“Nasrallah is the enemy of God” and “we want the words of jihad” were a few of the slogans heard during the armed funeral procession of Sheikh al-Assir’s bodyguard Lubnan al-Aazi and Ali Samhoun, both victims of the confrontation between al-Safir’s supporters and Hezbollah supporters in Saida yesterday. An Egyptian national also died.
The procession, which started at the Martyr’s mosque and ended at the roundabout outside the Hariri mosque, included many armed participants. Several hundred protestors, all men, chanted slogans and exhalted God during the 30 minute walk/run to the victims’ final resting place. The armed men ,who mostly flanked Sheikh al-Assir, seemed well trained and were jittery for snipers in residential areas, their eyes trained on rooftops and the upper floors of buildings. The procession broke into a run in these areas, unsurprising as the clashes yesterday were targeted at the Sheikh. Whether that was a miss, or just a signal that Ahmed al-Assir’s is not untouchable, so far remains unclear.
At the roundabout where the men were buried, there was little emotion and the electricity of the earlier march had worn off. One man was openly crying, while several Assir affiliated organisers broke out in tears simultaneously towards the end of the funeral, but more in a short, almost pre-meditated burst.
No gunshots were fired, and the gunmen sped away in 4x4s and buses without much ado. Yet the protest made it clear that Assir has guns at his disposal. Those armed carried mostly gleaming new weapons. Rumours abound that Qatar and Saudi Arabia finance the Sheikh, meaning that there could be more weapons added to the arsenal.
So what happened yesterday?
Sheikh Al-Assir told me this morning that he did not aniticipate the clashes ending in violence, and that he did not order his side to fire. The only two people firing were his bodyguards, in an effort to get him out of the situation. His car was hit, which the Sheikh sees as further proof it was a targeted attempt. Video footage distributed by Assir’s media office shows gunfire breaking out, but does not definitively show that the other side started shooting first.
The skirmishes started after Sheikh al-Assir and his supporters marched on the neighbourhood of Taamar in order to supervise the removal of Hezbollah flags and the picture of Hassan Nasrallah, which had been put up without muncipality approval. “it was the first time such flags were put up” the Sheikh said. “On teh opposite side, our flags are being damaged by their followers though we have permission from the authorities, who don’t do anything when we claim our right to display them.” Sheikh al-Assir said. An earlier request to have the imagery of Hezbollah removed from the centre of town was met, but the banners were relocated. The banners were hung in preparation of Ashoura, a Shiite festival to commemorate Hussein which takes place on the 24th of November. An Al-Assir spokesman was keen to point out the yellow colour of the flags, saying “these are not Ashoura flags, but Hezbollah flags”. The Skeikh said although everybody had the freedom to express themselves, the flags were implemented in a way that “seemed threatening,” and had the right to ask for them to be removed.
The question remains why the Sheikh went into the Taamir neighbourhood, close to the Palestinian camp of Ain el-Hilweh. The area has a lot of support for Ossama Saad’s Tanzim al-Shaabi al-Nasiri, the Nasserite Popular party, which is aligned with March 8, a coalition which includes Hezbollah.
The Nasserite movement called for a general strike on Sunday night, as did the Merchant’s Association and the Future movement. As a result, most of Saida was shut down today, however some stayed open during the strike, and some residents also continued with their daily activities.
Shopping for tomatoes while gunmen walk past
What next? Is the Sheikh embracing violence?
Although the Daily Star reported Assir had called upon his supporters to turn to violence on Monday, Assir denied this, but said the option of violence would be on the table during deliberations he was holding over the next two days. Supporters gathered outside his Bilal bin Rabah mosque were less diplomatic; insha’llah they would fight Hezbollah.
The funeral procession was the first time al-Assir supporters have openly carried arms; he has clung to a policy of non-violence. A recent call for a Lebanese intifada was also meant in a non-violent way, he told me today. In two days, we will know whether this non-violence is a policy he will continue, or whether he will turn to violence like all other parties in Lebanon. The heavily armed men at the funeral indicate that he might be swinging towards violence, or at least the promotion of the image that he would be capable of engaging in it. To be honest, armed Assir supporters and Hezbollah militants would be difficult to tell apart, sparking the irony that Assir might turn into the very idea he is said to be opposing.
For more pictures check out my story on Demotix