Lina Khatib has an article in the Guardian today about the response of Lebanon’s Sunnis to the bloodshed in Syria, the violence in Tripoli, etc. It’s worth reading along with Mustapha Hamoui’s report for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and his previous writings on the topic at his blog (here and here).
Lina remarked on an interesting difference between Sunni and Shi`i responses to the latest violence:
“Last month, Sunnis reacted by blocking roads with burnt tyres. Mirroring this, Lebanese Shia pilgrims returning from Iraq were kidnapped in Syria on 22 May, causing Shias to also block roads with burnt tyres in protest.The main beneficiary in this situation has been Hezbollah. Saad Hariri, seen as leading the Sunni community via Twitter, sent messages from Paris demanding the halt of public protests. Sunni protesters were slow to heed his call. In contrast, “Shia” public action in May was halted right after Hassan Nasrallah demanded it in a live phone call to a Lebanese television station. Cynics say that the “Shia” incident was pre-planned, with Hezbollah ordering the start and end of the protests to present itself positively. Regardless, the incidents demonstrated that Nasrallah has clout over his followers, whereas Hariri’s aura as a Sunni leader is declining.”
I would go a little further than Lina and suggest that Hariri’s aura is not just declining; it may be extinguished completely among large swathes of younger, poorer, urban Sunnis. I have no hard evidence for this besides the Facebook page of a young Sunni political activist named Saleh El Machnouk, who is emerging as one of the most popular pundits and media stars among Sunnis in Lebanon (and beyond).
Saleh is the son of Nouhad El Machnouk, an MP in Saad al-Hariri’s Future Bloc. He served at one stage as a leader of Future Youth and has been involved in local Lebanese political activism for a few years. Since the revolution erupted in Syria, however, Saleh has become something of a regional celebrity. When I met him last November in Beirut, he had 20,000 followers on his Facebook page. Today, he has over 72,000, which is 25,000 more than Saad Hariri does. Not bad for a twenty-something guy who has never held political office, does not own a TV station, and can’t bankroll any patronage networks.
Most of Saleh’s Facebook updates have to do with the situation in Syria, and they routinely get over 1000 “Like’s” and hundreds of comments by his admirers. He regularly attacks March 14th for not standing up to Hizbullah, and on occasion he has even taken swipes at Hariri himself. For example, after Hariri’s Twitter call asking Sunni protesters to stop blocking roads, Saleh had this to say on this Facebook page:Pretty ballsy if you ask me. Can you think of a single Shi`i public figure in Lebanon affiliated with Hezbollah who would dare write something like this about Nasrallah on their Facebook page? I can’t. Hariri has never been able to command the reverence among his followers that accrues to Sayyed Hassan, but this kind of dissent is something new.
Someone recently told me that getting involved in Sunni politics in Lebanon means keeping constant tabs on the neighborhood kingpins and small-time block bosses who are emerging in the poorer neighborhoods of cities like Beirut, Tripoli, and Saida. “You’ve got to make sure that the za’im al-zaroubeh (alley boss) is satisfied,” he said wryly.
I have the feeling that al-Dahiyeh doesn’t have many zu’ama zawareeb. Lebanon’s Sunnis, on the other hand, are beginning to gravitate to different power centers.
Furthermore, it’s a mistake to assume that Hariri’s critics are all radical Salafists. In many ways, Saleh El Machnouk fits the bill as your typical Future Movement cadre member. And yet, he has more Facebook followers than Saad al-Hariri. Why? Because he is more in touch with the sentiments of the za’im al-zaroubeh, or at least is more able to give voice to those sentiments using the discourse of victimization and pulpit-pounding triumphalism that Hariri just can’t muster. (Plus it helps to be a magnetic and entertaining talk show guest who can go toe-to-toe with his fellow pundits. This, in my view, counts a great deal. Have a look here and here at some of Saleh’s recent performances.)
This doesn’t mean that the Future Movement has to worry deeply about any major Sunni competitors in the 2013 elections. But I wonder: could we be seeing the very early stages of the “Amal-ification” of the Future Movement, if that makes sense? Will more and more Sunnis turn to Future mainly for patronage purposes rather than ideological or identity-politics commitments?