As one of the longest inhabited cities on the Mediterranean basin, Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city, has attracted much attention lately as the return of protests and riots on its streets have raised fears, and aspirations, that the popular revolution that broke out in November 2019 has been resurrected.
The Tripoli uprising is not merely a cry against poverty and hunger, but rather a clear signpost to where the popular revolution should go next, and an equally important experiment to draw out Lebanon’s oligarchs, who look at these movements as an opportunity to exploit to their advantage – rather than a clear wakeup call for immediate reform.
Over the past year, the total collapse of Lebanon’s economy coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic has devasted Tripoli and led its youthful, unemployed, and highly illiterate population over the edge, the majority of which have lately taken to the streets to demand a better life.
Branded as one of the poorest cities in the region, Tripoli’s unemployment and poverty rates are dangerously indicative of the rage on the streets, as years of conscious neglect by its local and national political elite has left the city and its people open to exploitation by different political actors bent on using the streets to serve their respective political agendas. With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Tripoli, with its Sunni majority, became part of the regional feud, with Saad al-Hariri and the pro-Iranian Alawite minority transforming this once peaceful city to a virtual war zone, and dividing it along strict sectarian lines.
The recent protests have been viewed by some with reservations and fear as many worry that that these popular and just movements were in fact triggered or masterminded by the traditional political establishment – mainly between President Michel Aoun and prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri who are caught up in a fierce confrontation over the formation of Lebanon’s next cabinet.
People also suspect that Hariri’s older brother, Bahaa Hariri, who has clearly clashed with Saad over his appeasement of Hezbollah, has played an active role in the protests turned riots, an allegation which the elder Hariri has denied. Hezbollah also equally believed to have a stake in the ongoing protests through his small, yet effective, local paramilitary groups with the aim of putting more pressure on Saad Hariri to concede to Aoun’s unrealistic demands and swiftly form the government.
Yet all these reservations and speculations, even if warranted, do not really change much about the Tripoli uprising, but merely reaffirm to the wider public the futility of engaging the current political establishment in any talks or to hope for any semblance of reform from them. In the same respect the rioting which has broken out, and the attacks against the Lebanese army, security forces, and government buildings, is nothing short of normal, given that these young men have not only been driven to the wretchedness of poverty, but more dangerously their dignity and humanity has been taken away from them.
Rather than fixating on why Tripoli has awakened, it is more advantageous to try and understand where these violent protests are heading, and to what extent the political establishment and Hezbollah would go to suppress these voices, and use the violence and rioting as a scarecrow to prevent other regions across Lebanon to follow suit.
With the transition into the Biden administration and the revitalization of the French initiative of President Emmanuel Macron, Lebanon’s political elite are scrambling to ensure that they are not left out of any future political compromise. Macron’s recent statements of his commitment to resume his initiative and visit Lebanon for the third time since the August 4 port explosion in Beirut, makes Tripoli even more important, as this underprivileged city can prevent a regional and international compromise which might come at the expense of the Lebanese.
For the longest time, Tripoli has been a victim of the Lebanese clientelist system and its oligarchs which have only looked the city and its inhabitants as votes at the ballot boxes or as simply guns to use for sectarian violence.
Even if the voice of Tripoli’s people are momentarily silenced by regional and international initiatives, such as the approach the French are peddling, this should in no way lead one to assume that Lebanon’s endemic crisis is over, but rather that it is in an induced political coma which will require more than a miracle to overcome.