What Politicians Can and Can't Do About Tripoli

Politicians can’t do anything to change the situation in Tripoli, but that’s not why the people are complaining.

–Tripoli at Night, photo by Haytham Kabbara

Every time someone complains on Facebook or on Twitter that Lebanese Politicians are doing nothing for Tripoli, I feel a mixture of emotions. On one hand, I find it absurd that people are asking politicians to fix a situation they are completely powerless to fix. Saying politicians should do something about the war in Tripoli is as absurd as saying that politicians should do something about the war in Syria. The situation is too complex to be “fixed”; all politicians can do at the moment is to back one horse or the other, warlords on the streets answer to higher forces than some powerless man in a suit.

Even the Army is powerless; as I’ve argued before, the army would lose a lot if it deployed an “Iron Fist” policy:

Both sides in the conflict in Tripoli are complaining that the army is too lenient on the other side, but imagine how worse it would be if the army is seen as siding with one side at the expense of the other. It would then face two dangers: A collapse of moral authority and dissent within the army

Another part of me however believes that the complainers are right. Despite the above, the politicians are not excused in their inaction. They are not doing the right thing by completely staying out of this (or worse, charming us with pointless platitudes in pointless public statements). There is one big step they could take that can make the situation a bit better for the city’s dwellers.

Why the people are angry and the one thing politicians can do about it

At the risk of sounding like psycho-babble, the real anger in Tripoli is not because the politicians aren’t doing anything to solve the situation, it’s because they don’t really understand what’s going on. The average Trabelsy is angry because he feels that the politicians aren’t really understanding how bad things are. The most poignant critique I have seen again and again is that Tripoli is not treated as if it were a part of Lebanon.

The one thing politicians can do to show that they really care is to make a grand gesture and move to Tripoli. Baabda, Ain el Tineh and the Seraille are quite far from the action. As I’ve experienced personally, it’s one thing to read on the news about bombs and shootings and missiles, and it’s quite another to actually live the action, stay awake at night and worry that the next missile may find its way into your child’s window.

Mr. President, Mr. (acting) Prime Minister, Mr. Speaker, Mr. politician who likes to make hollow statements on TV. Move to Tripoli, listen with your own ear to what’s going on. See what it really feels to be there. After that, we’ll start believing in whatever actions you decide to take regarding the situation.

An Ode to Curtains

If I were to pick a hero following the horrendous events of Tripoli on Friday, events that touched me and my family personally, I would without doubt choose the item responsible for the most lives saved on that fateful day: The humble curtain.

Curtains saved my own life; The explosion was strong enough to violently break windows and send large, frightening glass shrapnels hurtling toward certain kills if it weren’t for that most mundane of household objects, when curtains magically transformed into safety nets and stopped those hideous sharp edges from reaching eyes, necks and other body parts. Here’s where I was sitting:

That story was repeated again and again. Curtains protected my wife who was breastfeeding my 5-day old baby near the window. They saved my 4-year-old son who was looking on with wonder as his mother fed his little sister. They protected my inlaws, my friends, our neighborhood barber, our local grocer and most of my neighbors who now owe their lives to pieces of cloth that, much like the victims of the explosions, became unwilling martyrs of that madness that is sweeping Lebanon.

I mourn the many lives lost on that day, but they would have been much more numerous if it weren’t for curtains. If I was asked about the single most important advice to give people who are fearing explosions, my answer would be straightforward: If you don’t have curtains in your home, install some immediately and try to keep them down as much as possible. Hopefully you will never need them, but if you do, your loved ones will thank you.

Tripoli: A Tale of Three Cities

The word Tripoli means “three cities”, which is a fitting name for a city that today houses three distinct cultures (“cities”), which are in a state of constant flux and violent interaction. Today we’ll meet the three cities that comprise today’s Tripoli and see how they interact together.

Marathon Tripoli

Marathon Tripoli is proudly Lebanese. It is made of the bourgeois, the well educated and the nationalist. It is named so because its citizens believe that organizing a marathon is an indication of civilization and a rejection of violence. Marathon Tripoli residents are predominantly Sunnis but welcome other sects and love to talk about how much they all love each other. They hang out on Ashir el Dayeh street cafés where they declare on national TV that they love life just like the rest of the Lebanese.

When Marathon Tripoli citizens protests, they like to protest next to Brunch, a fancy café where other Marathon tripoli citizens hang out… They are all over facebook, creating groups like We Love Tripoli, and on Twitter protesting the fact that the rest of the Lebanese don’t care about them and aren’t giving their suffering enough attention. Citizens of Marathon Tripoli also like to write blog posts in English where they argue that their city is actually made of three cities.

Tarablos al Sham

Tarablos al Sham, (loosely translated as “Tripoli of Greater Syria”), is made of Sunnis who never accepted Lebanon as a final political entity. Citizens of Tarablos al Sham believe that Tripoli is part of a Sunni “umma” that spans the Arabian peninsula and north Africa. They are generally poor and under-educated, and they see foreign language education as a form of deviation from the true knowledge of Arabic and the history of Islam.

The citizens of Tarablos al Sham reserve their biggest anger and disdain for the Shiaas and Alawis, partly because they see them as “deviants” and partly because they have been relentlessly killing their brothers in the Umma in Syria. This is why they consider it their religious duty to fight them, whether it means sending fighters to Syria or fighting them in Jabal Mohsen.

Update: For clarifications on the origins of the phrase Tarablos al Sham, please read Posh’s comment in the comments section)

Tarablos al Assad

Photo by Alex Potter

There are many Alawis who live in Marathon Tripoli, but the majority of them are citizens of Assad Country. The leadership of Tarablos al Assad (Tripoli of Assad) has successfully convinced Alawis that all the citizens of Tripoli are secretly Tarablos al Sham fanatics, and that unless the Alawis of Jabal Mohsen stick together under the protection of the Assad Family and their ruthless ways, their very existence will be at stake. Tarablos al Assad residents are camera shy and they generally stay quiet on the social media.

It’s complicated

The interplay between these three Tripolis is subtle. Marathon tripoli would never condone any form of ethnic cleansing against the Alawis, but its citizens are sympathetic to the fighters of Tarablos al Sham and consider Tarablos al Assad to be the villains in this war. The citizens of Marathon Tripoli are also mostly in denial that the bearded, black-flag-waving islamists of Tarablos al Sham are “real” Tripolitanians and they insist that they are foreign elements.

The political leaders of Marathon Tripoli are supporting the fighters of Tarablos al Sham with money and weapons because they want to keep them under control and they want to ensure the fighting doesn’t extend to their Tripoli. That doesn’t mean however that they support their vision of an eventual islamist state. Remember, these are capitalists who enjoy Lebanon’s pleasures and “usurious” banks.

Marathon Tripoli loves the Lebanese army, but Tarablos al Sham scorns it as an artificial construct that represents the authority of a state they don’t believe in.

Fighters of Tarablos al Sham overstate their influence and believe they are somehow living in the middle of a Muslim spring where the “artificial” borders will eventually melt and we will have a khilafa once again. They believe that citizens of Marathon Tripoli back their vision of Sunni pan-nationalism and they are in for a big eventual disappointments.

The biggest test for Marathon Tripoli, after all the fighting is done and the dust settles, is how it is planning to eventually integrate Tarablos al Sham and Tarablos al Assad under its vision of a prosperous city in a unified country called Lebanon.

In Tripoli, Citizens are to Blame Too

A poster has been making the rounds in Tripoli’s social media (click image above for full poster), blaming the citizens of Tripoli for electing worthless representatives. “You voted for them”, the pointed finger admonishes the reader over a dramatic background of splattered blood and portraits of sinister-looking Tripoli MPs “…You’re the one to blame”.

That’s a good point. But the poster is also right in a way it didn’t intend: the latest events in Tripoli are not only a failure of the political class, but also a failure of civil society and the citizens of Tripoli.

Will you get done with it already?

There are two sides in this battle. On one hand you have the Alawis in Jabal Mohsen who are a minority but who are well armed and well entrenched on a hill overlooking the city. On the other hand, you have ragtag Jihadi Sunnis in Tebbaneh who want to teach the Alawis a lesson as a payback for what their sponsor, Assad, has been doing to his people in Syria.

The common complaint on Twitter and on Facebook is that politicians are not doing their work to stop the violence. Another culprit is the media for ignoring what’s happening in the capital of the north, and a particularly popular soundbite is that Lebanon has forgotten about Tripoli and is behaving as if the city doesn’t exist.

But dig deeper into the attitudes of the city’s citizens and you find that many are secretly rooting for one side to win.

The Sunnis are hoping that the Jihadis (conveniently forgetting that they’re outlaw gunmen) will “liberate” Jabal Mohsen from Assad’s claws. Many are angry because they are feeling like sitting ducks to the missiles falling in on their city from the hill, and angry because it doesn’t feel right that a minority can terrorise the city’s majority in this way.

The Alawis on the other hand believe that they’re fighting an existential battle, a battle that if they lose they will be massacred or expelled from the city. This is why their supporters are secretly hoping that their missiles will prove painful enough for Tripoli to establish permanent deterrence and get the Jihadis off their backs

What people who really want peace do

Here’s what we didn’t see yet in Tripoli: We didn’t see mothers from both sides forming chains at the demarcation lines and setting up tents in protest against the insanity and vowing to stay there until the shooting stops. We didn’t see large rallies where sunnis and Alawis declared together that they’re brothers and they don’t want to take any part of this.

The sad truth is that Tripoli is a divided city. One that is filled with suspicion, anger and hate. We blame the politicians for the war, but it is ultimately our fault.

Is it Because They're Poor?

There’s this theory making the rounds in certain circles in Lebanon and in the foreign media, which sees the events in Tripoli as simply the outcome of stark poverty and wretchedness in that miserable part of Lebanon. Many statistics are produced, about Tripoli having some of the poorest people in the country and the highest unemployment rate, to support this theory. This makes for a neat narrative, but I think this econocentrist view doesn’t adequately represent what is happening in the city. Continue…

Clashes in Tripoli. Will There be a "Victory"?

This is not a post about right and wrong. I’m not here to ask who is to blame for the fights in Tripoli, or to rant about the powerless government and the sheer madness of urban populations lobbing grenades and missiles at each other. This post is simply to ask a question many of you are asking: Is there a point in this struggle? Is there a desired outcome in the mind of any of the two parties or is this just a mindless brawl?

One of the most shared tweets on Tripoli’s clashes last night was this one , which translates roughly as:

“This sounds like a battle with a decisive outcome in mind.”

Can we really have a “decisive outcome” in the clash between Bab el Tebbeneh and Jabal Mohsen or is the entire fight “pointless”, to use the word of prime minister Mikati? (المعارك العبثية)


Najib Miqati's Plan to Win Over Tripoli's Sunnis

Quietly and behind the scenes, the Lebanese Prime Minister is working hard for a big electoral upset in 2013

Thinking long-term (Photo credit: Bryan Denton for the New York Times)

Somewhere along the highway coming from Beirut to Tripoli, there’s a pedestrian bridge near a sleepy northern town that I used to call the “Hariri bridge”. The all-Sunni town of Qalamoun had been a stronghold for the Hariri family and the Future Movement for as long as I could remember, and that bridge regularly carried messages related to Hariri events and March 14 talking points, usually flanked by large posters of Martyr Rafik el Hariri or his son Saad.

So imagine my surprise as I passed under that bridge yesterday when I saw that it shed all traces of the trademark blue color of the Future Movement and carried instead a large banner that read “Thank you Your excellency”, with, for the first time in my recollection, the smiling portrait of Najib Miqati, not Saad Hariri, staring back at me.


Who is Arming Lebanon's Sunnis?

The question March 14 supporters are struggling to agree on an answer to

He must have found it on the street (source)

If you ask a supporter of Hezbollah or March 8 in Lebanon about who is arming Lebanon’s Sunnis, the answer is usually quick and immediate, and it is always the same: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries through Hariri’s Future Movement (FM). But if you grab 5 random March 14 supporters (especially Sunnis) and ask them the same question, you might get as much as 5, hesitant, answers.

Until recently, many Lebanese Sunnis and supporters of the Future Movement lived in a reality in which they were the good guys who didn’t carry guns. Their attitude to armed Sunni fighters (who openly and publicly declared their support for Hariri) was similar to the attitude of Syria’s supporters to the killing of Rafik Hariri: It’s an awkward question that they prefer not to think of an answer to. Continue…

Tripoli's Image Problem

More Lebanese are associating Tripoli with salafists and Islamists. This is having an effect on national politics.

A picture spreading on twitter comparing Tripoli to Beirut

It must be very difficult to be a member of the Lebanese Forces nowadays. With all the bearded men and the black flags gaining visibility in Tripoli, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to defend their political alliance with the “terrorists”.


A Backlash in Tripoli

Civil campaigners will be staging a peaceful demonstration today against the presence of weapons in Tripoli. But this is just one part of the story.

Posters from the “Tripoli Arms free” Facebook page

If I were in Lebanon I would surely join the demonstration for a Tripoli free of arms. If you are in Lebanon, you too should try to join. But there’s an important point that needs to be made: This is very much a middle-class and elite backlash against what they claim is being done by “outsiders” to their city. Unfortunately things are a bit more complicated than that. Continue…