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Tripoli: Lebanon’s weakest link

The second largest Lebanese city has become a military zone

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

Back in the seventies, Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon, was the North’s hub for the latest in American, French and Egyptian film industry. Movies such as “Count Dracula” or the romances of Farid Atrash and Faten Hamama famously played on its “Boulevard” street, and at the Colorado and Rivoli theaters. Even its impoverished neighborhood Bab Tabaneh had a theater and arts school.

Those days are long gone. Tripoli’s few left theaters are running empty, while the the art school and anything culturally modern in Bab Tabaneh has shut down, as poverty, bullets and mortars rounds recurringly deafen the city.

As clashes resumed this week between Sunni and Allawite militants in Bab Tabaneh and Jabal Mohsen, the Lebanese army declared the city as a military zone for a period of six months in order to take control and restore security.

Buying time

Such a plan, while commendable, will at best buy time until the next round of clashes, and at worse create backlash if the army overplays its hand and is viewed by one sect as taking sides in the conflict. The security aspect is only one dimension of Tripoli’s four-decades-old problems, and without addressing the political and socioeconomic factors, this plan is doomed to fail.

In today’s Tripoli, Ziad Alouki or Hatem Ganzarli of Bab Tabaneh and Refaat Eid of Jabal Mohsen are calling the shots on whether the souks will open and people can go on with their daily lives, or whether they will be interrupted with mortar rounds and bombings.

Yes, the Syrian conflict and outside actors contribute to Tripoli’s instability, but the clashes there have gone well before the Syrian uprising started in Daraa in 2011, and continued through the ups and downs of regional rivals.

Joyce Karam

The city has five ministers in the current caretaker government, including the Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the minister of Finance Mohamed Safadi, Ahmed Karami, Nicolas Nahas, and Fasial Karami. But none of those figures have been able to restore long term stability or improve the security situation in the city. Over 100 people were killed this year in the clashes, the level of radicalization and arming in both camps have increased, and the Lebanese state looks increasingly more impotent in attempting to stop the violence.

Beyond the Syrian spillover

Yes, the Syrian conflict and outside actors contribute to Tripoli’s instability, but the clashes there have gone well before the Syrian uprising started in Daraa in 2011, and continued through the ups and downs of regional rivals. It is naive and simplistic to define them as a “spillover” or a war “in proxy”, while ignoring a list of factors related to the state of politics and divisions inside Lebanon. These conditions have festered throughout the civil war, and amplified thereafter. The old wounds of the war never healed, and the massacres of 1985 and 1986 are often recalled by Bab Tabaneh residents, and drove many into radicalization.

After the war in 1990, Tripoli saw little of the reconstruction and rehabilitation that spread across Beirut, the Chouf and the south of the country. Its neighborhoods were left on the peripheral, their bullet holes are still exposed, and the economic disparity is spiking with the rest of the country. Consecutive governments turned a blind eye to the city, and along with the Syrian leadership exploited the sectarian divisions to gain leverage and exchange political messages.

Extremist groups thrived on the lawlessness, and saw their influence grew exponentially through schools, charities, and social services. All of which led to a state of “Sunni frustration” and a sense of victimization among the city’s largest sect.

Strengthened hand

This mood peaked after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, and later as a reaction to the strengthened hand of the Shiite party Hezbollah, the collapse of Saad Hariri government in 2011, the assassination of Tripoli’s native head of security forces Wissam Hassan in 2012, and most recently Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, and the resignation of the Mikati government in Spring of 2013.

There is a vacuum in the Sunni leadership in Lebanon, intensified with the departure of Hariri from the country, the failure of designate Prime Minister Tamam Salam to form a government. This picture has cleared the way to many Salafist leaders and their attempts to radicalize and widen the Sunni-Shiite rift.

Today, Tripoli, nicknamed the “big house”, is Lebanon’s weakest link. Dire socioeconomic conditions, sectarian divisions, and lawlessness is turning what was once a bustling port of Islamic civilization, a front for militarization and settling scores for inside and outside actors. Only a plan that addresses holistically these problems can save the city. The security approach is more of a stopgap measure in the short term and can not provide permanent stability.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.