Foreign media portrayals of the conflict in Syria are dangerously inaccurate
World View: It is naive not to accept that both sides are capable of manipulating the facts to serve their own interests
Sunday 30 June 2013
Every time I come to Syria I am struck by how different the situation is on the ground from the way it is pictured in the outside world. The foreign media reporting of the Syrian conflict is surely as inaccurate and misleading as anything we have seen since the start of the First World War. I can't think of any other war or crisis I have covered in which propagandistic, biased or second-hand sources have been so readily accepted by journalists as providers of objective facts.
A result of these distortions is that politicians and casual newspaper or television viewers alike have never had a clear idea over the last two years of what is happening inside Syria. Worse, long-term plans are based on these misconceptions. A report on Syria published last week by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says that "once confident of swift victory, the opposition's foreign allies shifted to a paradigm dangerously divorced from reality".
Slogans replace policies: the rebels are pictured as white hats and the government supporters as black hats; given more weapons, the opposition can supposedly win a decisive victory; put under enough military pressure, President Bashar al-Assad will agree to negotiations for which a pre-condition is capitulation by his side in the conflict. One of the many drawbacks of the demonising rhetoric indulged in by the incoming US National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and William Hague, is that it rules out serious negotiations and compromise with the powers-that-be in Damascus. And since Assad controls most of Syria, Rice and Hague have devised a recipe for endless war while pretending humanitarian concern for the Syrian people.
It is difficult to prove the truth or falsehood of any generalisation about Syria. But, going by my experience this month travelling in central Syria between Damascus, Homs and the Mediterranean coast, it is possible to show how far media reports differ markedly what is really happening. Only by understanding and dealing with the actual balance of forces on the ground can any progress be made towards a cessation of violence.
On Tuesday I travelled to Tal Kalakh, a town of 55,000 people just north of the border with Lebanon, which was once an opposition bastion. Three days previously, government troops had taken over the town and 39 Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders had laid down their weapons. Talking to Syrian army commanders, an FSA defector and local people, it was evident there was no straight switch from war to peace. It was rather that there had been a series of truces and ceasefires arranged by leading citizens of Tal Kalakh over the previous year.
But at the very time I was in the town, Al Jazeera Arabic was reporting fighting there between the Syrian army and the opposition. Smoke was supposedly rising from Tal Kalakh as the rebels fought to defend their stronghold. Fortunately, this appears to have been fantasy and, during the several hours I was in the town, there was no shooting, no sign that fighting had taken place and no smoke.
Of course, all sides in a war pretend that no position is lost without a heroic defence against overwhelming numbers of the enemy. But obscured in the media's accounts of what happened in Tal Kalakh was an important point: the opposition in Syria is fluid in its allegiances. The US, Britain and the so-called 11-member "Friends of Syria", who met in Doha last weekend, are to arm non-Islamic fundamentalist rebels, but there is no great chasm between them and those not linked to al-Qa'ida. One fighter with the al-Qa'ida-affiliated al-Nusra Front was reported to have defected to a more moderate group because he could not do without cigarettes. The fundamentalists pay more and, given the total impoverishment of so many Syrian families, the rebels will always be able to win more recruits. "Money counts for more than ideology," a diplomat in Damascus told me.
While I was in Homs I had an example of why the rebel version of events is so frequently accepted by the foreign media in preference to that of the Syrian government. It may be biased towards the rebels, but often there is no government version of events, leaving a vacuum to be filled by the rebels. For instance, I had asked to go to a military hospital in the al-Waar district of Homs and was granted permission, but when I got there I was refused entrance. Now, soldiers wounded fighting the rebels are likely to be eloquent and convincing advocates for the government side (I had visited a military hospital in Damascus and spoken to injured soldiers there). But the government's obsessive secrecy means that the opposition will always run rings around it when it comes to making a convincing case.
Back in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Damascus, where I am staying, there was an explosion near my hotel on Thursday. I went to the scene and what occurred next shows that there can be no replacement for unbiased eyewitness reporting. State television was claiming that it was a suicide bomb, possibly directed at the Greek Orthodox Church or a Shia hospital that is even closer. Four people had been killed.
I could see a small indentation in the pavement which looked to me very much like the impact of a mortar bomb. There was little blood in the immediate vicinity, though there was about 10 yards away. While I was looking around, a second mortar bomb came down on top of a house, killing a woman.
The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, so often used as a source by foreign journalists, later said that its own investigations showed the explosion to have been from a bomb left in the street. In fact, for once, it was possible to know definitively what had happened, because the Shia hospital has CCTV that showed the mortar bomb in the air just before it landed – outlined for a split-second against the white shirt of a passer-by who was killed by the blast. What had probably happened was part of the usual random shelling by mortars from rebels in the nearby district of Jobar.
In the middle of a ferocious civil war it is self-serving credulity on the part of journalists to assume that either side in the conflict, government or rebel, is not going to concoct or manipulate facts to serve its own interests. Yet much foreign media coverage is based on just such an assumption.
The plan of the CIA and the Friends of Syria to somehow seek an end to the war by increasing the flow of weapons is equally absurd. War will only produce more war. John Milton's sonnet, written during the English civil war in 1648 in praise of the Parliamentary General Sir Thomas Fairfax, who had just stormed Colchester, shows a much deeper understanding of what civil wars are really like than anything said by David Cameron or William Hague. He wrote:
For what can war but endless war still breed?
Till truth and right from violence be freed,
And public faith clear'd from the shameful brand
Of public fraud. In vain doth valour bleed
While avarice and rapine share the land.
A return to Homs: ‘The atmosphere here is poisoned by fear of a kind I have only ever seen once before’
Some 400,000 have fled the centre, held by rebels, and are scattered across the city
PATRICK COCKBURN FRIDAY 28 JUNE 2013
Damascus Old City 'hit by suicide attack'
At least four people killed in explosion in Christian neighbourhood of Bab Touma in Syrian capital, state TV reports.
Last Modified: 27 Jun 2013 20:32
Syria: 60 Shia Muslims massacred in rebel ‘cleansing’ of Hatla
Opposition activists claim attack on Hatla was incited by President Assad’s decision to arm villagers
FERNANDE VAN TETS BEIRUT WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2013
UN: At least 93,000 people killed in Syria
World body confirms death toll and says figure could be much higher with more than 5,000 reported killed each month.
Last Modified: 13 Jun 2013 15:57
Aleppo: Syrian rebels execute teenager Mohammad Kattaa in front of his parents, say reports
ALISTAIR DAWBER MONDAY 10 JUNE 2013
Hezbollah unites clans to raise border force
Patrols intensified and reinforcements deployed along Lebanon-Syria border after anti-Assad rebels ousted from the area.
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US condemns assault on Syrian city of Qusayr
Washington urges pullout of Hezbollah fighters who fought alongside Syrian forces to rout rebels in strategic city.
Last Modified: 06 Jun 2013 12:36
France says tests from Syria show sarin use
Foreign minister says there is "no doubt" that regime and accomplices used nerve agent, without specifying details.
Last Modified: 05 Jun 2013 03:31
Middle East neighbours shamed into helping Syrian refugees
Aid fund increases after Independent on Sunday investigation, but refugees still need food and medical supplies
JAMES CUSICK , DAVID RANDALL SUNDAY 02 JUNE 2013
Safe passage sought for Qusayr civilians
International bodies voice alarm over plight of trapped Syrians, as regime forces launch fresh assault on city.
Last Modified: 02 Jun 2013 12:23
Hezbollah plays its hand in battle for Syria
Lebanon-based militia is assisting villagers caught up in the conflict.
Zak Brophy Last Modified: 20 May 2013 13:41
Thousands gather for rival rallies in Egypt
Pro- and anti-government protesters converge in Cairo on first anniversary of inauguration of Mohamed Morsi.
Gregg Carlstrom Last Modified: 30 Jun 2013 09:38
Cairo - Thousands of opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi have gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace ahead of planned mass protests aimed at forcing the president out of office.
Crowds of pro- and anti-government protesters grew on Sunday in the capital on the first anniversary of the inauguration of country's first democratically elected president.
Thousands of people opposed to President Mohamed Morsi have already rallied in Cairo's Tahrir Square calling for him to resign, while the president's supporters have vowed to defend his legitimacy to the end, leading to fears of confrontation.
Morsi supporters held their own rally outside a Cairo mosque on Friday, an effort to preempt Sunday’s demonstrations, and thousands of them are holding an open-ended sit-in.
The anti-Morsi protests are being organised by a grassroots campaign calling itself Tamarod, meaning "rebellion" or "insubordination", which claims to have collected signatures from 22 million Egyptians demanding the president’s ouster.
The signature drive has no legal standing, but it has nonetheless tapped into widespread public anger towards Morsi. The president has made a number of controversial decisions since taking office, most notably a November decree which shielded his decisions from judicial review.
Egypt's economy is in free-fall: The pound has dropped in value by nearly 20 percent since Morsi took office, foreign investment continues to dry up, and businesses are paralysed by widespread fuel and electricity shortages.
Human rights abuses remain widespread, rights groups say, with Morsi's administration doing little to rein in the notoriously brutal security services.
"We gave him the confidence to give us a new programme, to correct what Mubarak had done to Egypt, but he didn't do that. So we have the right to withdraw the confidence that the Egyptian people gave him," said Eman el-Mahdy, a spokesperson for the Tamarod campaign.
"The same Egyptian people have the same right to withdraw this confidence."
Calls to resign
Morsi’s supporters liken the calls for his ouster to a coup, arguing that the only way to remove him is through new elections. They carried signs at Friday’s rally insisting that the president’s "legitimacy is a red line".
"If we are saying that we have a majority, and the opposition are saying that they have a majority, how can they decide," asked Nader Omran, a spokesman and adviser to the Freedom and Justice Party - the political wing of Muslim Brotherhood.
"What is the other solution for this dilemma, except the ballot box?"
Tamarod campaigners have vowed to continue their protests until Morsi resigns, but it remains to be seen whether they can sustain their momentum after Sunday.
Even if the protests draw large crowds, the calendar might work in Morsi’s favour: Brutally hot Cairo days are hardly conducive to protests, and the dawn-till-dusk Ramadan fast, which begins around July 8, will discourage public demonstrations.
Even if Morsi did step down, which seems unlikely, it remains unclear who could replace him. Campaigners have called for a transitional government that would draft a new constitution and then hold new presidential and parliamentary elections.
Role of the military
The campaign itself has also split over the role of the military, which ruled Egypt for nearly 18 months after Mubarak stepped down. Some organisers have urged the army to step in to provide security, a move interpreted by other activists as a tacit call for a coup against the president.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the defence minister, said in a statement last week that the army has tried to stay out of politics since Morsi’s election, but warned that it has a duty to "prevent Egypt from slipping into a dark tunnel of civil unrest".
There are widespread fears that Sunday’s protest could end in violence. Clashes have spread across governorates outside the capital in recent days, with four Brotherhood supporters having been killed in various attacks on the group’s offices, and two people killed in fighting in Alexandria on Friday, including a US citizen.
Amid the growing unrest, tanks and other military vehicles have started to appear on the streets of Cairo. Still, the period of military rule tarnished the army’s image, and analysts say the generals have little desire to retake power.
"They don’t want to be involved," said Hisham Hellyer, a Cairo-based scholar with the Brookings Institution. "If they’re pushed to be involved, it will be because of violence and social disorder, or the threat of it taking place."
Egyptian grand mufti condemns mob Shia killings
Senior Sunni cleric says that killing is a worse sin in Islam than the destruction of the sacred Kaaba in Mecca
Ahram Online , Monday 24 Jun 2013
Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam strongly condemned the mob killing of four Shia Muslims in a Giza village on Sunday, an incident which has heighted fears of worsening sectarian frictions in Egypt.
Four Egyptian Shias were killed in a mob attack in the village of Zawyat Abu Musalam in Giza on Sunday.
An anti-Shia crowd gathered outside the house where a group of Shia Muslims were meeting. The violence, which included the murder of four Shia residents and the injuring of several others, was captured on video.
"Islam does not recognise such [violent] practices which contradict human nature," Allam said on Monday.
The senior Sunni cleric stressed that bloodshed is highly prohibited in Islam and is deemed more serious a sin than the demolition of the Kaaba, the Muslims' sacred building located in Mecca.
Recent restoration of ties with Shia Iran, and fallout from the Shia-Sunni conflict in Syria, sparked a debate over the potential "spread of Shiism in Egypt" particularly among Islamist groups.
One of those killed was a local Shia leader, Hassan Shehata, officials said.
Allam went on to explain that Islam prohibits the mutilation of the dead body. "Islam mandates treating the body as a living human, prohibiting beating and dragging of corpses."
Allam warned against mounting sectarian friction in Egypt that has "sucked the country into a vortex of violence."
There is no official statistics on the number of Shia Muslims in Egypt, but Shia figures sometimes claim up to a million Egyptian adherents.
Egypt Islamists mass in Cairo as tensions mount
By Haitham El-Tabei (AFP) – Jun 21, 2013
CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Egyptian Islamists gathered in a show of strength Friday ahead of planned opposition protests against President Mohamed Morsi, highlighting tense political divisions in the Arab world's most populous state.
Carrying Egyptian flags and portraits of the president, they packed the large square outside Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in the Nasr City neighbourhood and surrounding avenues.
Islamist groups led by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, had called the rally ahead of planned June 30 protests to demand an early presidential election.
Morsi has been in office for just one year.
Inside the mosque, after prayers worshippers broke into chants of "Morsi is a president for all Egyptians" before joining the crowds outside.
They called the turnout proof that Morsi enjoyed the support of the people.
"We are here in such huge numbers so that the secularists don't think we are a minority... We are capable of protecting legitimacy and sharia (Islamic law)," said Hamida Bakkout, 43.
Many Morsi supporters had been bused to Cairo for the event, AFP reporters said.
Omar Mostafa, 18, who had come from the Nile Delta province of Beheira, said: "This is a message that there are many of us behind the president. We don't care about the mobilisation of the opposition."
Several media crews covering the protest were forced to leave after Morsi supporters pelted them with bottles of water and damaged some of their equipment.
They blamed the media for "trying to bring down the Islamist project", BBC reporter Mahmud Abu Bakr, one of those attacked, told AFP.
Several blocks away from the rally, hundreds of anti-Morsi supporters gathered near the defence ministry, calling on the army to take power.
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, participants in an anti-Morsi march traded insults with his supporters, leading to brief scuffles outside the Qaet Ibrahim mosque, state media reported.
The Islamists accuse the opposition of being remnants of the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and of seeking to sow chaos.
"Democratically elected presidents are never removed through protests," Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad al-Haddad said.
A campaign dubbed Tamarod (rebellion in Arabic) called the June 30 rally to coincide with the first anniversary of Morsi becoming president.
He was elected after a military-led transition that followed Mubarak's ouster in a 2011 popular uprising.
As a senior leader of the Brotherhood, banned but tolerated under Mubarak, Morsi vowed to be a president "to all Egyptians".
But since taking office, he has squared off with the judiciary, media, police and most recently artists, and his opponents accuse him of giving the Islamists a monopoly over public institutions.
Tamarod organisers said they have collected 15 million signatures demanding that Morsi quit, leaving the government jittery and energising the fragmented opposition.
Morsi supporters insist he is cleansing institutions of decades of corruption, and have condemned the June 30 protests as a "coup against democracy".
With bitter political divisions repeatedly spilling onto the streets in violent and sometimes deadly clashes over the past year, the Islamists have accused the opposition of seeking to sow chaos.
A spokesman for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Ahmed Aqil, urged protesters "to embrace peaceful expression of opinion".
"We seek stability in order to rebuild the nation. Violent demonstrations cannot establish a stable regime. Those who say 'President Morsi will be toppled on June 30' live in an illusion they must give up," he said on the FJP website.
US Ambassador Anne Patterson urged protesters to organise rather than take to the streets, provoking fury in opposition quarters.
"Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply sceptical," Patterson said in a speech this week.
"We oppose chaos. Chaos is a breeding ground for instability... I recommend Egyptians get organised. Join or start a political party that reflects your values and aspirations."
In the latest move to roil the opposition, Morsi appointed 17 new provincial governors on Sunday, including seven from the Brotherhood.
He also named as governor of Luxor a member of an Islamist group whose militants massacred 58 foreign tourists there in 1997, prompting the tourism minister to resign in protest.
The appointments led to clashes in several Nile Delta provinces in what some fear is a prelude to more serious confrontations at the end of the month.
Islamist groups have yet to announce whether they will take to the streets on June 30.
The new suffragettes: Courage in Cairo - the Arab women’s awakening
Continuing our week-long celebration of campaigners whose commitment merits comparison to that of the original suffragettes, Catrina Stewart talks to a young Egyptian whose heroism has inspired tens of thousands of supporters across the Middle East and beyond
CATRINA STEWART WEDNESDAY 29 MAY 2013
When Doria Shafiq stormed Egypt’s parliament in 1951 to demand women’s suffrage, she fired the imagination of her countrywomen and was transformed overnight into a national celebrity. More than 60 years later, her story is little known, her tragic tale largely edited out of modern Egyptian history.
Although instrumental in winning women the right to vote in 1956, Shafiq would pay dearly for it. She was placed under house arrest by Gamal Nasser’s regime in 1957 and spent the next 18 years in seclusion. Her writings were banned and her name expunged from the Egyptian press and textbooks. She ended her life in 1975 by plunging to her death from a balcony.
Shafiq was the last of the country’s so-called “exotic heroines”, and her demise closely mirrored that of the women’s rights movement in Egypt. Until, that is, 2011, when the popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, the longtime ruler, ushered in a new generation of women eager to flex their newly-acquired freedoms.
Before the revolution, Sally Zohney was like most young Egyptian women: politically apathetic. Her personal struggles were confined to the home as she attempted to stretch the boundaries taken for granted in Egypt. She hoped for political change, of course, but it took a national uprising to give women like her a voice.
Among Ms Zohney’s first acts during the revolution was to disregard her anxious parents and join the men protesting in Tahrir Square.
“I would get scared a lot and would run a lot,” she says by telephone from Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where she is on religious pilgrimage. “But I didn’t want to be asked 10 years later where I was, and say that I was at home.” As Egyptians focused on the core demands of bread, dignity and justice, Ms Zohney underwent an enormous personal liberation that started with challenging her parents – who later came to support her despite the dangers – and a society that would keep her at home.
But even as women were revelling in their new freedoms – nearly half of the protesters calling for Mubarak’s departure were women – many, including some of the most prominent female activists to emerge from the revolution, argued that those protests were about democracy, and that those who wanted to claim women’s rights should bide their time.
Yet there was a risk that, if excluded from the democracy-building process, women would lose the rights they already had. Ms Zohney says it was precisely the moment to act.
The revolution “was liberating for women who had never questioned their rights before,” she says. “We started to pay attention to these issues: how many women there are in parliament; the articles concerning women in the constitution; women in public life. It had never happened [to our generation] before.”
Remarkable women have emerged from the revolution: Mona Seif, who spread awareness with images from Tahrir; Asmaa Mahfouz, whose video inciting protesters to action is credited by some with starting the revolution; Samira Ibrahim, who went public about virginity tests performed on female detainees.
But few have galvanised women across the Arab world to challenge societal taboos in the way that Ms Zohney has. After the revolution, she helped found Baheya Ya Masr, a women’s advocacy group, and she is one of four organisers behind the uprising of women in the Arab world, a project that started out on Facebook to prevent women being forgotten in the euphoria surrounding the Arab revolts.
With over 100,000 followers, the idea has snowballed into one of the most talked-about social phenomena in the region. Women from across the Arab world post their photographs and stories, challenging the patriarchal nature of their society and speaking out about their experiences of rape and domestic violence.
Support has come from unexpected quarters. A teenage Saudi boy posted: “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because I am 16 years old and, according to the law, I am the guardian of my widowed mother. Revolt, mother! You are strong, you are free!’’
Another post shows a Syrian girl with cropped hair holding out her passport with a picture of her former veiled self, saying: “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body.” The photograph attracted a slew of complaints, prompting Facebook to remove the post, only to reinstate it later.
Yet Ms Zohney is aware how fragile such signs of progress are. Feminists such as Shafiq, or Huda Shaarawi, who famously removed her veil when she alighted from a train in 1923, have been an inspiration for many Egyptian women. But where are their achievements now? “I read their biographies. It’s the same thing. We are back to square one, back to the same demands of the 1920s,” she says.
While the 1950s is seen by some as the heyday for the women’s rights movement in Egypt, it is also true that Suzanne Mubarak, the deposed first lady, secured many important rights for women during the Mubarak era. This feminist legacy is now tainted by her ties to the regime.
One of Mubarak’s achievements, the adoption of a female parliamentary quota in 2009, was repealed by the transitional military rulers within weeks of her husband’s fall, while others, such as the law allowing women to divorce their husbands, are under threat.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists swept parliamentary elections held over six weeks in 2011-2012, and a Brotherhood-backed president was elected, Islamists have achieved an unprecedented say in shaping Egypt. Under the ruling Brotherhood’s watch, activists have noted the adoption of an increasingly strident anti-women tone by hardline preachers and some television channels, while Islamist politicians are accused of selling out women in the new constitution.
In its most revealing move yet, the Brotherhood earlier this year attempted to block a UN declaration on women’s rights, warning that freedoms such as the right to travel and work without a male guardian’s permission, and the right to accuse their husbands of marital rape, would lead to the “complete disintegration of society”.
Vast swathes of Egypt remain deeply conservative, with women denied many of the freedoms taken for granted by Cairo’s liberal elite. Issues such as domestic violence and female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation) remain barely addressed, or are even condoned, while women, even though allowed to vote, rarely exercise that right.
The problem, says Ms Zohney, is “the abuse of the religious discourse. We are conservative by nature [in Egypt] and we tend not to argue when it comes to religion. Where people are illiterate, the imam knows best,” she says, adding that women in underdeveloped communities are particularly susceptible to religious edicts allowing the marriage of a nine-year-old girl or denying a woman the right to inherit. “These are the challenges, because people do not challenge them.”
Instead, she complains, people focus on the superficial issues. “There will never be a law saying you should wear a veil,” she says, pointing out that efforts to put women in their place have so far been emphatically rebuffed. “Saying Egypt will be Afghanistan is just ridiculous.”
“Women [now] know what they want. If the national discourse tells women: ‘You don’t belong in government’, women will challenge that, because they know it comes with a specific interest to eliminate them. The only positive is that, at a ground level, women are more aware of the risks of losing their rights.”
Not all agree. Dalia Ziada, a leading women’s rights campaigner, says that a Brotherhood-led Egypt will ultimately lead, 10 years from now, to a country that is unrecognisable. “They [the Brotherhood] don’t believe women have a role to play except serving the man and working in the house,” she says. “An illiterate woman with no knowledge of religion will be deceived. We will end up being like Pakistan… or something even worse.”
Lebanon's Sunnis search for a saviour
As the Syrian conflict spills over, the Sunni community in Lebanon finds itself lacking leadership.
Nour Samaha Last Modified: 15 Jun 2013 14:31
Tripoli, Lebanon: As this country becomes more embroiled in Syria's conflict, the power struggle to fill the leadership vacuum within the Sunni community is intensifying, further exacerbating violent confrontations.
The past few months have witnessed escalating tensions in several hotspots across the country, primarily in the northern city of Tripoli, the eastern town of Arsal, and the southern city of Sidon.
Two weeks ago, 31 people were left dead and a further 200 wounded in the worst of the violence in the northern city of Tripoli after fighting between the Sunni-dominated neighbourhood of Bab el Tabbaneh and the Alawite-dominated neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen.
Earlier this week, the sense of unease was heightened following the assassination of a resident of Arsal - a Sunni town in the Bekaa Valley considered a gateway between Lebanon and Syria for Syrian rebels and Lebanese supporters of the armed opposition. Officials in the town said the assassination occurred during an ambush led by pro-Hezbollah groups in the area.
On the same day, Arsal also bore the brunt of several rocket attacks by the Syrian air force, in what President Bashar al-Assad's military said was an attempt to root out "terrorists".
Arsal is also where several Lebanese soldiers were killed in two attacks by armed gunmen - who reportedly fled to Syria - while operating a checkpoint on the outskirts of the town.
In Sidon, the emergence of Ahmed al-Assir, a provocative Sunni cleric, has increased tensions in the mixed southern city. Here, violent confrontations have raged between supporters of the preacher, the authorities, and supporters of Lebanon's Shia movement, Hezbollah.
While these clashes and attacks do have links to the civil war currently taking place in neighbouring Syria, the situation on the ground also reveals a multifaceted battle, as new Sunni power centres emerge from the sidelines to fight for the leadership of one of Lebanon's largest minorities.
'No-one represents us'
There has been a clear shift in support from mainstream politicians to either religious figureheads usually found on the fringes of society, or street leaders who can offer physical protection in the absence of the state and its institutions.
"No-one represents us anymore, the politicians now are benefiting from the situation and using us," Tarek al-Zabye, a resident of Tripoli's Bab al Tabbaneh neighbourhood, told Al Jazeera. "Today, I feel like the only people who are protecting me are the Salafists."
Zabye, whose house is located on Syria Street, the frontline of the fierce battles between Bab al Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, pointed out that, while he supports the Salafists, he is not an ideologue.
"I go out, I drink, I'm not a 'Salafist', but I support their actions because I know they're working to protect us from the others."
Speaking from his home in the heart of Abi Samra overlooking the city of Tripoli, Salafist cleric, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, told Al Jazeera the Sunni community was "becoming convinced with our beliefs", hence the increase in support over the past two years.
"The targeting of the Sunnis in Lebanon with the Safawi project is what has led them to this choice," he said, referring to Hezbollah and its ally, Iran.
"We are doing what millions fail to do; we won't accept shame on us, and we tell the Sunnis of Lebanon to join forces to fight the Safawi project," adding that there were elements within Lebanon's security establishment supportive of "the Iranian agenda".
This sentiment has been repeated with increasing frequency by the Salafist cleric and others, accusing the army of working against the Sunnis, especially in the areas of Tripoli, Sidon, and Arsal.
Shahhal, a controversial figure due to his fiery rhetoric against Hezbollah, sees his role being one of the only viable leaders and protectors of the Sunnis in Lebanon.
"[The Sunnis] see the political leaders as weak," he said. "Today, the pulse of the street in Lebanon is with the Salafists."
Tripoli is statistically one of Lebanon's poorest cities, as a UN report in 2012 pointed out, where 51 percent of the population live below the poverty line, on an average of $4 a day.
Many accuse politicians in the area of profiting from the poverty - creating armed groups to serve their own purposes and consolidating power through the violence that sporadically flares.
"They are keeping people poor here so they can control them and create mercenaries to fight their battles on our streets," Rashid al-Rashid, a business owner in the city center, told Al Jazeera.
"One hundred shells wouldn't open the battle [in Tripoli's neighbourhoods] unless there is political will," he said. "What is happening in Tripoli now is extremely dangerous."
While armed groups have seemingly always been present in Tripoli, these groups are said to have increased in size and numbers over the past two years, creating a shift in the balance of power between them and the politicians.
"What you have on the streets of Tripoli today are two main groups; the Salafist-Islamist groups, and the others who are neighbourhood 'thugs', who take their legitimacy through protecting the area," explained Mazen el Sayed, head of Arab and International Affairs at the Lebanese news site Al Modon.
Previously said to be working at the behest of certain politicians, today these armed groups have the upper hand due to the lack of coherent political leadership within the Sunni community, as residents look to them for protection.
This was confirmed by a fighter from Bab al Tabbaneh, who told Al Jazeera: "We don't answer to anyone and we don't belong to anyone. We protect our own streets and neighbourhoods."
"[The armed groups] have the upper hand in negotiations now," said Sayed. "They don't like the politicians, but they see them as facilitators, and now the climate is chaotic enough to use them."
From Harirism to Salafism
The gradual decline of Sunni leadership began in the aftermath of the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, deemed by many here to "the last true Sunni leader".
According to Sayed, Hariri was seen as "a true statesman who wasn't necessarily positioning the Sunni street against others, but rather promoting the 'suit and tie' image".
Following his assassination, the Sunni community looked to Saad Hariri, the prime minister's son, for protection and representation - but what was deemed to be weak leadership skills followed by his self-imposed exile to Saudi Arabia in 2011 left many in the community feeling let down and leaderless, as they witnessed the rise of their political opponents, Hezbollah.
This was further compounded by the violence in Syria, where many saw the passive approach of politicians as a failure to show solidarity with the Syrian people.
"This left a vacuum for the Islamist organisations which were involved in humanitarian work and later militarily, to garner support," said Sayed, adding that the rhetoric shifted from political talk to sectarian divisiveness.
The fear of "the other" within Sunni circles moved from focusing on Hezbollah as a military-political party, whose weapons have been perceived as a threat to stability in the country, to the Shia community who, backed by Iran, appeared to some here to be attempting to impose an Iranian-Shia hegemony on the region.
This particular rhetoric has been touted by various groups emerging in the battle for Sunni leadership.
Today, the players are the traditional Salafists, such as Shahhal, who are institutional and academic, and the neo-Salafists, such as Sidon's Sunni cleric Assir, who rose to fame bringing Sidon to a standstill last year through his demonstrations against Hezbollah.
"Neo-Salafism is not based on any theological credentials," said Sayed. "Instead, it is playing in the fields of populism and sectarianism, and trying to capture the heat of the moment.
"A lot of people would follow the neo-Salafists because they don't necessarily want to take a position in the religious spectrum, but rather in the sectarian spectrum."
'Free Resistance Brigades'
Assir on Friday called for his supporters to be prepared for a war "in the coming days, maybe hours".
Sitting in his home the day before, he told Al Jazeera that the shift from mainstream leaders to populist leaders such as himself came as a result of the Sunni community sensing "a true grudge against them, the proof of which is what is happening in Syria".
Assir has been hitting the headlines in recent months after his repeated road blocks, much to the ire of Sidon's business community, coupled with his attempts to storm some Shia apartments in the area to kick out "the weapons of Hezbollah and Iran".
Confrontations have also turned violent when his supporters clashed with authorities and groups supportive of Hezbollah in Sidon.
He also accuses Lebanon's military establishment of having been "seized by Hezbollah and Iran", adding that the people "sense this".
As a result, he has established his own armed group, calling on Sunnis to join the "Free Resistance Brigades".
"We spent a year protesting in peace, asking for all the arms of Hezbollah [to] be in the hands of the government, but when the arms of Hezbollah are stronger than the government, nothing can be done," he said.
For him, they reached a dead-end. "The government cannot protect us, and that's why we've declared an armed group, even if it means starting from scratch."
Working towards eliminating "the Iranian project" in Lebanon allegedly aimed at targeting the Sunnis, Assir has put his military plan into action.
According to him, the Free Resistance Brigades are made up of cells of five to six men who are locally trained, and have been asked by Assir to acquire weapons "in a secret way, to defend themselves".
"Right now this is just happening in Sidon," he said. "But we have followers elsewhere, and once we're done with Sidon, then we will prepare people outside."
Despite the declarations of protection and representation by the differing groups present within the Sunni community, for Ahmed Yassin, a 41-year-old Sidon resident, there is still no legitimate representative, and the security situation continues to deteriorate.
"On the street, we are fighting each other," he said. "As leaders, they are supported to represent the Sunni street in unison. They are not."
"They are not working in the interest of the country, but rather for their own interests - and all these leaders, both political and religious, are now colliding with each other."
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha
Robert Fisk: The Lebanese army fears rise of the Sunni Muslim Salafists
As Shia Hezbollah fighters rush to Assad’s aid, Lebanon is fighting a desperate battle to stop the menacing advance of Sunni rebels in the opposite direction
Monday 10 June 2013
The Lebanese army claims there is a “plot” to drag Lebanon into the Syrian war. The ‘plot’ – ‘al-moamarer’ – is a feature of all Arab states. Plots come two-a-penny in the Middle East. What the military authorities really fear is that Sunni Muslim Salafist groups – perhaps paid by the same Gulf backers as the Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime – have embedded themselves in the Lebanese population. The army suspects they exist deep in the northern Bekaa valley around the village of Arsal and in the northern city of Tripoli, as well as in Beirut and Sidon.
What the Lebanese army is not saying on the record – but which it acknowledges privately – is that large numbers of “Syrian” rebels are in fact Lebanese. They are being brought home to Lebanon to be buried, as are the hundreds of Shia Hezbollah fighters dying alongside Syrian troops in the battle for Qusayr and – soon, perhaps – for the great city of Aleppo.
In the ancient Roman-Crusader city of Tripoli yesterday, Lebanese soldiers were still tearing down sandbag barricades set up along dozens of streets by unidentified Sunni gangs in the dirt-poor Bab el-Tabaneh district, in the desperate hope that they can reclaim the suburb for the central government and prevent these districts turning into Salafist fiefdoms.
When I visited this same district two weeks ago – it was under constant sniper fire from the Alawite-Shia hilltop of Jabal Mohsen, which largely supports the Assad regime – I met several fighters who would not identify themselves with any major militia, of which there are now at least 25 in Sunni areas of Tripoli. One of the largest is a Salafist group led by a man called “Osam” Sabbagh who, officially, at least, does not wish to participate in the fighting.
“Not all the Salafists are al-Qa’ida people,” a gunman who would call himself only Khaled insisted. “But the Salafists come and talk to us and we have no problem with them.” Many in the same Sunni slum streets – where giant bedsheets are strung across alleyways just as they are in Aleppo to prevent sharp-shooters from killing them – say they will not let the Salafists take over their district. Yet unless the army’s latest operation, authorised by the army command in Beirut and supported by the former Christian general Michel Sulieman – who is now the President – is successful, Khaled and his comrades may be powerless.
Privately, the army has learnt a lot about the “silent” creation of Salafist groups. A few Lebanese journalists have tried to convey these details – but largely on the inside pages of their newspapers. A Sunni anti-Assad rebel fighter from Baalbek, Hussein Dergham, for example, was killed in defence of Qusayr and has been brought home for burial. Three other Lebanese Sunni men from Baalbek were killed in a suburb of Qusayr but their remains have still not been recovered – and may never be, now that the town has fallen to Syrian troops and Hezbollah.
For the army, these dead men represent other ghosts. Many Lebanese have now forgotten how Islamists, from both Lebanon and other Arab countries, took over the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared north of Tripoli in 2007. Ironically, these gunmen of Fatah al-Islam were sent into Lebanon from what was then the super-stable Assad regime in Damascus. After a 105-day siege, Lebanese troops captured 215 of the Islamists – some are today still on trial in Beirut, others have fled to Sidon – but at a cost of 168 of their own soldiers’ lives and 226 Islamist dead. Up to 500 soldiers were wounded. In one Sunni village in the hills above Tripoli, residents refused to allow one of the Islamist dead to be buried because their own Sunni sons were among the army’s “martyrs”.
Now the cemetery “tables” are being ghoulishly turned. When a Hezbollah fighter called Saleh Sabbagh – a Sunni who converted to Shiism – was returned to a Sidon Sunni cemetery for burial last month, supporters of a local anti-Assad Sunni sheikh blocked the graveyard entrance with sandbags and burning tires, one of them screaming that the man’s corpse should be thrown into the sea. Sabbagh, who was killed fighting anti-Assad rebels in Syria, was subsequently interred in a Shia cemetery, but stones were thrown between rival groups and gunfire broke out later in the evening.
In the northern Lebanese border village of Wadi Khaled, members of the anti-Assad Jabhat al-Nusra rebels, which the army suspects may have strong links with the original Fatah al-Islam, began chanting outside the village mosque. And other supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra are reported to have emerged on the streets with banners near the Cite Sportive in Beirut, close to the airport highway – the first appearance of the rebel Islamist group in the Lebanese capital.
The Lebanese army and internal security have amassed other details – infinitely more chilling – about the Islamist groups. One man, identified only as Adnan, told the Lebanese military how Sunni imams were issuing “fatwas” urging them to assault opposition families inside Syria. Adnan, according to the military, said that his group had executed 13 Syrian government troops – three of them by beheading – and admitted that he had entered a Turkman village on the outskirts of Qusayr, shot a man in the legs and then raped his daughters, aged seven, eight and 10. He then – according to a report buried deep inside a long article in one Beirut newspaper – shot all four dead.
To the great consternation of the Lebanese army, up to 20,000 Syrian Sunni refugees from Qusayr have just poured into the Arsal, where three Lebanese soldiers on watch for anti-Assad weapons smugglers were murdered last week. The influx of refugees now equals the town’s total population. Little wonder that the Beirut government is now talking of preventing future flights of Syrian refugees into the country.
From their ultra-safe environment outside Lebanon, Gulf leaders are now encouraging the fury of the country’s Sunnis. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia – America’s bosom friend in the Gulf – supported the televangelist preacher Youssef al-Qaradawi in calling for all young Sunnis to fight the Assad regime – and Hezbollah – inside Syria. It is easy to dismiss this incendiary demand as part of the great Sunni-Shia divide, one which America, in its support for the Gulf Sunni states and its hatred of Iran and Hezbollah, is happily stoking.
And Hezbollah has done itself no favours in joining Assad’s forces in Qusayr. Lebanese Sunnis have been asking themselves whether Hezbollah – for years the much-touted “resistance” to Israeli occupation in Palestine – had been under the mistaken impression that Qusayr was a suburb of Jerusalem. On Sunday, Islamists with guns and sticks attacked both unarmed male and female anti-Assad protestors outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing the head of the movement’s student organisation, Hashem Salman. One Lebanese newspaper’s front page headline yesterday read: “Who from the Hezbollah or the Iranian Guards murdered Hashem Salman?”
A few hours later, 10,000 Sunni supporters of the Free Syrian Army gathered in Sidon. I counted 750 hitherto-unseen black-uniformed militia guards. They carried radios but no guns. Alas, it is not the same elsewhere. Only seven days ago, there were assassination attempts against two pro-Hezbollah Sunni sheikhs. One of them, whose car was sprayed with bullets in Sidon, had recently condemned Hezbollah’s intervention in Qusayr. But for some, there are no politics in death. In Tripoli two days later, a harmless beggar called Ahmad Soboh sat down on his usual pavement spot near a café where he was usually given food and water. A sniper shot him dead. Perhaps he was so miserable, some locals suggested, that he wanted to take his own life.
Six killed in Lebanon clashes
Violence stoked by civil war in neighbouring Syria claims more lives in northern city of Tripoli.
Last Modified: 04 Jun 2013 07:19
Six people have been killed in clashes in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, in violence stoked by civil war in neighbouring Syria.
The clashes on Monday night in the northen city ended a week of relative calm after 29 people were killed last month in the deadliest fighting yet between supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pro-rebel forces.
Three of the dead came from the Sunni Muslim Bab Tebbaneh neighbourhood. A total of 38 people were wounded, mainly by sniper fire in the city centre, sources in Tripoli said.
Meanwhile in Sidon, gunmen fired at Sunni leader Maher Hammoud as he headed towards his mosque for dawn prayers. They missed their target and fled when Hammoud's two guards returned fire.
Hammoud is seen as close to Hezbollah and has criticised a prominent Sidon Islamist, Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, who has called on Lebanese Sunnis to head for Syria to fight Assad.
Elsewhere, security services reported another attack on a Sunni imam with connections to Hezbollah.
They said the car of Sheikh Ibrahim Mustafa Breidi came under machinegun attack in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa area and caught fire.
Lebanese factions support opposing sides in the conflict in Syria and have often clashed inside Lebanon.
Saad Hariri, the country's former prime minister, said what was happening in Tripoli was "unacceptable and should not continue under any pretext".
"The Lebanese army must assume its responsibility in safeguarding the city and not leave it to those who arouse discord," he said in a statement issued on Monday evening.
Iran to send 4,000 troops to aid President Assad forces in Syria
World Exclusive: US urges UK and France to join in supplying arms to Syrian rebels as MPs fear that UK will be drawn into growing conflict
ROBERT FISK SUNDAY 16 JUNE 2013
Washington’s decision to arm Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels has plunged America into the great Sunni-Shia conflict of the Islamic Middle East, entering a struggle that now dwarfs the Arab revolutions which overthrew dictatorships across the region.
For the first time, all of America’s ‘friends’ in the region are Sunni Muslims and all of its enemies are Shiites. Breaking all President Barack Obama’s rules of disengagement, the US is now fully engaged on the side of armed groups which include the most extreme Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East.
The Independent on Sunday has learned that a military decision has been taken in Iran – even before last week’s presidential election – to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion that has cost almost 100,000 lives in just over two years. Iran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, according to pro-Iranian sources which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel.
In years to come, historians will ask how America – after its defeat in Iraq and its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for 2014 – could have so blithely aligned itself with one side in a titanic Islamic struggle stretching back to the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohamed. The profound effects of this great schism, between Sunnis who believe that the father of Mohamed’s wife was the new caliph of the Muslim world and Shias who regard his son in law Ali as his rightful successor – a seventh century battle swamped in blood around the present-day Iraqi cities of Najaf and Kerbala – continue across the region to this day. A 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott, compared this Muslim conflict to that between “Papists and Protestants”.
America’s alliance now includes the wealthiest states of the Arab Gulf, the vast Sunni territories between Egypt and Morocco, as well as Turkey and the fragile British-created monarchy in Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan – flooded, like so many neighbouring nations, by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees – may also now find himself at the fulcrum of the Syrian battle. Up to 3,000 American ‘advisers’ are now believed to be in Jordan, and the creation of a southern Syria ‘no-fly zone’ – opposed by Syrian-controlled anti-aircraft batteries – will turn a crisis into a ‘hot’ war. So much for America’s ‘friends’.
Its enemies include the Lebanese Hizballah, the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus and, of course, Iran. And Iraq, a largely Shiite nation which America ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority in the hope of balancing the Shiite power of Iran, has – against all US predictions – itself now largely fallen under Tehran’s influence and power. Iraqi Shiites as well as Hizballah members, have both fought alongside Assad’s forces.
Washington’s excuse for its new Middle East adventure – that it must arm Assad’s enemies because the Damascus regime has used sarin gas against them – convinces no-one in the Middle East. Final proof of the use of gas by either side in Syria remains almost as nebulous as President George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
For the real reason why America has thrown its military power behind Syria’s Sunni rebels is because those same rebels are now losing their war against Assad. The Damascus regime’s victory this month in the central Syrian town of Qusayr, at the cost of Hizballah lives as well as those of government forces, has thrown the Syrian revolution into turmoil, threatening to humiliate American and EU demands for Assad to abandon power. Arab dictators are supposed to be deposed – unless they are the friendly kings or emirs of the Gulf – not to be sustained. Yet Russia has given its total support to Assad, three times vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that might have allowed the West to intervene directly in the civil war.
In the Middle East, there is cynical disbelief at the American contention that it can distribute arms – almost certainly including anti-aircraft missiles – only to secular Sunni rebel forces in Syria represented by the so-called Free Syria Army. The more powerful al-Nusrah Front, allied to al-Qaeda, dominates the battlefield on the rebel side and has been blamed for atrocities including the execution of Syrian government prisoners of war and the murder of a 14-year old boy for blasphemy. They will be able to take new American weapons from their Free Syria Army comrades with little effort.
From now on, therefore, every suicide bombing in Damascus - every war crime committed by the rebels - will be regarded in the region as Washington’s responsibility. The very Sunni-Wahabi Islamists who killed thousands of Americans on 11th September, 2011 – who are America’s greatest enemies as well as Russia’s – are going to be proxy allies of the Obama administration. This terrible irony can only be exacerbated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adament refusal to tolerate any form of Sunni extremism. His experience in Chechenya, his anti-Muslim rhetoric – he has made obscene remarks about Muslim extremists in a press conference in Russian – and his belief that Russia’s old ally in Syria is facing the same threat as Moscow fought in Chechenya, plays a far greater part in his policy towards Bashar al-Assad than the continued existence of Russia’s naval port at the Syrian Mediterranean city of Tartous.
For the Russians, of course, the ‘Middle East’ is not in the ‘east’ at all, but to the south of Moscow; and statistics are all-important. The Chechen capital of Grozny is scarcely 500 miles from the Syrian frontier. Fifteen per cent of Russians are Muslim. Six of the Soviet Union’s communist republics had a Muslim majority, 90 per cent of whom were Sunni. And Sunnis around the world make up perhaps 85 per cent of all Muslims. For a Russia intent on repositioning itself across a land mass that includes most of the former Soviet Union, Sunni Islamists of the kind now fighting the Assad regime are its principal antagonists.
Iranian sources say they liaise constantly with Moscow, and that while Hizballah’s overall withdrawal from Syria is likely to be completed soon – with the maintenance of the militia’s ‘intelligence’ teams inside Syria – Iran’s support for Damascus will grow rather than wither. They point out that the Taliban recently sent a formal delegation for talks in Tehran and that America will need Iran’s help in withdrawing from Afghanistan. The US, the Iranians say, will not be able to take its armour and equipment out of the country during its continuing war against the Taliban without Iran’s active assistance. One of the sources claimed – not without some mirth -- that the French were forced to leave 50 tanks behind when they left because they did not have Tehran’s help.
It is a sign of the changing historical template in the Middle East that within the framework of old Cold War rivalries between Washington and Moscow, Israel’s security has taken second place to the conflict in Syria. Indeed, Israel’s policies in the region have been knocked askew by the Arab revolutions, leaving its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hopelessly adrift amid the historic changes.
Only once over the past two years has Israel fully condemned atrocities committed by the Assad regime, and while it has given medical help to wounded rebels on the Israeli-Syrian border, it fears an Islamist caliphate in Damascus far more than a continuation of Assad’s rule. One former Israel intelligence commander recently described Assad as “Israel’s man in Damascus”. Only days before President Mubarak was overthrown, both Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called Washington to ask Obama to save the Egyptian dictator. In vain.
If the Arab world has itself been overwhelmed by the two years of revolutions, none will have suffered from the Syrian war in the long term more than the Palestinians. The land they wish to call their future state has been so populated with Jewish Israeli colonists that it can no longer be either secure or ‘viable’. ‘Peace’ envoy Tony Blair’s attempts to create such a state have been laughable. A future ‘Palestine’ would be a Sunni nation. But today, Washington scarcely mentions the Palestinians.
Another of the region’s supreme ironies is that Hamas, supposedly the ‘super-terrorists’ of Gaza, have abandoned Damascus and now support the Gulf Arabs’ desire to crush Assad. Syrian government forces claim that Hamas has even trained Syrian rebels in the manufacture and use of home-made rockets.
In Arab eyes, Israel’s 2006 war against the Shia Hizballah was an attempt to strike at the heart of Iran. The West’s support for Syrian rebels is a strategic attempt to crush Iran. But Iran is going to take the offensive. Even for the Middle East, these are high stakes. Against this fearful background, the Palestinian tragedy continues.
Iran celebrates Rouhani's presidential win
Hassan Rouhani hails his win as "victory of moderation over extremism", pledges new tone of respect in foreign affairs.
Last Modified: 16 Jun 2013 11:42
Moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani has called his defeat of conservative hardliners a victory of moderation over extremism and pledged a new tone of respect in international affairs.
Thousands of jubilant Iranians poured onto the streets in celebration of the victory on Saturday, chanting: "Long live reform! Long live Rouhani!", according to witnesses at the scene.
"Ahmadi, bye bye!" they added in reference to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who was legally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
Many were dressed in purple, Rouhani's campaign colour, and others in
green, the colour of the reformist movement.
Rouhani will take up the presidency, the highest elected office in Iran's hybrid clerical-republican system, in August.
"This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill-temper," Rouhani told state television, promising to work for all Iranians, including the
hardline so-called "Principlists" whom he defeated at the poll.
"I warmly shake the hands of all moderates, reformists and Principlists," he said.
In his first televised address on Sunday Iran's president-elect asked for help during his term and promised to abide by Iranian law.
"[I'm proud that] the great people [of Iran], the honourable people, thought that I deserve this," Rouhani said.
"They trusted me so that I can begin on the path to serve the country, to enhance people's lives and welfare, and preserve national pride and national interests. I deeply feel that I need your assistance along this path. I need you to be there. I need your cooperation."
Rouhani won outright against five conservative candidates with 18.6 million votes, Interior Minister Mohammad Mostafa Najjar said.
That was enough to ensure there would be no run-off against the runner-up, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who came a distant second with 6.07 million votes.
Saeed Jalili, Iran's Chief nuclear negotiator received four million votes and Mohsen Rezaei, a former head of the elite Revolutionary Guard, was also backed by close to 4 million people.
Matters of national security remain the domain of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the president runs the economy and wields broad influence in decision-making in other spheres.
Friday's vote was the first since the disputed 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad triggered massive street protests by supporters of his rivals, that were crushed in a deadly crackdown.
The 2009 protests that followed Ahmadinejad's re-election led to the eventual house arres
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