SIDON, Lebanon: Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s sit-in has upset local business owners, brought tension to relations between the city of Sidon and other parts of the south, and is no closer to reaching its aim than when it began four weeks ago. But the protest, dismissed by many as a fringe movement supported by foreigners, shows no sign of stopping and remains the hot topic in the city among casual supporters of the movement as well as those who view it as an attack on the resistance.
National leaders, who say they are caught between putting an end to the protest – a move that could stir up Assir’s supporters – and alienating Sidon residents by doing nothing, have spoken out against the demonstration while avoiding any concrete action on the ground.
A minister in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government said at a recent event that when Assir’s movement was brought up during a Cabinet meeting, the consensus was that if the government moves to end Assir’s protest it would only give the cleric more weight.
A similar line of reasoning is playing out at the local level. Sidon MP Bahia Hariri met recently with the head of the Criminal Court in south Lebanon Judge Rola Jadayel, Internal Security Forces Commander in south Lebanon Tariq Abdullah, the head of Army Intelligence in south Lebanon Brig. Gen. Ali Shahrour as well as Sidon Mayor Mohammad Saudi to discuss the city’s security.
Sources told The Daily Star that the leaders discussed alternatives to confronting the movement, including the possibility of opening a side road that leads to the eastern highway in order to improve the flow of traffic. The problem, they continued, is that the road runs adjacent to the Justice Palace and its opening has been postponed because of security concerns.
For now, it seems that Assir is waiting for National Dialogue on July 24 before planning the next move.
In the beginning, Assir was demanding that Hezbollah immediately hand over its weapons but he has more recently begun demanding that the issue of the party’s weapons be seriously broached at the Dialogue table. Many believe that this change in course is an attempt by the sheikh to keep the momentum of the protest going while maintaining it squarely in the media’s spotlight.
The Dialogue could be endgame for the protest, but only if the arms are seriously discussed. Otherwise it could serve as the pretext for Assir to continue and escalate his protest, which has so far failed to challenge Amal or Hezbollah in any real way.
But sources said that has managed to shake the confidence of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which has opposed the protest.
In the last meeting of the administrative board of the chamber, a heated discussion took place over the closure of roads. Several members called on the chamber to acknowledge the popular support for Assir’s movement and to not treat the issue as if it were a temporary matter.
“Put to rest the assumption that his supporters are Palestinians and Syrians from outside of the city; it is not true. Ninety percent of his supporters are residents of Sidon and most of them are young people,” said one board member. “We need to keep this in mind as we organize a series of actions opposing the sit-in set to start Wednesday.”
Despite protests from local businesses, Assir’s popularity continues to grow. According to sources, some of those who have publically opposed the protest have actually communicated their support to Assir in private.
Last Friday, a crowd that was clearly local listened and prayed with the sheikh inside the tents, marched under the scorching sun and looked to Assir as a Sunni leader, they added.
At the same time, in the city’s streets and squares, banners praising the resistance remain on display, one describing the resistance’s arms as “divine.”
Misbah Maghrebi, the owner of a juice shop, has similar signs inside his business. “The arms of the resistance are legitimate religiously and legal,” he explained. “I would be willing to be servant to Hasan Nasrallah,” he added, calling on officials to look into the identity of protesters and to open immediately the road blocked by the sit-in.