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Can Lebanon's Future Movement provide a moderate Sunni alternative?

Can Lebanon's Future Movement provide a moderate Sunni alternative?

At a forum held at the Parliament of New South Wales last Tuesday evening, the General Secretary of Lebanon's Future Movement party, Ahmad Hariri, forcefully condemned terrorism in the name of Islam. Flanked by pictures of two former Lebanese prime ministers, the slain Rafik Hariri and his son Saad, the leader of Lebanon's largest Sunni political party called for a secular and unified Lebanon and for the need to prevent alienation and radicalisation of Sunni communities.

A March 14 Alliance rally in Lebanon, 2011.

These noble calls were met with nods of approval at the Sydney forum, hosted by the NSW branch of the Future Movement, but may be falling on deaf ears among the Future Movement's Sunni constituents at home. The uncomfortable truth is that the Future Movement itself has largely failed its responsibility to prevent alienation of young Sunnis in Lebanon.

Hariri listed the forces of instability in the Middle East in order as: the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli occupation of Palestine; Iran's expanding sphere of influence; and ethnic extremism and terror in the name of Islam. On the third point, Hariri spoke of the inability to combat ISIS through purely military means and the need to prevent 'alienation' of Sunni communities more broadly. Critically, he spoke of the role of the Future Movement as a force of moderation in the promotion of a 'secular' and 'unified Lebanon'.

Lebanon, with it's combustible sectarian mix and confessional system of government, is in a precarious position vis-a-vis the Syrian civil war. The involvement of militias from Lebanon — in the form of Shiite Hezbollah fighters backed by Iran on behalf of the Syrian Government, and Sunni Islamists aligned with Syrian rebel forces opposed to the Syrian Government's rule — has aggravated Lebanon's own precarious Sunni-Shia divide.

The expansion of a regional proxy war played out in the Lebanese arena is a real threat. [fold]

The Lebanese Armed Forces are an important symbol of unity in a country politically split between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its March 8 Alliance (which includes a number of Christian parties), and the Saudi-backed predominantly Sunni Future Movement and its broader March 14 coalition.

Recently the Army has stepped up its operations (and the amount of aid it receives from Western sponsors) against ISIS and other radical Islamists groups. But it faces a growing backlash from within Lebanon itself, where many Sunni Muslims, particularly in northern Lebanon, are hostile towards the Armed Forces. Largely opposed to Assad, Lebanon's Sunni are resentful of the apparent impunity with which Hezbollah has been allowed to conduct operations against their brethren in Syria. That hostility is manifested in attacks against the Lebanese military, kidnappings and a growing number of Sunni Lebanese joining radical groups. Sunni Muslims in northern Tripoli have expressed the belief that the Army is targeting Sunnis and colluding with their enemy, Hezbollah. In Lebanon's predominantly Sunni northern Tripoli, high unemployment, poor living conditions and lower standards of education have further fueled grievances.

The Future Movement and the March 14 coalition spearheaded the Cedar Revolution in 2005 that saw a broad spectrum of Lebanese society come together in the name of unity and state sovereignty following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (Ahmad Hariri's uncle). The Revolution forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. Five members of Hezbollah have been indicted over the assassination by an international tribunal in The Hague.

But more recently the Future Movement has consistently failed to champion the economic and political interests of the Sunni community. The current president of the party, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, doesn't even live in Lebanon and splits his time between France and Saudi Arabia as the head of the business empire he inherited from his father. He made his first visit to Lebanon in four years in August 2014.

The situation has created a leadership vacuum in the Sunni community, allowing space for more radical leaders to expand their influence and tap into broader Sunni discontent.

It's fair to say that the majority of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims don't subscribe to ISIS and al-Nusra's radical doctrines; the presence of radical groups has even united the rival factions to set aside their domestic disputes in the face of a common enemy, and a national dialogue between the March 8 and March 14 camps has made progress.

But at a time when Sunni identity is increasingly linked to an existential battle against their Shiite adversaries, secularism rings hollow, especially when backed up by poverty and neglect. The Future Movement and the Sunni leadership need to tap into and reverse Sunni grievance, and provide a moderate religious counter-narrative in response to the more successful recruitment campaigns of ISIS and al-Nusra. It must regain the trust and respect of Sunni Lebanon and restore it's position as the champion of Sunni Islam. It can do this by promoting its moderate Islamic credentials while offering economic and financial support to its main constituents in northern Lebanon.

Shouting the language of moderation goes only so far; Sunni Muslims must be given a reason to listen, political representation and political agency to prove they are united against terror.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gehad Hadidi.

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