Inspired, they say, by the largely Sunni uprising in Syria, the group has refused to leave the square, even after clashes with security forces last week ignited days of fighting between Sunnis and minority Alawites in Tripoli. Sectarian tension has worsened during 14 months of Syrian unrest as Syrian refugees and wounded fighters have flooded into the city.
“What happened in Syria — and in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen — let us smell the beautiful smell of freedom,” Omar Bakri Mohammed, a prominent Salafi leader, said Tuesday, surrounded by supporters in al-Nour Square. Criticizing the Lebanese government for closeness to Assad, he said that the sit-in would encourage authorities to “take us seriously for once in their lives,” darkly hinting that the protesters may in the future want to remove the Lebanese government entirely.
Violence in Syria showed no signs of ebbing Tuesday, as a bomb attack struck a convoy of vehicles in Idlib province that were part of a U.N. monitoring mission. No U.N. observers were hurt, but as many as 21 people were killed in the attack, according to activists.
Analysts attribute the surge in assertiveness among Tripoli’s Sunnis to a series of political shifts and security incidents that have left Lebanon’s Sunni society and political groupings marginalized. The Shiite political party and militia Hezbollah, meanwhile, has steadily increased its dominance over the country, which still bears the scars of a sectarian civil war that ended 20 years ago.
From the assassination of Sunni former premier Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, to a display of force by Hezbollah when it took over part of Beirut in May 2008, to the 2011 fall of the government led by Hariri’s son, Saad, under pressure from a Hezbollah-dominated political bloc, many Sunnis have been left feeling deeply disenfranchised.
“It’s been defeat after defeat,” said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. The presence both of unarmed Sunni protesters and armed Sunni fighters on the streets of Tripoli, Salem added, may have been prompted by a confluence of issues including a sense of empowerment after the uprisings in the Arab world as well as anger at the brutal treatment of Sunnis in Syria.
“This is a ratcheting up by the Sunnis of the north as to the level at which they can express a view on the Syrian issue, display their guns openly and defy some of the parts of the government which are Hezbollah-dominated,” Salem said.