SIDON, Lebanon: Becoming familiar with prayer times is a prerequisite to planning meetings with representatives of the southern city of Sidon’s increasingly influential Islamist groups.
The call to prayer determines when an interview starts and when it’s called off. Historically considered a swing force in Sidon’s political equation, Islamists have acquired a more decisive role in the last couple of years, owing to a regional turn to religion and to the wave of popular protests that brought Islamists to power in several Arab countries.
As Islamists gain clout, the city’s traditional political groups are striving to build alliances with these factions ahead of next year’s parliamentary polls.
Nasser Hammoud, south Lebanon coordinator for the Future Movement, which is seeking an alliance with Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, says his party has no reservations about Islamist or Salafist groups having a greater say in politics.
Similarly, head of the Popular Nasserite Movement Osama Saad, who differentiates between moderate and radical Islamist currents, welcomes the participation of moderate ones in politics.
Islamists made their debut on the Sidon political scene in the 1970s, around the same time that Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, started its activity in the country.
Sidon is also the hometown of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s military arm Jundallah, which has a heavy presence in the Palestinian refugee camps across south Lebanon.
Now conscious of their growing influence, various Islamist groups in Sidon and politically active Salafist movements have started a large-scale reorganization process, with most adopting more moderate rhetoric to attract larger numbers of supporters in the port city.
Rivalries have emerged not only between Islamists and Sidon’s traditional political groups, but also among the Islamist factions themselves.
Bassam Hammoud from Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, argues that it would be entirely legitimate for his group to seek out political gains, even if this means starting a rivalry with the Future Movement or the Salafists.
He adds that what he calls as a “memorandum of cooperation” currently being drafted between Al-Jamaa and the Future Movement is non-binding and does not imply a form of alliance.
“In the end we are a political party, not a charity group,” Hammoud says.
But the Future Movement is not Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s only competitor on the Sidon scene.
In recent years, thousands from across the social spectrum flocked to the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in the Sidon neighborhood of Abra to listen to the passionate Friday sermons of Sheikh Ahmad Assir, who spares no one from critique, including the Future Movement, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
Although he categorically denied to The Daily Star any intention to run in the 2013 polls and refused to back any of the potential candidates, Assir says the people of Sidon have a “high level of political awareness and know who would best serve their city.”
“I never vote,” he says. “And I will never tell people who to vote for.”
Assir, however, divulges that “sometimes a secular figure can serve the people better than an Islamist figure” before refusing to answer further questions related to the upcoming elections.
Despite having been a member of the Salafist Dawa and Tabligh Association and still sharing the same dress code, the controversial Sunni sheikh, who constantly mentions his mother’s Shiite origins, does not approve of being referred to as a Salafist.
He insists he is preaching a “moderate and open” form of Islam.
“Although there is nothing wrong with being a Salafist, I don’t want to be referred to as one,” Assir says. “Salafism can have Jihadist connotations I don’t want to be tied to.”
The Salafists, whose Sidon presence dates to the early 1990s, are another key player in Sidon’s Islamist scene. They are mainly concentrated in Sidon’s poorer neighborhoods and the Palestinian refugee camps in the city’s surroundings.
The Imam of Sidon’s Al-Aqsa Mosque Sheikh Maher Hammoud, who is a close ally of Hezbollah, explains that Salafists are being used as a bogeyman.
“They are not as scary as they are depicted,” he says, adding that several ideological currents fall under the umbrella of Salafism.
“Most are very peaceful,” says Hammoud. “Only jihadist Salafist groups can have suspicious agendas.”
Competing political forces in Sidon, including Al-Jamaa and Assir, all seem to agree that only a centrist, moderate form of Islam can prevail in Sidon over the long run.
Bassam Hammoud of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya believes that the popularity of several Islamist figures and groups in Sidon is “circumstantial” and will sooner or later wane, since “they lack any political vision.”
“Lacking a solid and durable political vision makes those groups vulnerable and easily intercepted by security agencies,” he says.