Tripoli, a city located in the north of Lebanon and home to over 700,000 citizens, is Lebanon’s poorest city. It has suffered years of neglect and has been stained with violence and extremism for years. Political dealings, the legacy of the Lebanese Civil War, and regional power dynamics have changed the face of a once-prosperous city.
During the Lebanese Civil War, several armed groups used Tripoli as a center of operations, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Islamic Unification Movement (Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami). In 1976, Syrian forces with ties to the Lebanese Alawite population seized northern Lebanon and controlled Tripoli’s political stage. The Syrian presence inflamed the long-standing sectarian conflict between the Sunni population and their Alawite neighbors. The 1986 massacre of the Sunni community in Bab El-Tebbeneh is imprinted in the memory of the Sunnis of Tripoli as an attack that was supported by their Alawite neighbors in Jabal Mohsen. Poverty, violence, and leadership failure of Sunni political elites in Tripoli led to the rise of fundamentalist Islamist groups in the city. This paved the way towards the transformation of Tripoli into a proxy war zone, where occasional violent outbreaks take place.
The last few years before the October 17 Revolution in 2019, saw the conflict fueled and led by elites within the Lebanese political community and supported by their rival regional political blocs. The political climate, ailing economy, and religious dissatisfaction aggravated the conflicts and clashes. Syria’s civil war had noticeable consequences on Lebanon and the spillover is evident in Tripoli, where street violence is increasing.
The ongoing conflict resulted in an economic downturn that the city is still struggling to recover from to this day. Tripoli has been in a tight corner for years, with a growing unemployment rate, low education levels, school dropout rates, low investments, and scarce development planning. The city has long been one of the country’s most deprived areas and its poverty has reached alarming levels recently. The security situation of the city denied it the opportunity to advance and prosper. Tripoli has been stripped of its role as the capital of the North and the residents of its neighboring towns and villages have been driven away from it.
Ideally, such challenges are usually addressed and contained by local authorities, namely municipalities. Yet Tripoli’s municipality is well-known for being a paralyzed institution due to its staffs’ political affiliations and limited technical capacities. In addition, Lebanese law is unclear on the degree of the municipality’s authority and budget, hence why the city lacks local planning or investments. The disengagement of the public sector led the residents of the poorest neighborhoods to give up on the state and resort to alternatives, like Islamic organizations, militias, or criminal gangs.
Yet the city that was neglected by national and local authorities, where more than half of its population lives below the poverty line, not only joined the revolution but also led its second wave. The 2019 October Revolution changed the city once known as the “Khandahar of Lebanon” to “the Bride of the Revolution.” Its main square, Sahet Al Nour (Light Square), has been the hub of many of the biggest and most uninterrupted string of protests in Lebanon’s modern history.
During one such protest, Mahdi Karimeh, a DJ, played music around the square, which fired up the crowds and inspired chants from the protestors gathered. Thousands of protesters in the square began chanting “thawra, thawra, thawra,” which means “revolution.” Protestors wanted jobs, access to social services, and an end to the rule of political elites and warlords. This energetic atmosphere gave Tripoli a new identity, one that is secular, diverse, and, perhaps most importantly, united. A city that once was divided stood as one, demanding change and equal access to basic human rights.
Unfortunately, despite all the hopes and calls for change, the situation deteriorated further after the October Revolution. Lebanon fell into a severe economic and financial crisis, which worsened with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tripoli, despite being home to wealthy businessmen, billionaires, and former prime ministers, continued to suffer from poverty and neglect.
However, the incompetent government and corrupt political leaders continue turning a blind eye to the reforms that might have limited the crisis’s impact and opened channels for a flow of international aid. Instead, they continue to waste time and resources playing their senseless political games in order to ensure the survival of their clientelist system. This is the very same system that has already debilitated the country and left its people dependent on financial relief from their local political leaders.
In April 2020, a 26-year-old protestor, Fawwaz Fouad Al-Samman, died of injuries caused by live bullets fired by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Human Rights Watch stated that the “LAF unjustifiably used excessive force, including lethal, against protesters in Tripoli on April 27, 2020, killing one protester and injuring scores more .” The violence brought up traumatic memories of the numerous feuds between the LAF and militants in Tripoli’s past. However, in this instance, the victim was simply a defenseless and harmless young activist demanding change. Despite that fact that this incident could have been a trigger for sectarian tensions, the protestors chose instead to consider Fawaz as a “Martyr of the Revolution.”
In January 2021, after Hassan Diab’s government announced a nationwide lockdown, Tripolitans took to the streets to protest hunger, inflation, and increasing unemployment. Unfortunately, the protests turned violent, and the clashes between security forces and demonstrators angered by the COVID-19 lockdown resulted in at least 400 injured, including 40 soldiers and police officers . During this wave of protests, 29-year-old Omar Tayba was also killed by a live bullet and was considered as the second Tripolitan “Martyr of the Revolution.”
Just a few days later, 30 protesters were arrested by the Lebanese army, while the Intelligence Directorate also arrested four others for their participation in the protests a week earlier.
The Lebanese Army referred 10 out of the 30 detainees to the military prosecutor for “rioting, encroaching on public and private property, and the burning of the Tripoli municipality building,” the army said in a statement. These detainees were then released after it was proven that they were not involved in these events. The Lebanese Military Court later charged at least six of them with terrorism.
A month later, in March, with the efforts of the Tripoli Bar Association and different pro bono lawyers working on the case, most of the detainees were released, while four are still left fighting for their freedom till this day. They are Mohammad Al Bay, Mohammad Maarbani, Mahdi Al Bahri and Moussa Al Houssami. We need to keep talking about them and need to keep talking about the dire situation in Tripoli and all the incessant injustice that is happening on a daily basis in order to do our part to affect change and be voices for the voiceless…