Lebanon’s Tripoli rises above lingering effects of war to revolt
 
 

The road north from the capital to Tripoli offers a journey through Lebanon’s mass protest movement. In the suburb of Jal el Dib, a fifteen-minute drive from the main sit-in in downtown Beirut, a recently built bridge has been turned into an elevated protest space, with demonstrators chanting: “We finally know what the bridge is for.” With the main highway blocked, a fork in the road diverts traffic towards alternate routes north — one along the sea, the other through the mountains.

The journey passes through several cities and towns that are taking part in the uprising, including Zouk Mosbeh, Ghazir and Batroun — the hometown of Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil and a primary target of protest anger — before reaching Tripoli.

The demonstrations in Lebanon’s second-largest city, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, have a different feel from the rest of the country. The clarion call of the nationwide protests — “All of them means all of them” — that expresses a demand to rid the country of its entire political order has been changed in Tripoli to, “All of them means all of them … No, all of us means all of us”— a call for unity and for all Lebanese to band together, regardless of region, religion, or sect. 

It was from Tripoli that this message of unity in the uprising sounded strongest and helped pave the way for a new kind of street activism and movement building across the country.

Unlike other cities and towns in Lebanon, one can roam all of Tripoli’s neighborhoods holding up revolutionary signs. There are fewer protesters than in the capital, but in Tripoli, there is virtually no danger of coming under attack by supporters of Hezbollah or its ally, the Amal movement, as has happened several times in Beirut and elsewhere since the uprising ignited on October 17.

The protests are centered in Abdul Hamid Karami Square, though a large sculpture of the word “Allah” that rises above the surrounding traffic has prompted many to refer to the area as Allah Square. Visitors are often advised not to refer to the square in this way as it has the potential to anger more hardline Sunni residents, who may take offense at the invocation of God’s name to refer to an area of the city. They prefer “Al-Nour” (Light) Square.

Because of the controversy surrounding its moniker and other historical reasons, the area was typically associated with hardline Sunnis. Yet in the same square, young men men blast rap music and yell out what has now become a popular protest chant that uses the Arabic equivalent of “fuck you” and swaps in the names of various politicians to insult, though Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil is the most frequent target. Also in the square, young protesters carried a sheikh on their shoulders, who danced to revolutionary songs.

Tripoli is not like Beirut, with its swanky neighborhoods, hip cafes and high end retail shops. Its crowded streets more closely resemble those of Alexandria in Egypt, or the Cairo district of Heliopolis.

In Beirut, following the explosion of mass protests, roads have been blocked with barricades and burning tires and many businesses are shuttered after heeding calls for a general strike. In Tripoli, on the other hand, shops have remained open. Most of the city’s residents support the demonstrations and proudly display banners calling on people to take to the streets, but closing down one’s business is a far less affordable prospect in Lebanon’s poorest city.

Meanwhile, Tripoli’s rich history of organized labor is apparent in the language used in the revolutionary banners displayed across the city that adopt the vocabulary of class struggle. ATMs have been plastered over with slogans like “down with capitalism” and calls for politicians to return stolen funds.

Dominant socio-political discourse is being openly challenged on the streets. “They made us believe that the Shias want to eat us up,” one protester yelled.

The sit-in began in Tripoli with a joint motorbike procession staged by young people from Bab al‑Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, two neighborhoods with a long history of hostility and armed conflict.

The high-end chocolate shop Patchi is covered in slogans in solidarity with protesters in Nabatieh and Baalbek, who have come under attack by supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. “Baalbek is the soul,” is graffitied on the metal shutter, as well as “From Tripoli our revolution is the same … For you Nabatieh.”

Patchi is owned by Telecommunications Minister Mohamed Choucair of the Future Movement who proposed a new tax on online applications like WhatsApp. In response, protesters stormed the store and distributed chocolates to people in the street for free. The Future Movement is led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who announced his resignation Tuesday after nearly two weeks of mass street protests.

From the main stage in the square, people chanted: “Tyre, Tyre, Tyre … For you we want a revolution,” and “Nabatieh, Tripoli is with you to the death.” Among protesters, there is a strong conviction that Hezbollah and the Amal Movement are attempting to repress the uprising.

In Tripoli, protesters have expressed solidarity with demonstrations in cities and towns in southern Lebanon, the strongholds of Hezbollah and Amal, though they didn’t explicitly refer to the groups by name, an indication of the fragile balance of Lebanese politics, with a real potential for a unified mass protest movement to tip over into sectarian conflict.

“Everyone referred to us as terrorists. Now come here and see how we protest,” a young woman taking part in the sit-in tells Mada Masr. “The regime says that about us, just like they say the Shias want to kill us. We are not terrorists, nor are the Shias going to kill us. All of us want to bring down the regime, we are all hungry.”

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A widespread sentiment amongst protesters throughout Lebanon is that this uprising marks the real end of the civil war. While hostilities officially ended nearly 30 years ago, Syrian troops stationed in the country only withdrew in 2005. And in Tripoli, the violence lingered on.

During the Syrian occupation, dozens of residents were kidnapped and hundreds tortured. Syrian military checkpoints constricted movement and every facet of daily life. In addition to suffering from poor economic conditions, residents of Tripoli were forced to pay out bribes and handouts to the Syrian soldiers.

While the Syrian regime withdrew in 2005, the occupation left an indelible impact on the city.

Refineries built by the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1931, which were later nationalized by the Lebanese state in 1972, had a daily processing capacity of 120,000 tons of oil, which was imported from Iraq and later exported from Tripoli’s port. Some 4,000 people from Tripoli used to work at the refineries before the Syrian army destroyed them in the civil war and prevented their reconstruction.

After the official end of the civil war, Tripoli received none of the reconstruction and renovation investments that began pouring into the country.

In 2007, a war erupted between the Lebanese Armed Forces and hardline militants in Nahr el-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp near the city. 

After the revolution in Syria spiraled into a civil war, an intermittent and protracted conflict broke out in Tripoli between the Alawite-majority Jabal Mohsen neighborhood and the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh area. Restaurants, shops and bookstores were burned to the ground and sectarian and religious violence took hold.

In Tripoli too, politicians representing the city have been repeatedly ranked as among the richest people in the world. The billionaire brothers Najib and Taha Mikati hail from Tripoli. Other very wealthy leading political figures include Mohammad Safadi, Samir Jisr, Mohammad Kabbara, Misbah Ahdab, Faisal Karami and Ashraf Rifi. The massive gap between the city’s neediest residents and its wealthy elite is exacerbated by widespread allegations of corruption.

As with other cities, politicians visited Tripoli after the mass demonstrations broke out. Misbah Ahdab, a millionaire and former member of parliament, tried to visit the main sit-in in Tripoli during the first two days, only to be kicked out by the protesters. In response, Ahdab ordered his bodyguards to open fire with live ammunition at the protesters, injuring seven.

Afterward, a number of protesters took to coming to the sit-in dressed in a uniform that read “guards of the city.”

“We have two missions,” one of the self-proclaimed city guards told Mada Masr. “First, we protect the sit-in from any potential problems and we try to kick out anyone who causes problems, but we do so calmly. Second, we organize volunteers from the sit-in to procure food and water for everyone.”

A 30-year-old man from the impoverished neighborhood of Bab al‑Tabbaneh spoke of the beginnings of the group. “We formed [the group] in 2015 during the garbage crisis. The state used to send trucks of garbage to Tripoli and dump them here, so we used to try to stop the vehicles and prevent them from entering.”

Tripoli has organized itself to sustain the protests, setting up encampments and selling coffee and food from stalls. Yet it is the social and political makeup of the city that forms a deeper basis for the strength of the protest movement in Tripoli and its importance as a cornerstone of the broader movement across Lebanon.

Unlike other cities, Tripoli has no single political leader, nor even a handful of powerful politicians who exercise control. Instead, there are numerous local leaders who are often at odds with one another, even though they are all complicit in rampant government corruption.

The lack of a centralized power structure has made it more difficult for a single politician to organize a disruption of the protest encampment, as was the case in Mazraat Yachoua, where supporters of President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Minister Gebran Bassil, assaulted protesters, or in cities such as Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh and Tyre, where supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement attacked sit-ins.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese army has lost popularity among the poorer residents of the city, making it politically more difficult to send in a large force to break up the protests. 

Nearly two weeks into Lebanon’s mass uprising, Tripoli stands as a city primed to sustain its revolt.

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