In late May, Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli erupted into deadly violence with the shockwaves eventually spreading south onto the streets of Beirut. By the time the politicians, generals and sheikhs had scrambled together some semblance of order, more than a dozen people had been killed and the stability of the nation was shaken to its feeble core.
The collapse in security was, of course, intrinsically linked to the unremitting uprising in Syria and the shaft that it drives through the opposing camps within Lebanon. However, generations of economic neglect and the more recent political estrangement of much of the north have helped lay the foundations for the unrest we see today.
During the most recent fighting in Tripoli I spent a couple of days with the residents-cum-combatants in the staunchly anti-Syrian regime neighborhood of Bab El Tabbeneh. With his new high-powered rifle lying nearby — his last one had overheated and broken due to the intensity of the past days fighting — one of the men told me, “If there was an economy here, then we would not have all of these problems. If people had jobs and opportunities and a future then they would forget all of this. Why would we care for fighting? We would forget it all.”
In the poverty-ridden suburbs of Tripoli such as Bab el Tabbeneh it is hard to see beyond the bullet-scarred buildings, tired markets and rubbish-strewn streets. But step back and look a degree deeper and the decaying facades of beautiful Ottoman era buildings hint to a more prosperous past; Tripoli’s prized position as a major trading hub was quashed by the French in favor of Beirut, starting a decline within the city that continues to this day.
Regardless of the political, religious or ideological slant of the fighters they all agreed, without hesitation, that they had been forgotten by the state. One of the men quipped, “There is nothing here and this has been an intentional policy to keep the people poor so they have to beg for money and then they become reliant.”
This is compounded by the disintegration in faith given to the traditional Sunni leaders within many of these communities (Tripoli is roughly 85 percent Sunni Muslim). Fighter Abou Wadih told me, “They are all liars. If I go and ask the politicians for help they offer nothing, only when there are elections will they give, and then once in power they go.”
Prime Minister Najib Mikati may be a Sunni from Tripoli who enjoys a certain degree of support from the more affluent middle classes, but among the bitter and poor men bearing arms he is seen as a shrewd businessman and a political opportunist who has set up camp with their enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As for Saad Hariri, who inherited his father’s business and political empire but not his personal gravitas or political acumen, his standing has been on a downward slide since his humiliation at the hands of Hezbollah and their allies in 2008. “When they killed us he stayed quiet because he likes only his pen and his laptop,” said Abou Wadih. I think its fair to say that the lads on the front lines don’t pay much heed to Hariri’s oft-quoted tweets from his salubrious abodes in Riyadh and Paris.
Tripoli has always been a bastion of Sunni Islam in Lebanon but having been cut economically adrift without a political rudder, it is the Islamic institutions, and more specifically the ultra-conservative Salafi sheikhs, who have sought to fill the leadership void. Sheikh Salam al-Refai is a leading Salafi preacher in Tripoli who told me that the people were looking more and more to religious leaders like him for direction, although he assured, “we don’t want to play a political role.” But in the absence of the institutions and representatives of the state their leadership cannot be anything but political.
It was the Salafi-led groups leading the protests against the security services’ capturing of Islamist Shady Mawlawi and, even if the fighters hail from a range of persuasions, it is from the Salafi mosques that decisions are made as to when the guns ring out in Bab El Tabbeneh.
Generations of abandonment have made dry tinder of northern Lebanon as fires from Syria burn across the border.