Those who attended Sheihk Ahmad Abdel Wahed’s funeral were angry. The Lebanese Army shot the vocal critic of the Syrian regime Sunday at a checkpoint in the northern district of Akkar, sparking tire burning and road closures there as well as in Tripoli, Beirut and the Bekaa Valley. Demonstrations in the capital escalated into gun and rocket-propelled grenade battles that left two dead.
Haitham, an activist from Wadi Khaled who has been helping Syrian refugees, told NOW Lebanon via telephone from Bireh – Wahed’s village where the funeral was held Monday – that “there’s tension in the area, people are angry.”
Echoing many politicians from the March 14 coalition (mostly from the Future Movement), Haitham, who refused to give his last name out of safety concerns, said, “People here are convinced that [Wahed’s death] was deliberate, to drag the area into chaos and conflict because of the role it is playing in supporting the Syrian refugees and activists.” The Akkar region has also reportedly housed members of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
There are conflicting reports about what, exactly, happened Sunday morning. The National News Agency initially reported that Wahed was part of an “armed convoy” that came under fire after refusing to stop at a checkpoint. By Monday morning, many local news outlets were reporting that the car Wahed was in stopped at the checkpoint. The cleric refused to exit the vehicle and reportedly turned the car around to go back the way he came when at least one member of the army opened fire, killing him and a bodyguard.
The army has not released an official account of the story, but it did lament the “tragic incident.” Al-Liwaa newspaper reported on Monday that “that Government Commissioner to the Military Court Judge Saqr Saqr ordered the arrest of three officers and 19 soldiers” over the deaths.
In Beirut, angry Sunnis blocked roads in and around the Tariq al-Jedideh neighborhood with burning tires and dumpsters. Unlike outpourings of anger in other parts of the country, however, the protests turned violent.
Residents of Tariq al-Jedideh blamed the start of the fighting on Shaker Berjawi, a Hezbollah ally whose Arab Movement Party had an office in the neighborhood. For his part, Berjawi told local press outlets that supporters of the Future Movement began the violence.
Gun and rocket-propelled grenade battles began around 8 p.m., many residents said, and continued until approximately 3 a.m. when Berjawi fled. His party’s first-floor office facing the Arab University in Tariq al-Jedideh was destroyed as was an apartment on the same floor housing six students.
“My laptop, my senior project, my clothes, even my [blanket]” are gone, Ayman al-Kadiri, one of the students, told NOW in the lobby of the seriously damaged building. “I’m homeless.”
Several people NOW spoke with in the neighborhood said that with Berjawi gone, the chances of violence recurring are nearly zero. However, one university student who lives in the neighborhood, who refused to give his name, said that if Berjawi comes back “people will kill him.”
Wahed’s death did not, however, lead to a renewal of street fighting between Tripoli’s Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh neighborhoods. The respectively Alawite and Sunni districts – which have a long history of discord – have been intermittently shooting at each other since the May 12 arrest of Islamist activist Shadi Mawlawi.
Anti-Syrian regime activists in Lebanon allege that Mawlawi, accused of ties to an as-yet-unnamed terrorist group, was also targeted because of his criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A Sunni militant from Bab al-Tebbaneh told NOW that, after a brief exchange of fire on Sunday evening, “it stopped, and suddenly there was calm. People are afraid, there’s no one in the streets. It seems like there’s a decision to calm the situation down, and this decision is never ours, it’s the politician’s decision. But we are still on alert; it can break out in an instant, just like it did the other week.”
Future Movement politicians called for Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign and accused him of colluding with Syria to Lebanon’s detriment. Former Future MP Mustafa Allouch, who hails from Tripoli, told NOW Lebanon, “To me [Mikati] is a collaborator with the Syrian regime and part of a plot to drag North Lebanon into chaos. He knows what is happening and he keeps silent,” Allouch said.
He called Wahed’s death an “assassination” and warned of an escalation.
“This was not a simple accident. No democratic country in this world can accept that the armed forces kill someone in the street without provocation. He was religious man, and that, in Lebanon, is very important,” Allouch said. “I am not sure that things will be quiet. I think that what is happening now will not stop here. As long as the state institutions will not change, there will always be an incident triggering violence.”
Many, including Future Movement leader Saad Hariri – who has not been in Lebanon since April 2011 – called for calm and warned Sunnis not to fall into a Syrian “trap.”
As NOW was going to press, protesters were once again blocking roads with burning tires in the Bekaa and the North while demonstrators remained camped out in Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square. Angered by Wahed’s death, people in the square were also demanding the release of Islamists arrested since 2007 – many of whom have still not been tried in court. The protesters took up Mawlawi’s cause following his May 12 arrest, and they are awaiting an expected verdict in his trial, scheduled for Tuesday.
On Monday, Mohammad – who is camped out and refused to give his last name – said the demonstrators in Al-Nour Square will follow the advice of local sheikhs but anticipating a decision in Mawlawi’s case.
“We are waiting to see what will happen tomorrow,” he said.