Once empowered by the authority of the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri since the end of the Lebanese Civil war in 1990, after his assassination in 2005 the Sunni community in Lebanon was left leaderless, with no backbone, and getting gradually alienated from political power.
Hariri’s death marked the decline of Sunni power within the complex Lebanese power sharing system.
Moderate Sunni leaders trying to follow in the footsteps of the late prime minister failed, notably his son former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In an attempt to fill in the leadership vacuum, Islamist extremist figures started to emerge and tried to drive the Sunni community toward a radical choice. However, Lebanese Sunnis, who are traditionally among the most moderate communities in the Middle East and across the Arab world, remained committed to their ethos.
The historical roots of Sunni radicalization did not emerge from the Lebanese socio-political and religious context. Therefore, despite the anger following Hariri’s death and the attempts by Salafist figures to lure members of the community, the majority of Lebanese Sunnis continued to adhere to the 1943 Lebanese National Pact in the aftermath of Hariri's assassination, channeling their losses through political rejection and opposition rather than turning to radicalism. But thus far, the Sunni leadership vacuum in Lebanon has yet to be filled.
Rafiq Hariri, who was a Sunni business tycoon, played a major role in brokering the Taef agreement in 1989 that ended the Lebanese Civil War. He later headed five cabinets, revived the national economy and was credited with rebuilding the capital, Beirut. Hariri represented a project of reconstruction after 15 years of destructive civil war and became a symbol of economic prosperity, education, and unification of the Sunni community in Lebanon. He was regarded as the unchallenged Lebanese Sunni leader.
Yet, in his institutional capacity, Hariri succeeded in bringing together not only the Sunnis but all elements of the Lebanese society after a long, divisive civil war. In this vein, he accepted the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon partly because their presence had significant local backing. Nevertheless, in the reverberation of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hariri joined the ranks of local groups demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the end of their grasp over Lebanese politics and economy.
During the Israeli occupation, the Sunni community in Lebanon sympathized with the Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah as a resistance movement fighting the occupation. Being allied with Syria, Hezbollah was further empowered by Syrian political oversight in that era. After the end of Israel’s occupation of the undisputed southern Lebanese territories, Hariri began to question the role and weapons of Hezbollah.
Following their leader’s rhetoric, Sunnis joined other Lebanese factions’ voices demanding Hezbollah to surrender its arms to the Lebanese state, which never happened. After Hariri’s assassination, resentment against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah reached unprecedented levels.
Clashes broke out in 2008 in Beirut between supporters of the Sunni Future Movement led by Saad Hariri and Hezbollah’s militants, motivated by governmental decisions to dismantle Hezbollah’s illegal telecommunication network. The clashes ended with Hezbollah controlling the capital city and eventually led to the Doha agreement that gave Hezbollah the right of veto in a cabinet led by Saad Hariri, which left the Sunni political establishment completely fractured.
The installation of Saad Hariri as prime minister in a unity government in 2009 was part of Hezbollah’s attempt to absorb the emerging Sunni resentment.
However, after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up by the United Nations to investigate Hariri’s assassination officially charged in 2011 four of Hezbollah’s top commanders with the assassination, things changed considerably. Hezbollah reacted by toppling Saad Hariri’s cabinet, and forming a pro-Hezbollah government headed by a pro-Syrian figure, Hariri’s Sunni rival Najib Mikati. Saad Hariri left the country in the aftermath. The moderate leadership that had enjoyed prominent Sunni support was ousted from political power. In the absence of the mediating figure of Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s departure marked a milestone for the development of excessive antipathy by the Sunni community toward the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah. It also left the floor open to Sunni extremist groups that had been sidelined from the political scene during the days of Rafiq Al Hariri.
However, Hezbollah’s actions toward the Lebanese Sunni political elite did not lead to massive religious radicalization of the Sunni community. Instead, popular resentment was channeled through political rejection.
Local Salafists and Sunni Radicals
Radical groups such as Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Al Assir’s movement in Sidon used the actions of Hezbollah as the basis for their ideological and political message. In addition, they called for a Sunni weapons acquisition to match the strength of Hezbollah and counter its dominion.
The Salafist movement leadership in Tripoli also followed a similar path. However, neither managed to attract the majority of Lebanese Sunnis. No matter how much they tried to amplify their size, these radical groups did not succeed in mobilizing the Lebanese Sunni community to rally behind them.
Instead, Sunnis mostly backed the government in its fight against those radicals. Lacking crucial popular buy-in, many nascent radical movements were dismantled after clashing with the Lebanese Army in Abra in south Lebanon and in Tripoli. Sheikh Al Assir was declared a wanted fugitive and several radical Islamist militants were captured and put in jail.
As a result, local Salafists and Sunni radicals failed to replace the moderate Sunni leadership in Lebanon or to gain nationwide popular support.
But with no clear alternative to Rafiq Al Hariri, the Sunni community has been experiencing a significant power vacuum.
Even though the country has a cabinet headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, the latter does not enjoy the kind of extended popular support that is essential for any political elite to be effective on the decision-making level. This is impacting the Sunnis directly because in the Lebanese government system, the highest Sunni post within the administration is that of the prime minister.
Lebanon today faces multiple challenges, the most acute being the spillover from the Syrian conflict. The country is suffering from the excessive numbers of Syrian refugees arriving to Lebanon and from Hezbollah’s continued involvement in the Syrian conflict, which has heightened Shiite-Sunni tension. But the Lebanese government has been hesitant in dealing with the crisis.
Rafiq Hariri had been Lebanon’s primary interlocutor with the international community. In urgent crises like this, the former prime minister had rigorous ties in the decision-making capitals of the world, allowing him to mobilize and generate international donor support for Lebanese institutions and constituencies. In his absence, Lebanon lacks the needed international connections to generate support for the Lebanese government. Moreover, the impoverished Sunni communities in rural areas that depend on donor aid are more prominently affected by his absence now when they need aid most, as their areas are the main hosts of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The absence of Hariri’s calming effect on relations between Lebanon’s different sects is also deeply felt.
Addressing Sunni resentment and alienation across the region cannot be done in the absence of moderate Sunni leaders. In Lebanon, such a leadership has been missing since the absence of the late prime minister, making the Sunni community in Lebanon vulnerable within the Lebanese political equation.