May 16, 2012
TRIPOLI, Lebanon — A small but increasingly vocal number of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims are backing Islamist leaders’ calls for regime change in neighboring Syria and voicing their fierce discontent with their own government, a sign that the sectarianism splitting Syria may be deepening Lebanon’s longstanding divides.
Rallying in the central square of this northern city, hundreds of men, many of them followers of the Salafi branch of Sunni Islam, have spent more than two weeks protesting the detention without charge of dozens of Sunnis in Lebanon and calling for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
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.