Lebanon's new wild card: Shaker
al-Barjawi By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - The handwriting had been on the
wall for weeks, signaling that Lebanon might
explode - at any minute.
The reason was
Syria. For more than a year, battlelines have been
clearly drawn between pro-Bashar al-Assad and
anti-Assad politicians in Lebanon, with the March
14 Alliance desperate to see regime change in
Syria, and Hezbollah and its allies willing to
fight until curtain-fall with Syrian officialdom.
On Arabic satellite talk shows, members of
the two camps had blasted at each other for
months, once even getting into a fist-fight live
Last week, pro-Syrian regime and
anti-Syrian regime factions
clashed with arms in the
northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, prompting
Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to
advise their citizens from traveling to Lebanon,
and calling on those already in the country to
On Sunday, Sheikh Ahmad Abdul
Wahed, a prominent Sunni cleric affiliated with
ex-prime minister Saad al-Hariri, was shot dead at
a checkpoint in Akkar in northern Lebanon, along
with his bodyguard, when his car reportedly failed
to stop at a military checkpoint.
cleric was heading to the city of Halba to
participate in a sit-in against the Syrian regime,
staged by Hariri's Future Movement.
nightfall, angry young men were burning tires in
protest, cutting off main roads including the main
road leading to the Syrian capital Damascus.
Similar scenes were repeated in the Eastern Bekka
Valley, Akkar and in Beirut itself.
more people were killed and another 18 wounded.
Gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and live
ammunition in the mainly Sunni district of Tarik
al-Jadideh. The fighting was between Hariri
loyalists and the pro-Syria Arab Movement Party,
headed by Shaker al-Barjawi, whom March 14 accuses
of being a proxy for Hezbollah and the Syrians.
Whoever ordered the murder - if the attack
was indeed staged and not an accident - knew
perfectly well that it would have a dramatic
impact on the country's already boiling sectarian
Lebanese Sunnis are frustrated,
to say the least, by a Sunni prime minister, Najib
Mikati, who many believe can no longer deliver,
thanks to the Tripoli and Akkar disturbances.
Members of the Hariri team accuse of him
of being a pawn in the hands of Hezbollah.
Although Mikati has pledged neutrality in the
Syrian crisis, many believe that if one scratches
beneath the surface, he remains pro-Syria, which
adds to the already tense relationship between him
and his predecessor, Saad al-Hariri.
of that is fairly clear, and follows a constant
theme in Lebanese politics, between pro-Syria and
anti-Syria politicians, which has been the talk of
the town since 2005.
Nothing unusual or
strange about that, and if one traces Lebanese
events in recent years, such clashes are
occasional and do not snowball into another civil
war - if they are not fanned by outside parties
from both camps.
The wild card in the
complex Lebanese scene, however, is Shaker
al-Barjawi, a veteran of the Lebanese civil war
(1975-1990) who seemingly emerged out of nowhere
and is now on everybody's radar.
all the credentials needed to lead a Sunni militia
that could serve as Hezbollah's proxy in Lebanese
domestics. Little is known about Berjawi beyond
the narrow web of Beiruti politics, apart from the
fact that he is a staunch supporter of the Syrian
regime. His Arab Movement Party is by no means a
political heavyweight, certainly no match to
established parties like the Phalange of Amin
Gemayel, the Marada of Suleiman Franjiyeh or
Hariri's Future Bloc.
How then did it rise
out of nowhere to take the streets of Beirut,
reminding the Lebanese of a haunting scene back in
May 2008, when Hezbollah and Hariri's loyalists
clashed in Beirut?
Then, Hezbollah took
the Lebanese capital in a matter of hours,
disarming Hariri's men and igniting public outrage
from Lebanese Sunnis. Their declared aim was
sabotaging an attempt by then-prime minister Fouad
al-Siniora at damaging its telecommunications
network at Beirut Airport.
because of that incident, and the outrage and fear
that it triggered among Lebanese Sunnis, Shi'ite
Hezbollah might have reasoned that it was better
to create a Sunni proxy to do the job for it,
should similar disturbances arise in the future.
Barjawi's moment of glory arose last weekend,
after the Abdul Wahed killing and the trouble in
Who is Shaker al-Barjawi? Shaker al-Barjawi, aged 51, grew up under the
influence of his father, a customs official who
was one of the founders of the Lebanese branch of
the Ba'ath Party, which was established in Syria
At one point, he was loyal to the
Iraqi branch of the Ba'ath, and according to the
Doha-based al-Jazeera TV, fought alongside the
Iraqi army briefly during its eight year war with
Iran in the 1980s.
Then, there was nothing
but bad blood between him and Damascus, due to
historic rivalries between the Syrian and Iraqi
Ba'ath. His nom du guerre was Abu Baker
(named after the first caliph of Islam who
succeeded Prophet Mohammad in 631) - a historical
figure who is loathed by Muslim Shi'ites and the
mullahs of Tehran.
After the Israeli
invasion of Beirut in 1982, al-Bajrawi parted ways
with the Iraqi Ba'ath after Saddam Hussein began
building bridges with then-Lebanese president Amin
He briefly affiliated himself
with a Lebanese Muslim cleric named Abdu Hafiz
Qasem, famed for his inflammatory speeches against
Gemayel at the mosques of Tarik al-Jadideh.
He found common ground with the Syrians
when they began working against Gemayel's
short-lived peace treaty with Israel, befriending
Amal Movement's Nabih Berri (the current speaker
of parliament) and Walid Jumblatt (who was
pro-Syria until 2005).
Berri and Gemayel
tried to prop him up as a local Sunni chieftain in
Beirut, hoping that he would replace then-leader
Ibrahim Quleilat, who was close to Palestinian
Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat.
Barjawi cuddled up to Arafat, which
strained his relations with Damascus and Amal,
traveling to Tunis to meet the Palestinian leader
in 1991. After which, according to al-Jazeera, he
was arrested and jailed in Syria, only to be
released by Jumblatt and then-Lebanese defense
minister Muhsen Daloul, who lobbied on his behalf
with Syrian officials.
Thanks to Syria's
paramount influence in Lebanon in the 1990s,
Barjawi mended his relations with Damascus,
setting up the Arab Movement Party to softly
challenge the policies of then-prime minister
During this time, he
established close ties with Hezbollah, despite his
previous rivalries with Iran and strong Sunni
Speaking to Lebanon's Assafir
newspaper in 2008, Barjawi admitted all his
political acrobats, saying that they were due to a
"lack of proper judgment", claiming that his prime
objective was "defending Beirut and its
He denies that he is on the
payroll of Hezbollah. Although Hezbollah has been
remarkably silent about the recent developments,
Barjawi has been very vocal, saying that Hariri's
Future Movement had opened a Pandora's box,
"especially after it killed two members of the
Arab Movement in cold blood" [during Monday's
He added that "a hundred
thousand bullets were shot within hours and
four-wheel vehicles came [from Saad al-Hariri's
residence in downtown Beirut] carrying
Future Bloc member of
parliament Ahmad Fatfat, an ally of Hariri, denied
the charges, claiming the Hariri's team "was not
part of any security clashes".
version of the story was the following: "There was
an attempt to control the streets by Barjawi. The
residents of Tarik al-Jadideh surrounded Barjawi's
office and defended themselves until 3 am.
Hezbollah intervened militarily to save Barjawi
and the members who were with him."
called on Prime Minister Mikati and Defense
Minister Fayez Ghosn to resign after the latest
We don't know for sure who
killed Sheikh Abdul Wahed. Was it purely an
accident, as the Lebanese army is saying? Or was
it planned and orchestrated by pro-Syria Lebanese
figures, as March 14 is saying?
What we do
know, however, is that a new chapter has been
opened in Lebanese politics - which perhaps will
outlive the Syrian uprising itself - and the man
to watch will be Shaker al-Barjawi.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian
university professor, historian, and
editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.
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