The growing influence of Sunni Islamists in Lebanon is fueled by rising anti-American and sectarian sentiments resulting from the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, Lebanon’s ongoing political stalemate, the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and the summer 2006 war in which Israel devastated large parts of Lebanon. While mainstream Islamist groups continue to dominate the political and social environment in Lebanon, radical elements within the Islamist movements are further bolstered by the worsening political and security situation in the country, argues a new paper by the Carnegie Middle East Center.

In Lebanon’s Sunni-Islamists—A Growing Force, the Carnegie Middle East Center’s Omayma Abdel-Latif identifies leading traditional Islamist and Salafist movements in Lebanon, key leaders, and their relationships with each other and external actors, including the United States, Hizbollah, Syria, and Iran. Sunni Islamist movements include those sociopolitical movements that embrace Islam as the only framework for social and political change and mobilization.

Key points:

  • Radical groups are attempting to capitalize on the deep divisions among Lebanon’s Sunni Islamist movements. The movements are divided between those in alliance with the Mustaqbal, the party founded by the late Rafiq al-Hariri and the dominant political movements in the Sunni neighborhood, and those against it. The groups are further divided by differing relations with actors such as Hizbollah and Syria.
  • Although Mustaqbal presents itself as a modern movement with a moderate view of Islam, it has aligned itself with forces holding extremist views. Rather than addressing the need for a clear political or ideological vision, the party leadership resorts to polarizing sectarian rhetoric to secure public support.
  • While Lebanon’s pro-Hariri police forces maintain a close relationship with Sunni Islamist movements, particularly Salafists, the army has confronted militant Islamist movements in violent encounters and the intelligence services have been clamping down on them. There is a growing sense among some Islamist groups that Mustaqbal’s leader, Saad Hariri, is not doing enough to protect his Islamist allies against perceived hostility from the security apparatus. This perception has been fueled by Hariri’s silence following multiple arrests of Islamist protestors allied with Mustaqbal. By engaging with mainstream Sunni Islamist movements, the security forces could counter these perceptions of hostility, which fuel militant movements.
  • Rising unemployment, a lack of basic government services, and economic austerity are spurring the radicalization of Sunni youth, particularly among Salafist groups. Security campaigns targeting and arresting Sunni youth have further exacerbated tensions and increased a sense of victimization, while a weak religious establishment has failed to control the incitement of hatred and sectarianism.

“Unless the Lebanese state changes its strategy towards Islamists, begins to deliver its electoral promises in poverty-stricken areas, the danger of seeing al-Qaeda-inspired militancy remains a real one,” concludes Abdel-Latif.

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About the Author
Omayma Abdel-Latif is projects coordinator at Carnegie Middle East Center. Prior to joining Carnegie, she was assistant editor-in-chief at Al-Ahram Weekly, the Middle East’s leading English weekly. She has done extensive work on Islamist movements with special emphasis on the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. She also covered a wide range of issues including Islamic-Western relations, political reform in Egypt and political transition in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.