He has managed to make many enemies in a short period of time. These are essentially from the club of traditional political players, whose membership seems to elude him. He denies wanting to join it. Yet he accuses “the political representatives of the Sunni sect in Lebanon” of failing in their duty, and he hopes to “achieve that which would safeguard the dignity” of the community so he can go back to his mosque and resume his mission as a preacher.
It may be hard for many people to adopt Assir’s discourse. Some of those who enthused about him after he started making his political voice heard have clearly stepped back. Perhaps they concluded that continuing to follow his lead would entail more sacrifices than they could bear. Others saw him as their spokesman, but not their leader. A third group felt that Assir was going further than his supporters would have wanted in pressing his demands.
The majority of the above had either gone along with Harirism, or were politically disillusioned. Assir also unsettled Harirism’s Christian and even Druze allies, Walid Jumblatt’s overture to him notwithstanding. But most worrying of all is Assir’s willingness, if only rhetorically, to enter into an all-out confrontation with the two most powerful forces in the Shia sect.
What may be even harder is persuading the powers-that-be, both in government and opposition, that someone should breach the wall with the aim of extending a hand to Assir. A dialogue needs to be sought with him to discuss what he deems to be public demands, and to work out solutions that convince him to abandon the plans he has recently been putting into action.
The difficulty here lies in the fact that most of the major players in government and opposition refuse to treat Assir as a general trend. They insist on considering him to be a confined individual case, which can be isolated and bypassed. This is because Assir does not possess the same stature as the country’s main political forces. He cannot claim to speak for a Sunni majority, nor is he capable of getting all other Islamist groups in Lebanon to join an action that leads to the unknown.
So why all the worry that the actions of Assir and his followers could set the stage for a clash which in turn triggers widespread strife in the country?
The real answer lies in the fact that Assir, with his actions and his rhetoric, is filling a vacuum among Syria’s and Hezbollah’s Sunni enemies in Lebanon. He proclaims out loud what most of them say in their homes, private discussions, workplaces and late night chats. His show of defiance is one which many believe that Sunni political leaders should be mounting themselves.
When Assir says his actions hinge on the resolution of the issue of weapons, he does not mean, and cannot reasonably mean, that he wants a quick resolution to the question of the arms held by the resistance in Lebanon.
He is in fact – regardless of whether some people like this reasoning or reject it – urging on a debate about the relationship between the different groups in Lebanon.
This absent, or rather abandoned, debate has many themes, the weapons issue being one of them. But its aim is to reformulate the rules of Lebanon’s governance and the relationship of its citizens to the state. Assir may be uninterested in much of that, but he has seized on an issue that goes to the heart of Lebanon’s current difficulty, which stems from the profound dispute between the political leaders of the majority of the country’s Shia and the majority of its Sunnis.
In short, the problem will not be solved either by cracking down on Assir’s group, as some hot-heads believe, or by the sheikh obtaining a clear and convincing answer about the future of Hezbollah’s weapons.
For a solution to be reached, those concerned must dare to take two simultaneous steps.
The first of these concerns Assir himself. He needs to provided with an acceptable ladder with which to climb down from his tree.
The second step is more general, and relates to the essence of the issue. In this regard, the onus lies with those who wield the most influence. With Syria preoccupied by its domestic crisis, the main regional parties to such a dialogue now would be Saudi Arabia (plus perhaps the new Egypt) and Iran, and the main local ones Hezbollah and the Future Movement.
There may be no sign of that happening. But Assir’s actions managed to bring antagonistic parties in Saida together around a single table to confer about what should be done. A get-together could be more focused and effective if it involved the main players in the Sunni-Shia cold war which the country and the region are witnessing.
As recent and earlier experience has taught us, and as the ongoing tragedy in Syria underlines, attempts to avoid dialogue in order to pursue gains, by this side or that, only succeed in postponing the inevitable.
Eventually, all the players must sit around the table to produce a feasible compromise that ensures they can continue living together.
Ibrahim al-Amine is editor-in-chief of al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.