PM designation splits Sunni camp in Lebanon
Fri, Jan 28, 2011

By Natacha Yazbeck

TRIPOLI, Lebanon - Hezbollah-backed Najib Mikati's appointment as Lebanon's premier-designate has split the country's Sunni Muslims, who for years had stood seemingly united in a deeply divided country.

In the Sunni bastion of Tripoli on Lebanon's northern coast, a rift is emerging in a community that once rallied behind US- and Saudi-backed Saad Hariri, the outgoing premier.

"Everyone has been saying for so long that Iran and Syria would try to split the Sunnis of Lebanon, and that they would do it through Hezbollah," said Marwan Ibrahim, a jeweller who was born and raised in the densely populated city.

"And now it's done - brother has turned against brother."

Hezbollah tapped Mikati, a billionaire businessman, as their candidate for prime minister after the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite party which toppled Hariri's cabinet earlier this month.

The militant party and its allies pulled 11 ministers from Hariri's pro-Western government on January 12, capping a long-running feud over a UN court investigating the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father.

The Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to implicate Hezbollah operatives in the Hariri murder.

Mikati this week was delegated to form a new government, prompting cries of "traitor" from Hariri's camp which views his appointment as Shiite interference - with Syria and Iran's blessing - in a post reserved for Sunni Muslims.

"By nominating Mikati, Hezbollah managed to divide the Sunnis. This time, it is not Sunnis against Shiites, it is Sunnis against Sunnis," said Nasser al-Ahdab, an unemployed 23-year-old.

"I hope that the gap will not widen," he added. "But in all honesty, people do not follow ideology. They follow money. And Mikati has a lot."

In his hometown of Tripoli, Mikati enjoys a reputation as a philanthropist whose mosques and free clinics have proved a godsend in a city long neglected by the state.

Outside the Mikati-funded Al-Azam mosque, Hussein Hamoud, a fervent Hariri supporter, admits he has "nothing personal" against Hariri's newfound rival.

"Look, he's a good person and has done good for our city. But his nomination by Hezbollah is something we can never accept," the 40-year-old said.

"In May 2008, they massacred the Sunnis in the streets of Beirut," he added, referring to a week of deadly Sunni-Shiite clashes that left some 100 dead.

"We will never forget that and we will continue our protests until the new cabinet falls."

But some have received the appointment of Mikati - a Forbes-listed telecoms billionaire, former premier and current MP - as a welcome change.

"Six years ago, they killed one of us, they killed Rafiq Hariri," said Fawaz Hamzeh. "In 2005, we put our differences aside and supported Hariri's rise to prime minister when they won an election.

"Now it's their turn to accept ours."

Seated under a framed picture of Mikati in his cigarette and coffee kiosk, Hamzeh and his friends say that for decades, Tripoli - Lebanon's second largest city after Beirut - has been invisible to Sunni leaders in power. "We have always asked ourselves what Hariri has done for us," Hamzeh said, to nods of agreement.

"This is Lebanon, and we are not a country under dictatorship. It's time to change this Hariri dynasty that has been ruling since the end of the war," added the 60-year-old.

"Rafiq Hariri passed on his millions, but not the sole leadership of the Sunnis, to his son."

Tripoli was the site of angry protests this week, when frenzied Hariri supporters rallied in a "day of rage" over Mikati's appointment, torching an Al-Jazeera van and ransacking the offices of a lawmaker who had backed him.

While life in the city has returned to normal, in his tiny jewellery shop Marwan Ibrahim fears it is only a matter of time before his fellow Sunnis take to the streets again.

"We are too often governed by our emotions," said the 40-year-old. "But the Shiites are disciplined, trained. Every step they take is calculated and thought out.

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