Translation: “To all of our supporters: we are coming under attack from the Lebanese Army, which is Iranian-[controlled] and sectarian, and also from the shabbiha of Hassan Nasr al-Lat and Nabih Berri. I call on all our supporters: the peaceful ones should go and block the streets. And I call on the honorable men — both Sunni and others — in the Lebanese Army to leave the Army immediately. And I call on our supporters outside Lebanon to go to the Lebanese embassies to protest. And on all of our supporters in every region who are prepared to come defend our religion and heritage and our women. We’re being shot at from Mar Elias, the Shiite neighborhood in Saida. We’re being shot at with every kind of shell, rocket, and mortar. God suffices us, and an excellent guardian is He.”
So announced the Lebanese salafist shaykh Ahmad al-Assir earlier today on YouTube after some of his followers clashed with the Lebanese Army, leaving several people dead including five soldiers. The army vowed to strike back “with an iron fist” and demanded that Saida’s politicians and religious figures (read, the Sunni imams and muftis who have been cowed by Assir’s vitriolic rhetoric) to “express in complete frankness their stance: either to stand next the Lebanese Army to protect civilians … and prevent [an explosion] or to stand beside the provokers of strife and killers of soldiers.”
Hizbullah and the March 8th alliance have been waiting for Assir to make a blunder like this, and did he ever deliver a doozy. Killing soldiers in plain daylight? Has Assir forgotten the near-universal support among Lebanese for the Nahr al-Barid operation in 2007, which saw an entire refugee camp reduced to rubble in the service of squashing a salafist group? Charismatic and flush with cash though the shaykh may be, his political instincts remain tender, and have made him vulnerable to the maneuverings of his opponents.
It will be interesting to see how Lebanon’s mainstream Sunni leadership handles the aftermath of this crisis. Assir initially emerged as a minor irritant to the Future Movement (FM), then blossomed into a more serious liability as his movement caused messaging issues for Hariri and his allies, particularly on the Syrian question. Today, Assir is gambling that his stance against Hizbullah and Syria will transform him from a fringe phenomenon punching above his weight into a force to be reckoned with. Whether or not he succeeds will depend, in certain ways, on how skillfully the FM can appease the Sunni street while disavowing Assir’s antics.
Next week’s political talk shows will be must-see TV. Check in here for commentary and post-game analysis.