It all started when soldiers at an army checkpoint in east Saida stopped one Ahmad al-Assir’s supporters, Sheikh Assem al-Arifi, after discovering that his car papers were forged.
Arifi’s driver refused to abide by the army’s orders and fled to Assir’s mosque nearby. In what may have been an attempt to test the readiness of his supporters, Assir fired off text messages and posts on his Facebook page claiming that the army was preparing to assault the mosque.
Despite the small number of people who took to the streets, the incident nevertheless rattled the uneasy peace prevalent in a number of cities, particularly in Saida and Tripoli, where Assir’s supporters and allies tend to be concentrated.
According to army sources, several hundred young men responded to Assir’s call, blocking roads in Saida, Beirut, and Tripoli for a short period of time before being reopened by security forces.
Army sources in Saida maintained that they “had no intention of entering the mosque, and would not do so under any circumstance.” They had merely asked the mosque’s guards to hand over Arifi, who they explained had counterfeit papers and refused to abide by the army’s orders.
Earlier in the day, Assir – who had previously avoided a direct confrontation with the armed forces – called his supporters and their family members to the mosque and declared that it was time to break the army’s siege.
It is worth noting that the army had begun to implement a security plan at noon the same day, which included establishing permanent checkpoints around the mosque to search all vehicles exiting and entering the area under Assir’s control.
In the northern city of Tripoli, the response to Assir’s call was surprisingly fast as Salafis and groups of armed men descended on Nour Square, threatening to declare jihad against the army if Assir’s mosque was breached.
Notably, the protesters ripped down pictures of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz and replaced them with al-Qaeda banners.
In Beirut, protesters blocked two main roads around the Tariq al-Jadida area. Smaller groups of demonstrators also tried to block main arteries in Akkar near Tripoli, in Nahmeh south of Beirut, and in the Bekaa in the east of the country.
It is clear that Assir is ratcheting up the pressure on the army as it tightens security measures around his mosque by resorting to panicked text and Internet messages, one of which called on Muslims around the world to picket Lebanese embassies in their respective countries.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.