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.
There are no polls to demonstrate the phenomenon, and observers disagree about its extent. But few deny the trend exists, or that it's grown stronger since Hezbollah openly joined the war in Syria.
"What you are seeing is the flames of the ... Syrian crisis really beginning to devour the fragile Lebanese society," said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
Some of that frustration bubbled to the surface last week in Sidon, where army troops fought supporters of radical Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir. Shiite Hezbollah supporters briefly joined in the fighting, in the first serious sectarian clashes in the city in years. The army says the battle began when al-Assir followers attacked a military checkpoint. Eighteen soldiers and 20 al-Assir supporters were killed.
In the aftermath, al-Assir, a lanky cleric with a full beard and wire-rimmed glasses, disappeared along with his most famous disciple — Shaker. Al-Assir, now a fugitive, released an audio recording Thursday in which he accused the army of conspiring with Hezbollah against him, confirming that he's alive without revealing his whereabouts.
The 44-year-old Shaker was perfect pop idol material: a pouty-lipped, gifted singer with lyrics that made lovers swoon and people dance. He became a star throughout the Arab world with the 2002 smash hit "The Absent One," incessantly blared from radios and at weddings across the region.
"Oh absent one, why don't you ask about the people who love you? Those who can't sleep because they miss your eyes?" Shaker sings. "You go far from me and forget me. I need you here to care for me. Make me forget my pain and sadness."
He shocked fans about a year ago by turning up next to al-Assir at an anti-Hezbollah demonstration. Shaker later explained that he was giving up singing to become closer to God.
His last public appearance came in a video uploaded to YouTube on June 24, the second day of street fighting in Sidon.
"We have two rotting corpses that we snatched from you yesterday, you dogs, you pigs," Shaker says in the clip, apparently referring to two slain soldiers. He appears disoriented, his greying hair and beard unkempt.
Shaker, whose real name is Fadel Abdul-Rahman Shamandar, grew up in a conservative working class Sunni family in Sidon.
In a televised interview in March 2012, Shaker described himself as a believer, but credited al-Assir's sermons for turning him into a devout man. He likely first met al-Assir through the singer's brother, who was an aide to the cleric. His brother, Abu Abed Shamandar, was killed in the Sidon clashes.
After meeting al-Assir, "I felt like art was a big lie," Shaker said. "God guided me, and God willing, I want to continue this path."
Al-Assir preached in Sidon for two decades, respected for encouraging devotion. The cleric's mother is Shiite, and in earlier years, he used to appeal to Lebanon's sects to live in harmony. But his audiences began to swell after the 2005 Hariri assassination, residents said.
The killing caused the first serious cracks in Sunni-Shiite relations as international investigators said they suspected Syrian and Hezbollah involvement in the slaying.
The group denies the charges, but Sunni grievances — and suspicions — were further fanned with a string of assassinations targeting Lebanese officials loyal to a pro-Western bloc dominated by Sunni politicians. Many Sunnis' grew more resentful after a Hezbollah-dominated parliament and government frequently quashed their demands. Sunni professionals complained that Shiites were being favored for sought-after civil service and army posts.
Shiites are Lebanon's largest sect, forming around one-third of the country's 4.5 million citizens, trailed by Sunnis, Christians and followers of the Druse sect.
A 1990 power-sharing agreement based on sectarian representation ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war but left Shiites politically underrepresented. They clawed back influence through Hezbollah, which rose to prominence fighting Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, and has an arsenal more powerful than the Lebanese army.
Lebanese Sunnis range from secular to ultraconservative, but they typically anoint secular leaders from mercantile families.
Following Hariri's assassination, many Sunnis expected his son, Saad, to take over. The younger Hariri became prime minister in 2009, but was pushed from the post less than two years later, and left for self-imposed exile, citing security concerns. Other Sunni politicians lack the charisma or allegiances to advance their community's interests.
Sunni preachers have stepped into this vacuum, using mosques and television shows to draw audiences, said retired general Nizar Abdel Kader, who follows Sunni groups.
Al-Assir was among the most successful, partly because of his celebrity follower, Shaker, and his inflammatory rhetoric condemning Hezbollah for fighting alongside Syrian government troops and taking jabs at the group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, a revered figure once considered untouchable.
Syria's civil war has taken on growing sectarian overtones: Sunnis dominate rebel ranks, and their brethren from across the region — including Lebanon — bolster their numbers.
The Assad regime, meanwhile, is dominated by the president's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The government is an ally of the region's Shiite power, Iran, and Hezbollah fighters assist regime forces.
The war has stoked tensions in Lebanon, which shares the same mosaic of sects as its larger neighbor.
Clashes frequently break out in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawites, while in the eastern Bekaa Valley fighting occasionally erupts between Sunnis and Shiites.
With tensions roiling Lebanon, al-Assir told followers in December that Sunnis were victims who had to fight Shiites if they wanted to survive. He vowed that Hezbollah would be defeated, saying Nasrallah would be "in history's dustbin, or... humiliated and defeated, or in prison."
Many of al-Assir's followers aren't devout, rather young men seeking a leader expressing their frustrations, said Ali Arkahdan, Sidon resident and editor of a local news website.
Now, al-Assir is on the run, and many Sunnis are calling on the government to stop pursuing him.
"There's a lot of hatred that has been created," Arkahdan said, "and nobody knows what is going to happen."
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