Lebanon's Future movement looks forward

Sectarian tensions, exacerbated by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, have been rising in Lebanon and came to a head last month with the assassination of a senior anti-Syrian intelligence official.

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BEIRUT // A shooting between Sunni and Shiite Muslim gunmen in southern Lebanon that killed three people was the latest sign that escalating street violence may have spun out of the control of Sunni political leaders.

The clash last week between members of the Shiite militant group Hizbollah and followers of a hardline Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Al Assir, a harsh critic of the group, broke out over Hizbollah posters hanging in a Sidon neighbourhood.

Sectarian tensions, exacerbated by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, have been rising in Lebanon and came to a head last month with the assassination of a senior anti-Syrian intelligence official. The funeral of Wissam Al Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, sparked sectarian violence that killed at least 13 people.

Many in Lebanon blame Hizbollah and Syria for the killing.

"There is no doubt that there is a real anger on the streets. They kill Wissam Al Hassan and the government continues business as usual," said Ahmed Hariri, the secretary-general of the Future Movement, part of former prime minister Saad Hariri's March 14 coalition.

Lebanon and Syria share similar sectarian divides that have fed tensions in both countries. Most of Lebanon's Sunnis have backed Syria's mainly Sunni rebels, while most Lebanese Shiites tend to back Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"There is a Sunni sect that has begun to feel oppressed because of the political isolation of the Future Movement," said Mr Hariri.

Although the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition won a majority of seats in parliament in 2009, Hizbollah and its allies used their veto-wielding power to remove Mr Hariri from his post in January last year, replacing him with Najib Mikati.

"I am not OK with the passiveness of March 14. We need to stop playing the game that we have a functional political system," said Nadim Koteish, the host of a political show on Future TV, owned by Saad Hariri. His call for demonstrators to head to the government offices following Al Hassan's funeral was reported as the spark that set off 24 hours of violence in the city.

The protesters' call for the resignation of Mr Mikati's government went unheeded, feeding their frustration.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary-general, has accused his political opponents of using Al Hassan's assassination to sow discord between Sunnis and Shiites.

"This period is extremely sensitive and requires a great deal of awareness and patience", he said this week.

Syrian revolutionary flags and black Salafist flags were seen at Al Hassan's funeral, leading some to wonder if the Future movement's base has radicalised in the past months.

"I do not believe that Sunnis are radicalised or are subscribing in larger numbers to jihadi or Salafist doctrines. They are allying themselves to what they perceive is the political power to stand up to Hizbollah," said Mr Kotiesh.

There is concern, however, of the emergence of Mr Al Assir, known for his virulent language against Hizbollah and, before last Sunday's clash, a sit-in he staged in Sidon in March.

"Support for Assir is a reaction to the feeling of oppression. However, I don't think he will take votes from us at the ballot box and our electoral balance remains," said Nouhad Machnouk, a Beirut MP with the Future coalition.

The burial of two of Mr Assir's bodyguards killed in Sidon last Sunday was an intimidating scene, with armed men taking part in the procession and the burial unexpectedly taking place in a public square, without interference from a government no doubt reluctant to force a confrontation.

Some see Mr Assir as filling a power vacuum left when Mr Hariri, the son of former premier Rafiq Hariri, left Lebanon more than a year ago in fear that he would be assassinated as his father was in 2005.

"People are not receiving the same services they had come to expect and depend on from him. So, they get angry. They link their loyalty to services they receive," said a journalist and supporter of Saad Hariri, who did not want to be identified.

"People feel comforted when they are near their leader. His absence has taken a toll," she said.

* With additional reports from the Associated Press