Lebanon’s Sunni Street Takes Charge
By: Ibrahim al-Amin
Published Monday, May 21, 2012
The tensions erupting and moving to different areas indicate that a big problem is looming over the country. The main political forces do not need to be told. The exceptional intensity of anger at street-level is enough to turn a minor incident into a major explosion. The killing of a politically-active sheikh thus threatens to set the country ablaze.
The basic issue is clear, though many try to avoid or to embellish it. Anger is gripping the Sunni street. Its causes vary. Domestically, it is due to the exclusion from power of the forces which lead the majority of Sunnis. Regionally, it is due to the Syrian crisis, and the failure to topple a regime which for most Sunnis represents minority rule by a different sect.
But the enraged Sunni street is not, at present, seeking to hold its own to account for their shortcomings. It is instead punishing them by ignoring their wishes.
This constituency wants to secure the “rights” it believes it has been robbed of. These are not confined to regaining an agreed share of power, or getting rid of those they do not consider to be their genuine representatives. They extend to acquiring the right to support the Syrian opposition with money and arms, not just politically and rhetorically.
This constituency has lost trust in the state so long as it is not under its supervision. People now want the realization of Saad Hariri’s slogan: Either me, or the people’s wrath.
This is happening under the heavy fallout of developments in Syria. As the borders of Iraq, Jordan and Turkey could not be turned into effective support bases for the Syrian opposition, especially the armed component, recourse was inevitably made to Lebanon - where there is a big base of political support for the Syrian opposition; where the central state is weak and dismembered; where there is a geographical connection between parts of the country and hotspots in Syria; where political, human and ideological resources exist; and where it is possible to build the capacity to support the opposition inside Syria.
The parts of Lebanon concerned are essentially the North and some areas of the northern Bekaa. This explains the unprecedented amount of political, intelligence and diplomatic activity there has been there. The question is: have Syria’s enemies now decided to establish that base, or have Syria’s allies decided to deliver a pre-emptive strike?
But developments tell of a different political spectacle unfolding. The government is engrossed in playing a game of “dissociation” which is rejected by the street on both sides, especially the Sunni street. The army meanwhile faces a test of its legitimacy as representative of the country’s unity. And the other security forces face a test of their submission to political control.
When leaders with powerful influence on the ground demand the expulsion of the army or its replacement by the Internal Security Forces, and insist on one court jurisdiction rather than another, that is enough to tell us that these leaders and the regions where they hold sway have become outside the state. They have begun selecting what parts of the state suit them temporarily, until they have fashioned their own state.
The new element in this is the violent blow that has been dealt to the power of the political parties.
Yesterday, leaders of both political camps in Lebanon were making similar statements about the need for calm. But what matters is their authority on the ground. Those who took to the streets no longer listen much to these speeches.
Yesterday, supporters of the Salafi current, in Lebanon generally and the North in particular, proved that the decision is now in the hands of the street – and more precisely, in the hands of those who are capable of abandoning considerations of political realism and taking the confrontation forward.
It is true that the state losing its authority in large parts of the North is a setback for all of Lebanon. Likewise, the blow struck to the army’s standing there will undermine its standing in other areas. The isolation and self-isolation of these areas will also cause many difficulties for their inhabitants.
Truer still, however, is that the culprit has become the victim. The reference here is to the March 14 coalition led by the Future Movement, which never ceased to exploit the masses in battles concerning the interests of this group’s leaders. Now, they have proven incapable of containing those masses.
Yesterday, it was Future Movement MPs, along with March 14 legislators and figures, who were in the highest state of shock. They raised their voices louder than usual, but in the back of their minds was a new image: of a new player sitting at the table.
This player has many names and addresses today, but it will rapidly take shape as an entity with its own figureheads, modus operandi and demands. This new player would not have gained the sympathy of the Sunni grassroots in the rest of the country had they not felt that the traditional leadership, to which they have been giving their mandate for years, has only brought them setbacks and defeats.
Yesterday’s events, and the anticipated aftermath, signal the demise of a pernicious weapon with which Saad Hariri used to threaten his Lebanese adversaries. He would give them a choice: Either me, or the Salafists with the angry street behind them. Hariri ignored the fact that the angry masses, like the Salafis, have a genuine point of view, and that they cannot be used all the time. Now they are telling them that they are turning rhetoric into action, and that he can either join them, or keep off...
In short, yesterday the street said: I’m in charge:
The leadership of the Future Movement and the March 14 groups should be watched over the coming few days. Will they join the popular anger, and announce their rejection of the state as the ceiling above everyone? Or will they search for a new trick, in an age when there are no longer any magicians, not even in children’s stories?
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.