BEIRUT/SIDON: Sidon’s political and religious leaders were united Friday in calling for the reopening of the southern city’s highway in the face of controversial preacher Sheikh Ahmad Assir, who remained adamant about blocking the road until the issue of Hezbollah’s arms was resolved. In Beirut, a similarly firm stance was adopted by Muslim leaders as well as by the city’s MPs of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future bloc who rejected the closure of roads, saying this tactic threatened the country’s security and stability. Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani warned the Lebanese that they faced the threat of strife unless they acted to end political divisions.
In the meantime, the Army reinforced its presence, bringing in more military vehicles to the entrance of Sidon, particularly at the Awali Bridge area and the seafront Corniche, security sources said, in a move apparently aimed at preventing clashes between Assir’s supporters and opponents.
“The Army and Internal Security Forces also conducted patrols near the area where Assir’s supporters have been staging a sit-in in an attempt to prevent infiltrators from causing trouble,” a source told The Daily Star.
President Michel Sleiman followed up the security situation with Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, two days after the government began implementing a month-long law enforcement campaign.
Sleiman underlined the “need to prevent the blocking of roads because this runs contrary to the concept of peaceful expression and obstructs the citizens’ businesses and interests,” in a statement released by the president’s office.
Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi briefed the president on the security measures carried out by Army units in line with a Cabinet decision not to protect any violators.
However, a defiant Assir rejected a demand by Sidon’s MPs and Muslim and Christian religious leaders to reopen the entrance to the city’s main highway that links Beirut with south Lebanon.
“We won’t open the road, not even if a decision is made by the [U.N.] Security Council,” Assir told reporters at the site where some 150 of his supporters have been camping since Wednesday night, blocking the highway in a protest against non-state arms.
“Any attack on us is an attack from the resistance party [Hezbollah]. We hold Fouad Siniora responsible because he has given them the green light,” Assir said before leading Friday prayers at the sit-in site.
Assir rejected the argument that his protest against Hezbollah’s arms would lead to a Sunni-Shiite strife. “This [threat] is meant to intimidate us because there are arms that are stronger than the state’s arms and are dominating the state,” he said.
Assir pledged to maintain the protest unless “someone convinces us” that Hezbollah and Amal will seriously respond to efforts to resolve the arms issue.
He hit back at former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who was among Sidon’s leaders who called for the reopening of the city’s highway.
“You are afraid. But we only fear God,” Assir said. “We prefer death to humiliation,” he cried as his supporters repeated the phrase loudly after him.
“We are blocking the road on the resistance party [Hezbollah] and the Amal Movement, which dominate the country. Why should a group of rogues block the [Beirut] airport road?” he complained.
Addressing Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and Amal Movement head and Speaker Nabih Berri, Assir said: “I swear to God ... we will make you pay the price through peaceful means.” Assir’s tough remarks came shortly after a statement by local leaders in Sidon denounced the blocking of roads and called on those using the tactic to cease and desist.
“The participants stressed respect for all opinions and peaceful and civilized means of expression which do not contradict with or harm the freedom of others,” the statement said. “Therefore, the participants call for the opening of all the city’s roads and not to resort to this tactic in the future.”
The meeting was also attended by Sidon’s prominent political figures, Muslim and Christian religious leaders, including the city’s Mufti Sheikh Salim Sousan, senior security officials in the south and Ahmad Hariri, secretary-general of the Future Movement.
“We respect and protect the expression of opinion. But the practice of blocking public roads and obstructing people’s lives and the economic circle is both rejected and condemned,” Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc said.
“We respect the opinion of he who planned the sit-in in Sidon, and respect the goals he announced. We have the right to freedom of expression, but without blocking roads on others,” he added.
“We have to keep Sidon an open city and a crossing for all people. The public road is not the property of some citizens ... It is the state’s duty to secure freedom of traffic and travel for everyone,” Siniora said. “Therefore, we call for the opening of all roads in Sidon to all citizens and passengers.”
Mufti Qabbani warned that political divisions could plunge Lebanon into sectarian strife.
“The flame of strife will ignite in the mountains, the coast and buildings of Lebanon unless they act to reach accord and save the country,” Qabbani said in a statement.
Referring to the closure of roads in Beirut with burning tires by protesters following an attack on Al-Jadeed TV, Qabbani said: “The big danger is for this political disintegration to turn into a security disintegration that will destroy Lebanon.”
Sheikh Abdul-Amir Qabalan, deputy head of the Higher Shiite Council, also warned of attempts to foment strife among the Lebanese, and rejected the closing of roads.
“What is happening on the ground will not lead to the truth. Challenge is forbidden, the burning of tires is a bad act and the closing of roads is an attack on the people,” Qabalan said in his Friday sermon. “We call on the Lebanese to be wise in their actions and stay away from strife.”
Beirut’s Future MPs also denounced the closing of roads, saying the tactic threatened the country’s stability.
“Security for all the Lebanese people is a red line. What happened in the past few days has crossed the red line,” Beirut MP Mohammad Qabbani said. “What happened in Beirut’s streets is unacceptable. Neither the blocking of roads nor the burning of tires is acceptable. Therefore, this matter threatens stability,” he added.