they [Al-Mustaqbal] go. That is all. Now even Omar Karami and Najib Mikati [Sunni officials from Tripoli who are not part of Al-Mustaqbal] are more honorable in our eyes than [Al-Hariri]."[8]

LBC TV also interviewed a masked man in Tripoli, who addressed Sa'd Al-Hariri, saying: "You said you would not serve [on the same government] with your father's assassins [i.e. Hizbullah], unless they handed over the collaborators, the killers. You said Hizbullah should leave Syria [as a condition to your joining the government]. And now you are willing to sit in [the government with them]?... You are prime minister not by your own right, nor because of your money – but because of the people. And the people do not agree to this."[9]

Several days later, the Lebanese news portal elnashra.com posted a video showing armed masked men levelling accusations at Al-Hariri: "You sold [Sheikh] Ahmad Al-Asir in 'Abra [in Sidon], and before that you sold your father's blood, and now you want to sell the blood of the youth of Tripoli, who sacrificed what they hold dearest to raise the banner of monotheism, [of] 'There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.'" The masked men also called for a "day of rage" in the city, saying that during it they would burn down Al-Mustaqbal offices and trample their banners.[10]

Reports in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, indicate that there is increased support for extreme Sunni streams and anger at Al-Mustaqbal for relinquishing its principles in the Beqaa area as well.[11] Al-Akhbar also reported on increased criticism on social media of Al-Mustaqbal's decision to join the government, and that numerous Facebook pages have been launched with names such as "The Al-Mustaqbal Stream No Longer Represents Us," "The Popular Sunni Movement To Topple Al-Hariri's [Stream]," and "No To The Control Over Sunni Decisions In Lebanon By Al-Hariri's Family And Stream."[12]


Facebook page "The Al-Mustaqbal Stream No Longer Represents Us"

The "Al-Mustaqbal Stream No Longer Represents Us" Facebook page includes many comments supporting Sheikh Al-Asir and several photos of him, and depicts Sa'd Al-Hariri and Al-Mustaqbal as traitors.


"Leaders grow in the trenches, not in hotels" – top: Sheikh Al-Asir in combat; bottom: Sa'd Al-Hariri partying (source: Facebook.com/tayar.not.represent.us, July 28, 2013)

The founders of another Facebook page, "The Popular Movement In Tripoli To Topple Al-Hariri's Political [Stream]," state that they are "opposed to the political hegemony of the Al-Mustaqbal stream and its leader, Sa'd Al-Hariri, over the Sunni sect," and that "the Al-Mustaqbal stream has no future." This page claims that Al-Hariri no longer represents Sunnis and that he is dealing only with unimportant matters, instead of with pressing matters concerning Lebanon and Lebanese Sunnis. The following are some images from the page:


Facebook page "The Popular Movement In Tripoli To Topple Al-Hariri's Political [Stream]"


"In the heat of events and challenges, the leaders of Lebanese sects work for the interests of their sects, except for [the leaders of] the oppressed Sunnis" (November 15, 2013)


"This puppet's time is over..." (November 15, 2013)


Al-Hariri with Nasrallah and Assad. Caption: "We will not leave the homeland in the hands... of someone who has sold his father's blood." (October 21, 2013)

Shi'ite-Sunni Struggle To Eliminate Sunni Extremism

The extremist Sunni streams in Beqaa and the north, particularly the leaders of the armed extremist groups in Tripoli, fear for their own skins, since a main goal of the new government is the struggle against the Sunni terrorist organizations. These organizations have, as mentioned, emerged in Lebanon since the onset of the Syria crisis, and, more specifically, since Hizbullah's military involvement in it on the side of the Assad regime; they are bent on retaliating against Hizbullah for its Syria involvement, and have found fertile ground for their activity in several areas in the country. Together with other extremist Sunni elements – Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrian refugees – they have carried out numerous attacks on Hizbullah and its supporters in the past year. Fighting these organizations is in the interest of both Al-Mustaqbal and Hizbullah, so a unity government was a natural outcome.

Indeed, in early April 2014, the Tammam Salam government launched a security program in Tripoli, the Beqaa and Beirut, with the aim of securing these areas, arresting wanted Sunnis and 'Alawis (Lebanese, Syrian or Palestinian) and confiscating weapons. This program has absolute backing from all political elements – the Al-Mustaqbal stream as well as Hizbullah and the March 8 Forces – and is being implemented by the country's military, internal security, and general security apparatuses. As a result, prominent wanted figures on both sides – Sunni extremists as well as 'Alawi leaders in Tripoli – either fled or went into hiding. Their escape was apparently arranged in advance between the two sides, so as to prevent a large-scale military conflict with the army and security apparatuses. Some have since surrendered themselves to the authorities; this too was apparently arranged between the two sides, who promised to be lenient with the wanted individuals.

For now, it seems that Al-Mustaqbal has managed to restrain the extremist Sunnis in both Sidon and Tripoli, making them lower their profiles and perhaps even go underground; however, they are likely to reemerge in the future or when conditions allow it.

It should be noted that Al-Mustaqbal's consent to a security program against Sunni terrorist organizations is unprecedented; it appears to be the result of a recent Saudi decision to operate against various Sunni terrorist organizations. Consequently, this security program could be based not only on understandings between Al-Mustaqbal and Hizbullah, but also, and primarily, on understandings between Saudi Arabia – the main backer of Lebanon's Sunnis – and Iran and Syria, the last being the patron of the 'Alawis in Tripoli and northern Lebanon.

Criticism Of Al-Mustaqbal By Moderate Sunni Elements, Non-Establishment Clerics

The erosion of Al-Mustaqbal's status is also apparent among moderate political Sunni elements and non-establishment clerics. On January 23, 2014, Misbah Al-Ahdab, a former moderate MP from Tripoli, called on Al-Hariri not to join a government with Hizbullah and not to trust it, adding that Hizbullah would take the first opportunity to turn its back on understandings and agreements, as it has done several times in the past.[13]

In early February 2014, Sheikh 'Adnan Amama, then-head of Lebanon's Muslim Scholars Committee, said that the committee was compelled to engage in political activity to help secure the release of Sheikh Omar Al-Atrash from Beqaa, arrested on suspicion of involvement in attacks on Hizbullah targets, because "Sunni MPs and the Sunni political leadership – except for Khaled Daher and Mu'ein Al-Mu'rabi [Salafi members of the Al-Mustaqbal party] and 'Imad Al-Hut [Muslim Brotherhood member of the Al-Mustaqbal party] – have refrained from coming to the aid of oppressed Sunnis." He added that the committee had undertaken "to stand against the injustice done to the Sunnis."[14]

However, it should be mentioned that when the security program was launched, in early April, senior sheikhs in the Muslim Scholars Committee did not oppose it as extremist Sunni groups did.

Ambivalent Relations Between The Al-Mustaqbal Stream, Extremists

The relationship between the moderate Al-Mustaqbal and the extremist Sunni streams is complex, especially since some of these extremist streams are represented in the Lebanese parliament by MPs who are members of the Al-Mustaqbal party. Apparently, Al-Mustaqbal uses these streams for its own needs, especially when it is in conflict with Hizbullah or Syria; for example, at the time of the announcement of the Mikati government, in which Al-Mustaqbal was marginalized, hundreds of Tripoli residents launched a day of rage. However, Al-Mustaqbal maintains distance between itself and these extremist streams so that they do not grow too strong and thus alienate other elements to which the party is committed – such as the Christians in the March 14 Forces.

Another example of this complex relationship can be seen in the evolving relationship between Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir and Al-Mustaqbal. Initially, Al-Mustaqbal supported Al-Asir in his anti-Hizbullah activity, but later, as he grew stronger, Al-Mustaqbal distanced itself from him and even supported the Lebanese military's armed campaign against him in June 2013.[15] For now, it appears that Al-Mustaqbal has managed to restrain the extremist elements by giving them one of their major demands, namely the removal of 'Alawi Arab Democratic Party heads 'Ali Eid and his son Rif'at from the Jabel Mohsen neighborhood of Tripoli. The security program caused the two to flee the area, thus fulfilling a demand made by many Sunnis. However, Al-Mustaqbal has not managed to end Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria, which also plays a crucial role in the rise of extremist Sunni streams at its expense.

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 861, Decline In Hizbullah's Status In Lebanon, July 25, 2012; and MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 988, Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Al-Asir Launches Armed Struggle Against 'Shi'ite' Lebanese Army, June 26, 2013.

[3] Youtube/xdcG5YdDm1c, March 23, 2014.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 916, Struggle Between Forces Within Lebanon Is Reflected In Their Involvement In Syria, January 3, 2013.

[5] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1071Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam's New Government: A Compromise Between Rival Factions, February 19, 2014.

[6] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 18, 2014.

[7] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 21, 2014.

[8] Lebanondebate.com, January 18, 2014.

[9] Lebanondebate.com, January 18, 2014.

[10] Elnashra.com, January 22, 2014.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 25, 2014.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 28, 2014.

[13] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), January 23, 2014.

[14] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 4, 2014.

[15] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 988, Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Al-Asir Launches Armed Struggle Against 'Shi'ite' Lebanese Army, June 26, 2013.