SIDON, Lebanon: Lebanese Army plans for a dawn operation to dismantle Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s sit-in in Sidon were called off hours before it was due to take place Sunday, according to a security source.
The senior source told The Daily Star that the Army had laid careful plans to surprise demonstrators at dawn Sunday to dismantle the tents, potentially bringing soldiers and protesters into confrontation.
“All steps were in place, and the Civil Defense teams were ready to assist the Army in the reopening of the highway by spraying defiant demonstrators with water,” said the official who asked to remain anonymous.
But according to the source, shortly after midnight Sunday, orders were changed and the Army was asked to abort the mission. The source added that the Army had canceled its initial plan as it had failed to receive necessary political coverage.
A visit by Sidon’s business owners to the sit-in over the weekend may lead Assir to relocate his movement to another location in the city that would do less harm to area businesses. But as Assir’s sit-in against Hezbollah’s arms entered its sixth day Sunday, the preacher vowed to continue it, describing the demonstration as the beginning of an “intifada against arms.”
“Sidon can live on olives, Sidon can live with little food but Sidon cannot live without dignity,” Assir told reporters Sunday.
Following a series of condemnations by Sidon’s political and religious leaders of Assir’s sit-in and their calls for the reopening of Sidon’s southbound highway, the preacher remained defiant, continuing the sit-in which he said was aimed at pressuring Hezbollah to surrender its arms to the Army.
Although Assir said that his protest would take escalatory measures in the coming days without disclosing any details, he appeared to have shifted positions after a group of business owners from nearby stores visited and sat with him for more than half an hour.
In greeting Assir, the business owners handed him a bouquet of white flowers and told him that they agree with his demands but are against his method of blocking roads.
Following the meeting, Assir told reporters that he would think about finding a new location for the sit-in on condition that it would be a significant spot and that the demonstration would remain influential.
“My meeting with businessmen was a positive one and I will think about relocating the sit-in if and only if I find a good place ... but the demands will remain the same,” said Assir.
An attempt by business owners last week to complain to the city’s politicians and political figures backfired and the number of protesters at the sit-in increased.
A source said that despite the caution exercised by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement in response to Assir’s statements against Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and Speaker Nabih Berri, high-level talks were under way between officials to bring an end to the sit-in before it gained more popularity.
“These attempts have failed so far, and Berri’s calls with separate senior officials and Sidon’s Popular Nasserite Movement leader Osama Saad have failed to end the problem,” the source added. “Prime Minister Najib Mikati has stopped answering phone calls and almost everyone in the country is silent in the face of Assir’s defiance and charisma which has allowed him to gain more supporters.”
Public workers atop bulldozers and accompanied by the Internal Security Forces were working Sunday morning to create a detour that would bypass the road blocked by the preacher’s supporters. Meanwhile, more tents were erected by the demonstrators and others were seen working to place fences at an area meters away from the current sit-in.
Assir held multiple meetings of his so-called Shura Council throughout the day to monitor developments and decide the direction of his movement in the face of local reaction.
Apologizing for the inconvenience the sit-in had caused the people of Sidon, Assir expressed his willingness to compensate for everyone’s losses.
“We apologize to people whose lives have been disrupted by the sit-in and we will compensate them for [financial] losses. We will sell some land for that,” he said over the weekend.
Travelers were caught in heavy traffic on the highway in both directions at Sidon’s northern entrance Sunday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Grand Mufti of the Republic Sheikh Mohammad Qabbani denounced any road closures and said demonstrators should be allowed to protest as they like but without disrupting the lives of others.
“I am not with any demonstration that disturbs life in the country. Everyone has the right to demonstrate in the way they see fit for their cause but without getting in the way of people’s lives,” said Qabbani, who was speaking during a meeting with the families of the Lebanese kidnapped in Syria,
A number of supporters of the Popular Nasserite Movement in Sidon took to the streets Sunday to distribute flyers condemning the weeklong sit-in led by Assir. The movement’s head, Saad, said that demands for Hezbollah to surrender its arms were in line with U.S.-Israeli demands.
In a news conference at his residence in Sidon, Saad said that Assir’s sit-in was only provoking Hezbollah and the sheikh’s demands failed to provide any alternative to the weapons of the resistance.
“Blocking roads will only open the way to violence instigated by third parties that would like to see the security situation spin out of control,” said Saad.
But he also refused to use force to end the sit-in, saying that his movement did not want to see any casualties on the street as a result of a confrontation between the Army and the protesters.
Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine welcomed calls by Sidon politicians and religious figures to end Assir’s sit-in. “What we heard from Sidon’s figures is a positive stance because first these protect Sidon and second they demonstrate that Sidon is a historic place of coexistence between its families and the resistance.”