A Phone Call That Shook a Nation
On Saturday May 12, a young man from Tripoli Lebanon, named Shadi el Mawlawi received an important phone call. The events triggered by this call ended up rocking Tripoli and the rest of Lebanon for several weeks.
From violent protests to urban warfare, chaos broke lose as dark smoke from burning tires billowed across the country, and angry people from Akkar to Saida blocked major Lebanese roads in anger.
The call, Mawlawi believed, was from the Safadi Foundation, a well-known philanthropic organization that assists people in need. Mawlawi was eligible for medical aid for his newborn daughter, he was told, so he rushed to a Safadi center to claim the money. By doing so he walked into a trap set by Lebanon’s General Security which resulted in his arrest.
Why did the arrest of one man cause so much instability? What does this tell us about Tripoli, about Lebanese politics and about the Arab spring’s effect on Lebanon?
Islamists and Gunmen
The arrest of Mawlawi caused two distinct but related events: The first was a series of assertive but peaceful demonstrations by his fellow Salafists asking for his release. the second was a military flare-up between two neighborhoods in Tripoli that involved weapons from light machine guns to rocket propelled grenades. The events shocked the Lebanese as tension spread across the country and people began talking about a “spillover” effect from Syria.
To the Salafists and other Tripoli Islamists, the arrest of Mawlawi was, in the words of one Salafi leader “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. Salafists have been regularly subjected to arbitrary arrests, extended detentions and lack of access to legal recourse. Some Islamists were arrested during the clashes of 2007 between the Lebanese army and the militant group Fath al Islam. 5 years later, they remain in custody without trials. In their view, the Sunnis are being victimized and it is time for them to restore their dignity. To add insult to injury, Mawlawi was deceived and “kidnapped” in a way that seemed designed to provoke the Islamists.
With tensions so high, it didn’t take long before the poor neighborhoods of Bab el Tebbane and Jabal Mohsen, long the weathervanes of political tension in Lebanon, descended into a deadly armed conflict between the anti-Assad Sunnis on one side (Bab el Tebbane) and the pro-Assad Alawis on the other (Jabal Mohsen).
It is important to note that while the general population of Tripoli sympathized with some of the grievances of the Islamists, it does not share their worldview and deep conservatism. In fact, unlike in Cairo, not a single Salafist was elected in the history of free parliamentary elections in Tripoli.
A History of Sunni Anger
To understand the intensity of the Tripoli unrest and why it spread to the rest of Lebanon, one needs to first take a closer look at the pent-up anger that underlies the actions of Lebanese Sunnis, anger that is steeped in a perception of historical victimhood, political disenfranchisement and humiliation.
Sunni anger against the Assad regime has a long history. It began with the rise of the Baath party in Syria when Lebanon’s Sunnis started noticing a pattern: Sunni leaders who rose to national prominence and commanded street popularity kept getting assassinated. Whether religious figures (Mufti Hassan Khaled) or Prime Ministers (Rafik el Hariri), they invariably end up meeting a violent death at the peak of their popularity.
Many Sunnis blame the Syrian Alawi regime and its Lebanese enablers for these killings. A powerful and influential Sunni leader would be capable of extending his tentacles into Syria and possibly turn Syria’s own Sunni majority against Alawi rulers. In the words of Gary Gambill, a veteran Syria observer, the Assad regime “was so threatened by Sunni leaders in occupied Lebanon that it assassinated dozens of them over the years for displaying the slightest whiff of infidelity” 
The murder of Rafik Hariri, one of Lebanon’s most powerful prime ministers in 2005 was the largest and most consequential of such acts of assassinations. It triggered international condemnation and large-scale Lebanese protests that forced the Syrian regime into withdrawing its troops from Lebanon.
Tripoli Sunnis in particular nursed an intense animosity towards the Syrian regime, which in November of 1986 arrested hundreds of Bab el Tebbane residents, executed dozens of them and littered the streets with their corpses.
Hezbollah and Sunni-Shi’a Tensions
After pulling out its troops from Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of Hariri, the Assad regime kept its influence through allies like the powerful Hezbollah, a Shi’a militia considered to be Lebanon’s most powerful military and political movement. Sunnis, like other non-Shi’a Lebanese, were nervous about Hezbollah’s weapons and the party’s allegiance to the Syrian regime. It made no sense to them that after Israel withdrew its occupying forces from the south of Lebanon, the resistance, made almost entirely of Shi’a fighters, would retain their arms. In Lebanon’s sectarian balance of power, such military supremacy can tip the balance to one group at the expense of others. Calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament started getting louder.
In July 2006, the Lebanese got a taste of the kind of devastation that Hezbollah’s weapons can wreak on the country. A miscalculated operation across the Lebanon-Israel border in which Hezbollah killed and kidnapped Israeli soldiers resulted in a protracted air offensive by Israel which killed more than 1000 Lebanese civilians, displaced tens of thousands and caused enormous economic damage to the country.
In May 2008, Sunnis were alarmed at Hezbollah’s readiness to use its arms internally (counter to promises they had made that their weapons are only aimed at Israel) when the party responded to the government’s attempt to disable its private communications network by storming the streets of Beirut with armed fighters. The sight of Shi’a fighters swarming the streets of Sunni Beirut raised many alarm bells in the Lebanese Sunni community. The offensive even included attacking and occupying offices of the media outlets of Hariri’s Future Movement, an act seen by many Sunnis as an intentional act of public humiliation.
Meanwhile on a regional level, a cold war was brewing between Shi’a Iran and the Sunni Gulf Arab states  over regional dominance and a bid to fill the vacuum left by the Americans in Iraq. In Lebanon, long a regional battleground, the tension between the Sunnis and the Shi’a was rising to the surface and talk about the threat of a “Shi’a Crescent” was regaining currency.
January 2011 was the month in which tensions rose to new heights. It started withPrime Minister Saad el Hariri, Lebanon’s most popular Sunni leader, being pushed out of power and replacing him with the anodyne Najib Mikati. It is widely believed that this coup was achieved through a display of military power and an implicit threat by Hezbollah. The party’s fighters paraded the streets of Beirut in ominous military formations and a threatening posture. They had no weapons but the message was clear. This became known as the black shirts incident . The resulting Mikati government was derided by Hariri and his allies as “Hezbollah’s Government”.
A few days later, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a UN court tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the killing of Rafik Hariri, issued an indictment against 4 Hezbollah members accused of involvement in the assassination. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in a defiant public addressed, rejected the tribunal, called it an Israeli plot and vowed not hand over any of the accused. The indictment reinforced what many Sunnis had in mind: that Hezbollah had a hand in the killing of Rafik el Hariri.
Revolution in Syria, Dissociation Policy and the Emasculated Sunni
The uprising in Syria which was inspired by the Arab Spring became a major event that deeply divided Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shi’a. To the Sunnis, the revolution (generally lead by Syrian Sunnis against the Alawi regime), offered a chance to get back at the Assad family and weaken their local tormentors, Hezbollah. To the Shi’a, the revolution was a conspiracy to get rid of a regime that was nothing but helpful to them in resisting the Israeli enemy.
Prime Minister Mikati responded to the events in Syria with an official policy of “dissociation”, which in theory meant that Lebanon would stay neutral and not take any sides. But as events unfolded in Syria, many Lebanese suspected that the dissociation policy was simply a front for a secret cooperation between Hezbollah and the Assad regime to target Syrian revolutionaries in Lebanon.
There were constant reports of kidnapping, arrests and killings of Syrian dissidents in Lebanon with the tacit support of some Lebanese government’s security agencies. The Lebanese representative in Arab League summits often took Syria’s side in opposition to Arab consensus. Fares Soueid, the Secretary General of the March 14 political alliance lead by Saad Hariri said that “The government of [Prime Minister] Najib Mikati is employing all diplomatic, security and political channels to back the Syrian regime”. Many Sunnis saw PM. Miqati as a pawn in Hezbollah’s hand, a human embodiment of their community’s emasculation.
The Meaning of Mawlawi’s Arrest
Throughout the Syrian revolution, Sunnis were reassured by the thought that Tripoli and Akkar, two Sunni strongholds and important grounds of support for the Syrian revolution, remained impervious to Hezbollah’s overreach. That, to their chagrin, has changed with the arrest of Mawlawi and later the shooting of sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed in Akkar.
Mawlawi’s arrest angered the Salafists, but it also hit a larger Sunni nerve. The security body that arrested him, the General Security, is close to Hezbollah and is headed by a Shi’a, Abbas Ibrahim. Its official mandate is to keep security at Lebanon’s border crossings and at the airport. Many thought that they had no business arresting people within the country, especially since Mawlawi is known for his active support of the Syrian revolution. Hezbollah had trespassed the Sunni “fortress” of Tripoli.
Worse, the arrest seemed coordinated with the Syrian regime. In a letter sent on the same day by Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s UN ambassador, to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the Syrian regime accused Lebanon of harboring terrorists in the north of the country. A brazen arrest like Mawlawi’s seemed suspiciously designed to provoke Tripoli’s Islamists into public action and give the impression that Tripoli is indeed an Islamist bastion.
A few days later, with tension still running high, soldiers at an army checkpoint in Akkar shot and killed a Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed, who was a known vocal supporter of the revolution in Syria, as he was heading to a demonstration against the Assad regime. The Sunnis once again saw the fingerprints of Hezbollah and Syria and took to the streets in an act of massive revulsion that included blocking roads and street shoot-outs all over Lebanon.
The Fragmentation of Lebanon’s Sunnis?
Underlying the protests, the burning of tires and the street shootings are senses of desperation and frustration, senses of a sect keenly aware of its diminishing influence but hopeful for redemption through the fall of the Assad regime. The absence of Saad Hariri and the weakness of Najib Mikati have created a Sunni leadership void, and the community is realizing that it lacks a strong and unifying counterpart to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
This has caused ambitious Islamists to throw their hats in the ring and challenge moderate Sunni leaders from the right. Some disillusioned Sunnis found solace in the anti-Shi’a demagoguery and the anti-Assad street actions of Islamists. There was even talk of Sunni politicians loosing control of the Sunni street.
Alarmed, moderates and politicians have fought back. The peoples of Tripoli and Beirut staged anti-war protests and the politicians went back to building bridges. Most notably, Saad Hariri got involved publicly in efforts to release 11 Lebanese Shiaa pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria by revolutionaries. In symbolically standing by Lebanese Shi’a in opposition to Syrian Sunnis, the ex Prime Minister tried to convey a message of reconciliation.
The political future of Lebanon’s Sunnis remains fluid and uncertain. The events in Syria will be decisive in shaping their politics. A longer conflict could mean more fragmentation, more Islamisation and more radicalization. Optimists see a near future with the Syrian regime gone and the moderate Future Movement restored to its glorious pre-eminence. Pessimists see a weakened Sunni scene with several parties, including hardliners and Islamists, competing with each other for a diminishing piece of the cake. The truth will probably be somewhere in between.
The Daily Star: North Lebanon clashes claim 3, army restores order
The Daily Star: Tripoli protesters urge release of Nahr al-Bared Islamists
New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon: The Forgotten Lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen, Internation Crisis Group.
Daniel L. Byman, Hezbollah: Most Powerful Political Movement in Lebanon, Council on Foreign Relations
BBC: Hezbollah leader Nasrallah rejects Hariri indictments