SIDON, Lebanon: Supporters and opponents of Hezbollah protested in separate neighborhoods of Sidon Friday, reigniting tensions and fears over a recurrence of security incidents in the city.
Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a staunch critic of Hezbollah, held a rally in Sidon but Friday witnessed the rise of voices “in support of the Islamic Resistance.”
Under a heavy Army presence, Sunni Sheikh Hussam al-Ilani held a relatively small protest outside Al-Ghofran Mosque and described Sidon as “the city of martyrs” while challenging calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament.
“Sidon's stance is clear; it is the city of martyrs ... all who sacrificed their blood, did so we could live a decent life in this country,” Ilani told tens of people who attended the rally near the Serail roundabout.
He demanded that the new government, under Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, take a clear stance with regards to Hezbollah’s weapons, and adopt the tripartite formula of the “people, the army, and the resistance” as a sign of support for the party.
Hezbollah argues that adopting such a formula is the best way to protect Lebanon against Israeli aggression.
“Sidon is with the resistance's arms regardless of whether any one wants it or not ... No one can disarm the resistance regardless of how loud their voices are and regardless of how much they protest,” he said, referring to Assir.
Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has warned against sectarian tensions in the city as a result of Assir’s movements, which have crippled the economy in Sidon and lead to clashes with pro-Hezbollah residents.
In Abra, Assir returned to his supporters and gathered hundreds outside the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in a rally he dubbed the "rejection of Hezbollah's apartments.”
The Salafist sheikh, who surfaced as a critic of Nasrallah and Speaker Nabih Berri in 2011, has long maintained that members of the resistance have taken up positions in apartments in the neighborhood to monitor his movements.
Hezbollah has denied the allegations, saying Shiites have lived in these buildings before the arrival of the controversial preacher.
In his Friday speech, Assir upped his rhetoric and vowed not to back down until “our dignity has been restored.”
"My advice to you is to prepare yourselves because we will not calm down from restoring our dignity,” he said. “No one cares about us; not the president, politicians March 14 or March 8. Everyone hopes we fade away and considers us a burden,” Assir added.
“Lebanese care less about our religion and dignity and that's their business. It is our right to express our opinion and it is our right to ask for the full restoration of our dignity.”
Late last year, clashes between supporters of Assir and Hezbollah erupted resulting in the death of two of the preacher's bodyguards and an Egyptian.
Five other people, including Sidon-based Hezbollah official Sheikh Zeid Daher, were wounded.
“Some of the elements that would restore our dignity is to bring back those shabiha [referring to Hezbollah fighters] from Syria to Lebanon. They should apologize to the Syrian people and over the May 7 clashes in order restore the balance in Lebanon, and close down the apartments,” he said.