Fearful Lebanese Sunnis drawn to hard-line leaders

Posted: July 6, 2013 at 4:30 p.m.

BEIRUT — Lebanese pop idol Fadel Shaker shot to stardom crooning ballads that earned him the nickname "The King of Romance." He disappeared as a bearded, gun-toting Sunni hard-liner in a shootout with the army in the coastal city of Sidon.

Shaker's transformation from entertainer to militant extremist spotlights a broader phenomenon in Lebanon: the drift of its Sunni Muslim community away from its traditional moderate leadership to — in some cases — hard-line, sectarian preachers.

The drift is rooted in part in a years-long leadership vacuum among Lebanese Sunnis that has seen the community's fortunes fall as those of rival Shiites have risen on the back of their powerful Hezbollah group. That shift has fuelled sectarian tensions that have only worsened with the civil war in neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's regime to crush a rebellion dominated by Syria's Sunni majority.

Now, in perhaps an ominous development for Lebanon, some Sunnis are voicing fears that the Lebanese army, considered the country's most independent institution, is quietly aligning itself with Hezbollah — a charge the military denies.

"There's a general mood of anger and oppression among Sunnis in Lebanon of being lorded over by Hezbollah," said Mohamad Chatah, a former advisor to slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose 2005 assassination robbed the Sunni community of its most powerful and charismatic leader.

With many Sunnis feeling that traditional politicians aren't moving to check the rising power of the heavily armed Shiite party, militant Sunni extremists are filling the void, Chatah said.