SIDON, Lebanon: At the main market in Sidon, merchants complain of a lack of customers and many shops are empty. Not long ago, the southern city was filled daily with visitors spending their money and socializing, but it is markedly quieter since Sheikh Ahmad Assir came to town.
Fearful of the roadblocks and occasional chaos Assir’s protests cause, many people from outside the city have taken their business elsewhere. The controversial Sunni cleric’s fiery rhetoric has also meant that Christians from eastern Sidon are staying away, as are Shiites from the villages south of the city.
Khalil Mekkawi, a merchant in downtown Sidon, explains that “business will not flourish without Shiites and Christians, and will not accept that Sheikh Assir determines which days we can work and which days he will block the roads. Sheikh Assir should know that even the citizens of [the Chouf village of] Iqlim al-Khaloub, where there is a Sunni majority, are scared to come to Sidon.”
Another business owner agrees, saying “Assir will destroy the city.”
Zaher al-Sousi says that 90 percent of the customers of his photography studio come from southern villages and eastern Sidon. “I have lost them because of his [Assir’s] constant closing of roads and his sit-ins. ... Without the citizens of the southern villages we can’t work.”
A banking source told The Daily Star that a major financial institution with several branches in the city would be closing its Sidon outlets gradually, because major Shiite investors were no longer willing to invest there while Assir threatens their sect.
Not all merchants agree, however, as barber Afif al-Qanawati describes Assir as a “savior from Shiite hegemony.”
“Ignoring Assir is getting more and more difficult, especially given that he is confronting the Shiite expansion in the city,” he says.
Although economic activity may be the first of Assir’s victims, Qanawati’s mention of sect and not merely location points to what many are concerned will be the next casualty: sectarian coexistence.
In east Sidon, where preparations are under way for Palm Sunday and Easter, 60-year-old Jean Haddad complains that the city where he was born “is no longer for us, just for those with long beards.”
“For all of my life, Sidon had no specific religious identity. It was for all the sects, and there was no intolerance or extremism. Although I agree with some of Assir’s suggestions, as Christians we are afraid of what could happen in the city.”
Politicians are worried too, and former MP Osama Saad, head of the Popular Nasserite Organization, states that “Sidon has always been a safe haven for national unity and coexistence among the Lebanese, and has always played the role of uniting all the Lebanese.”
Now, he believes that religious and political diversity is being altered by “several bizarre movements who are trying to put this city on a path that contradicts its historical role, turning it into an isolated and solitary city that has a tense relationship with its neighbors.”
Saad accuses the Future Movement of being “the godfather of all Takfiri movements in Lebanon,” and says its leaders and some officials in the Lebanese state “are sacrificing the security and stability of Lebanon as well as the unity of its people” for their own personal interests.
A March 8 source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says “it’s wrong to believe that political, religious and social figures are not aware of the danger of what is happening in Sidon, because many of them adopt Assir’s beliefs and plans, and also make speeches that increase tension in the city.”
Despite these accusations and the fact that the Future Movement shares Assir’s opposition to Hezbollah’s arms, sources in the Future Movement say it too has been damaged by the Assir phenomenon.
The sources say the movement originally thought the cleric’s rise would be temporary, but is now concerned about the power he holds among those who would have naturally been their supporters.
The sources also believe him to be a security threat, citing incidents such as the clash between supporters of Assir and Hezbollah near the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh that left three dead.
The Independent Sidon Youth, a group of young people close to the Future Movement, recently issued a statement in which they condemned the “civil strife Assir is instigating in the city of Sidon” as “no different than Hezbollah’s May 7 attack,” when the party took control of west Beirut in 2008.
They question whether disarming Hezbollah is truly the cleric’s aim.
“Confronting Hezbollah is not Assir’s target, rather it is a means to reach his real target – terrorizing and harming all the citizens of Sidon and Lebanon, harming the economy, and putting Lebanon into civil strife and a civil war,” the statement says.
“The city of Sidon does not accept the protection of either Assir or Hezbollah’s arms, and will always be a city of coexistence and for all Lebanese,” it adds. “Because this city has close ties with its outskirts and neighbors, we will not yield to fundamentalism and sectarianism.”