Tripoli's Troubles to Come

by Maren Milligan | published August 13, 2012

For more on the cabinet walkout, see Marc J. Sirois, “Lebanon Against Itself (Again),” Middle East Report Online, February 4, 2011.

For more on the 2009 elections, see Heiko Wimmen, “Old Wine in New Skins: Lebanon Elects Another Parliament,” Middle East Report Online, June 3, 2009.

For more on the 2008 crisis, see Jim Quilty, “Lebanon’s Brush with Civil War,” Middle East Report Online, May 20, 2008.

Tripoli is the epicenter of a high-stakes conflict unfolding in Lebanon. In 2012 alone, armed clashes have erupted six times, in mid-February, thrice in May, again in early June and most recently in late July, between Sunnis and ‘Alawis there. The firefights in Lebanon’s second city, a port town of some 500,000 on a head of land jutting from the northern coast, have added to fears stoked by the proximity of the increasingly lethal civil war in Syria. The three days of battles in May left 11 dead; the July skirmishes took two more lives, and have put the population on edge.

The administrative unit of Tripoli consists almost entirely of the eponymous metropolis that links together other regions of Lebanon’s northernmost province: largely Sunni ‘Akkar and Miniyya-Diniyya, largely Greek Orthodox Koura, and largely Maronite Zagharta, Bishara and Batroun. Sunnis are approximately 80 percent of the city’s population, but there are also significant minorities, primarily ‘Alawis, who make up 7.5 percent of the residents, according to the 2009 voter registry. Most of the balance are Christians, either Maronites or Greek Orthodox, the remnants of larger communities that fled by the thousands during the 1975-1991 civil war.

The contention focused in Tripoli is often attributed to “spillover” from Syria, which borders Lebanon’s northern governorate to the north and the east. Thousands of Syrians have taken refuge in the city, particularly over the winter of 2011-2012, during the worst of the fighting in Homs, some 50 miles to the east over the mountains. Media accounts sometimes trace the clashes at the start of the summer to the May 25 massacre of 108 Syrians in Houla, northwest of Homs. [1] The idea behind such explanations -- often filed from Beirut or other distant locales -- is that the Houla victims were Sunnis and the perpetrators presumed in both Syria and Lebanon to be ‘Alawis. But the link is weak, and in any case, armed confrontations have been occurring in Tripoli for years. Indeed, the distrust between the people of the two quarters where the fighting has centered dates from the civil war and last erupted in hostilities in 2008 during the lead-up to the 2009 parliamentary elections. Although Tripoli has long been connected to Syria -- especially to its sister city, Homs -- the Lebanese port is not a mere extension of Syria. It is its own battleground.

Political Terrain

The domestic backdrop to the Tripoli clashes is the ongoing competition for leadership of the Sunni community in the country. While Lebanon’s most famous Sunni family -- the Hariris -- hails from Sidon in the south, Tripoli is a hub of Sunni politics not only for the north but also for the whole country and indeed the Levant.

The scions of a few prominent families, the Miqatis, Safadis, Karamis and Kabbaras, dominate Tripolitanian politics. Their machines are built on personal networks and, sometimes, foundations -- not the parties whose platforms, however nominal, attract supporters elsewhere in the country. The Hariris’ Sunni-identified Future Movement has elected some members of Parliament from Tripoli, but several politicians are independent agents, a factor heightening the brinkmanship that reigns.

Tripoli is particularly important to Najib Miqati, the telecommunications billionaire who was named prime minister in 2011. Miqati headed what was called the “consensus list” in Tripoli during the 2009 elections. He was put forward as a candidate for the premiership after the government of Saad al-Hariri dissolved upon the walkout of one third of the cabinet. The dissenters were all members of the alliance led by Hizballah, the Shi‘i Islamist party. They objected to cabinet decision-making protocols, as well as to Lebanese government funding for the special tribunal investigating the momentous car bomb assassination of Saad’s father Rafiq in 2005. Hariri’s supporters, foreign and domestic, and including many of Lebanon’s Sunnis, noted that Hizballah members were about to be fingered by the tribunal and viewed the alliance’s walkout as a de facto coup. Miqati’s willingness to deal with Hizballah -- by long-standing agreement, Lebanon’s prime minister must be Sunni -- was thus hugely controversial in his hometown. Protesters poured into the streets to denounce him, says one local civil society activist, and he “didn’t dare” to return for a month. Thenceforth, the activist continues, Miqati has kept “one eye on Tripoli and the other on the rest of his business” because “if he loses Tripoli, he won’t be able to compete with less-than-Hariri.” Such a political defeat would be quite humiliating, for Saad al-Hariri is on a prolonged sojourn in Paris.

The prime minister has been careful in navigating the treacherous political terrain. On the one hand, he nods to Sunni Islamist concerns by expressing “personal opposition to the way in which” Shadi Mawlawi, an Islamist with alleged ties to Syrian rebels, was arrested by General Security, [2] lured through false promises of medical care for his daughter. On the other hand, he condemns the imposition of divisions on the “sons” (of Tripoli) and the burning of houses and shops in the city. [3] Although he does not mention the ‘Alawis by name, the latter sentiment is a gesture to their concerns. On May 13 Miqati convened a meeting of Tripolitanian stakeholders of all religious and political orientations that concluded by declaring the security of Tripoli to be a “red line.” The line, however, has been bloodily crossed.

Intertwined Histories

Although violence has hit several areas, the battle front in Tripoli is Syria Street, a commercial strip in the eastern part of the city that separates the ‘Alawi ethnic ghetto of Jabal Muhsin from the Sunni economic ghetto of Bab al-Tabbana. Jabal Muhsin is an elevated plain encircled by Sunni neighborhoods on the slopes. On the western slope is the most populous, Bab al-Tabbana. Mankoubin -- another Sunni neighborhood that has seen periodic clashes -- is on the northern incline, on the road to the Palestinian refugee camp, Baddawi, and then out of town. It is not uncommon to hear ‘Alawis use the Arabic term muhit (ocean) to describe their surroundings, invoking a Sunni sea in which Jabal Muhsin is an island. In July, several ‘Alawi students were stabbed or kidnapped on their way down the slope into the central area of town. ‘Alawis living uphill describe a “siege” with shortages of basic foodstuffs such as bread that are sold at escalating prices.

Historically, Jabal Muhsin was not a predominantly ‘Alawi area and it has never been classified as distinct by the state. To this day, there is no separate civil registry for Jabal Muhsin -- the quarter is included in adjacent Bab al-Tabbana. Jabal Muhsin was settled at the turn of the century by rural migrants from the Tripolitanian hinterland, especially ‘Akkar and Diniyya, and from that point took on an ‘Alawi character. Until the civil war, however, ‘Alawis also lived extensively throughout Bab al-Tabbana (as well as the rest of Tripoli) and there were Sunnis residing in Jabal Muhsin. Intermarriage was not uncommon. While, according to long-time residents, sectarian sentiment was not as prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s as it was later, ‘Alawis were generally viewed as second-class citizens and country bumpkins fit to work in janitorial and other low-status jobs.

In 1970, led by Yusuf Hasan Basha and ‘Ali al-Nashar, ‘Alawis protested in front of the Beirut parliamentary building for rights and representation in Lebanon’s confessional system, which apportions political positions, seats in Parliament, public-sector jobs and other state resources among the officially recognized religious and ethnic groups known in Lebanon as confessions. They were allocated two seats in the 1991 parliament, following the 1989 Ta’if agreement that was intended to end the civil war. Due to the confessional composition of the electoral districts where they live, such as in Tripoli, the ‘Alawi seats are nonetheless filled by candidates elected by Sunni majorities. As a result, the community’s parliamentarians are seen as disconnected and unaccountable at the grassroots level.

‘Alawis frequently complain, for example, of scarce public employment opportunities. One independent ‘Alawi politician says, “If you want a government job, you have two choices: Become Sunni or become Shi‘i.” Rif‘at ‘Id, head of the local militia called the Arab Democratic Party (ADP), says that public-sector positions can only be “taken with blood” and that ‘Alawis are “waiting for the next bloody battle just to take [the post of] garbage man.”

In Lebanon’s confessional system, various communities have long sought the help of outside patrons to maximize their leverage at both the national and local levels. During the civil war, intra-Lebanese disputes were intertwined with enmity between various Lebanese groups and the Palestinians, both the refugees who have languished in the country since 1948 and the fighters of the PLO, who made Lebanon their main base from 1970-1982. The divide in Tripoli pitted allies of the PLO, such as Khalil ‘Akkawi in Bab al-Tabbana, against the Syrian army and its allied ‘Alawi militiamen from Jabal Muhsin. Syria invaded Lebanon in stages through 1976, up to a “red line” in the south negotiated with Israel and the United States, to prevent the utter collapse of its next-door neighbor and, not coincidentally, clip the PLO’s wings. The civil war raged on, but Yasser Arafat and the PLO command decamped through Tripoli for Tunis. Syria, for its part, was to occupy Lebanon until March 2005.

Under Syrian tutelage, Rif‘at ‘Id’s father ‘Ali created the ADP, which professed a secular, socialist ideology but also claimed to speak for the ‘Alawis of Lebanon. Under Syrian protection, Jabal Muhsin became an ‘Alawi enclave guarded as well by ADP loyalists, with whom the Syrians sometimes coordinated. By all accounts, the intermingling of Jabal Muhsin and Bab al-Tabbana residents decreased over the years of Syrian occupation. Today, ‘Alawi activists -- ADP and non-ADP alike -- estimate that 90 percent of the ‘Alawi population of the Tripoli administrative unit lives in Jabal Muhsin. (Two ‘Alawi politicians affiliated with the Future Movement give far lower figures.)

As for the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbana, being the demographic majority has done them little good. They also complain bitterly of political, social and economic neglect. Indeed, 67 percent of the residents of Bab al-Tabbana live below the poverty line. [4] Sunnis who have engaged in the summer 2012 fighting decry the lack of electricity, educational institutions and other services. They note that the fighting itself has reduced the already lackluster economic activity in the city, with the commercial zone of Syria Street almost entirely shuttered and other shops closing by noon. As one militia leader states of his community, “They are marginalized; no one cares about them except when there is an election or a war.”

There have been repeated calls for rehabilitating the port, and the cabinet has lately approved development funds. But Tripoli has largely been excluded from the reconciliation and reconstruction projects of the post-civil war period, a fact adduced by leaders on opposite sides of the political divide, Rif‘at ‘Id and Muhammad Kabbara, to justify their stances. The shared socio-economic grievances, however, do not stop these very politicians from exploiting the unforgotten torments of the war to mobilize Tripolitanians along communal lines.

Narratives of Pain

For the Sunni community of Bab al-Tabbana, the current conflict can traced back to December 1986, date of a massacre of hundreds of residents, including numerous civilians. In reprisal for the killing of 15 Syrian soldiers believed to have been carried out by local Sunni Islamist militants, the Syrian army sealed off the neighborhood. Amnesty International reported at the time that the subsequent raids included the deliberate targeting of the civilian population. Estimates of the death toll vary dramatically from 150 to 800. The modal figure cited by Bab al-Tabbana residents is 600; Amnesty reported 200 killed and several hundred others missing. [5]

Although this event is the first stop for any analytical tour of Tripolitanian politics, many crucial matters about it are contested. Residents of Bab al-Tabbana hold the ADP -- and the ‘Alawi population in general -- responsible for the massacre, but the evidence for this accusation is not clear-cut. Mustafa ‘Alloush, a former MP of mixed Sunni-‘Alawi heritage originally from Bab al-Tabbana, says it is a “myth” that ‘Alawis killed Sunnis. No ADP apologist, the staunchly anti-Syrian Future Movement politician maintains that “Syrian intelligence led a group of mostly Sunni soldiers who committed the massacres.” Amnesty International asserted at the time that the Syrian army and special forces -- commanded by ‘Ali Haydar -- led the operation, while noting reports that the ADP and a group called the “Tripolitanian resistance” also took part.

There is no disputing, however, the extent of the suffering in Bab al-Tabbana’s collective memory. It is often said that each resident lost a relative in the mass killings. During the Syrian occupation, it was prohibited to speak of the massacre, so the wounds were left to fester.

The ‘Alawis, for their part, reference other past atrocities as evidence of Sunni perfidy. Some activists cite the Ottoman Sultan Selim I’s slaughter of 300,000 ‘Alawis in Kisrawan in 1500. In 1976, more recently, 6,000-7,000 ‘Alawis from Tripoli and ‘Akkar fled to Syria to escape attacks, many taking refuge with family across the border. This trauma was a turning point in the history of local ‘Alawis. For example, it was then, Rif‘at ‘Id says, that his father ‘Ali met Hafiz al-Asad, formed the ADP and forged its alliance with Damascus.

These contending narratives of pain lie underneath the increasingly sharp tenor of sectarian hate speech that can be heard in Tripoli. Some salafi preachers speak of ‘Alawis as “infidels” whose killing will pave the road to heaven, a line that one Future Movement politician suggests is promoting a “culture of martyrdom.” Other residents of Bab al-Tabbana argue that the city’s problems will be solved only when the ‘Alawis are “removed.” On the ADP side, ‘Id calls Bab al-Tabbana “Tora Bora” and demands that the salafis be “cleaned out.”

Perhaps more explosive, given current events, is the charge that ADP militiamen work hand in glove with the Syrian authorities in their war with rebel fighters. There are credible reports, including from ‘Alawi sources, that this allegation has some truth. How much, however, is open to question. ‘Id describes the party’s relationship with Damascus as a broad political alliance embracing Hizballah, Iran, Russia and China. But he adds, “I love Bashar al-Asad, but I will not die for Bashar al-Asad.” Indeed, photographs of the Syrian president in Jabal Muhsin are noticeably fewer than in the past. As another independent ‘Alawi activist says, “The ‘Alawis don’t want to be related to the Syrian regime -- we want to be related to the Lebanese regime. We need this; we hope for this; but there is an absence.”

The ‘Alawi community’s relationship to ‘Id is similarly fraught. After clashes in Tripoli in 2008, many people rallied around the ADP flag. In the words of another independent ‘Alawi politician, “He has the weapons, so the people are with him.” ‘Id used his arsenal to his advantage in another way, accusing those who opposed arming the locals of disloyalty to the community as a whole. Yet his level of support appears to fall short of his own claim, “All of the ‘Alawis are my group.” Much like civilians elsewhere who are dependent upon militias for protection in the absence of state institutions -- yet are as afraid of their champions as they are of rival militias -- the ‘Alawis of Tripoli evince a quiet dissent that questions the wisdom of alliance with Syria and seeks alternatives to the ‘Id family. Activists walk a fine line between trying to broaden political participation and opening themselves to ‘Id’s insinuations of betrayal.

National Politics

Seven years after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon pursuant to the “independence uprising,” writers often use the woefully outdated terms “March 8” and “March 14” to describe the main fault line in Lebanese politics. The terms refer, respectively, to the enormous “thank you, Syria” and “Syria out!” demonstrations on those two dates in 2005. Since then, the alliances have shifted a great deal.

The March 8 gathering originally encompassed Hizballah, the Shi‘i Islamist Amal movement, the Christian Marada grouping and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, a core component of the March 14 demonstration, then joined this coalition in February 2006. Later, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party also switched alliances and joined the Hizballah-led government. 

Despite the fact that “March 8” is no longer an accurate name, it continues to be used by opponents to play up the role of Syria (and Iran) in Lebanese politics. (In much the same way, Hizballah labeled its rivals “February 14,” the date of Rafiq al-Hariri’s killing, to imply that they were exploiting his death in a distasteful manner.) Lately, Hizballah’s critics have taken to supplementing “March 8” with “ruling party” in a discursive nod to the Arab revolts. Hizballah’s coalition now calls itself the “majority in government,” the same term it used for its adversaries when they were in power. Perhaps indicating its declining cohesion -- ideological and otherwise -- it has not adopted a new symbolic self-designation.

While “March 14” is still an accurate description of the anti-Hizballah bloc, it is decreasingly representative of the ideologies of coalition members. Although the protest focused on ousting Syria, “March 14” was subsequently promoted as a brand -- pro-Western, pro-democratic and pro-market -- akin to the shining shopping centers built by Rafiq al-Hariri’s Solidére where the downtown rallies occurred. Yet the emergence of new groups within the alliance, such as the integration of al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya into the Future Movement and the parallel rise of various salafi groups and other Sunni Islamist preachers, has shifted the meaning of the March 14 brand. While the Islamist activists have strong ties to conservative Gulf states, they are not necessarily pro-Western. Similarly, while some may support democratic institutions, some do not support the full range of civil rights that other coalition members want. March 14 now has returned to its most basic meaning -- opposition to Syria -- and, as a result, has also begun to fracture.

In addition, these terms fail to account for the rise of politicians operating outside of the two main blocs. Miqati is but one example. A cadre of unaffiliated technocratic ministers comprising a neutral “president’s share” of the cabinet was codified as part of the Doha agreement that ended the crisis of 2008. In May of that year, Hizballah fighters took over downtown Beirut in response to the March 14 government’s attempt to dismantle the party’s telecommunications network at the airport. There is also now talk of technocrats running for MP slots, representing a possible new middle ground between the poles of Lebanese politics. Regular meetings between Hizballah and al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya to “confront American hegemony,” “reinforce civil and national peace” and foster “cooperation and consultations for Islamic unity,” reported by the media outlets of both sides, suggest that the March 8-March 14 divide is not the only axis around which politics revolves. It is still unclear how national politics will be reconfigured, but the fissures open in the north, especially in Tripoli.

Missing March 8, Absent State

Much as it has dialed back its initial protestations of friendship for the Syrian regime as the revolt against it expanded, Hizballah has said nothing about the conflict in Tripoli. When asked about the silence, Rif‘at ‘Id replies that the ADP cadres “don’t expect support from anyone.” He adds, rather enigmatically, “The big fish eats the small fish.” A Future Movement stalwart states, “In the end, Hizballah is too clever to end themselves with Bashar.” Or, it seems, with his allies in Lebanon. A senior politician allied with Hizballah explains that the Islamist party is trying to forestall further escalation. Using the metaphor of a fire brigade, he adds that Hizballah’s aim is to “put out the flames and cool down the region.”

While good news for Lebanon as a whole, Hizballah’s position may be bad news for ‘Alawi civilians whose leadership has anchored itself to a slowly sinking ship. Should hostilities erupt anew, ‘Alawis in Tripoli fear, there could be an attempt to exact revenge for the 1986 massacre. Future Movement politicians readily affirm that they “will not be able to prevent a massacre when the Syrian regime falls, unfortunately,” adding that the “same thing will happen in Syria and ‘Akkar.”

Rif‘at ‘Id’s bluster notwithstanding -- “the only way to come up the mountain is to bring NATO with them” -- Sunni fighters did try to enter Jabal Muhsin during the clashes in early June. Jabal Muhsin is surrounded, in fact, with no guarantee of reinforcement. Yet ‘Id is not backing down, perhaps because his back is to the wall. Rumors circulate in Tripoli that the ADP has artillery that can strike downtown and that the next battle will engulf areas that were previously untouched. ‘Id merely repeats that the ADP has “nothing to lose” and that “everyone will be in this mess.”

In Tripoli, the Lebanese army is regarded by some as a politicized institution either incapable of intervening or unwilling to risk it. Soldiers are increasingly visible along Syria Street -- the dividing line between Bab al-Tabbana and Jabal Muhsin -- as well as in the adjacent heights. The army presence remains thin, however, with residents complaining that soldiers withdraw when shooting starts, in what one civil society observer calls a policy of “negative neutrality.” On the other hand, the Internal Security Force gendarmerie -- especially the Information Branch -- is viewed by others as a March 14 and Future Movement stronghold. Accounts of ‘Alawi and Sunni civilians seeking intercession -- ‘Alawis from the army and Sunnis from the gendarmes -- suggest that the institutions have become politicized, either in reality or in the perception of various confessions.

This polarization of state security institutions is becoming national. The May checkpoint killing of Sheikh Ahmad ‘Abd al-Wahid, an ascendant preacher from ‘Akkar with ties to Syrian rebels, was used to substantiate suspicions among March 14 Sunnis that the army is controlled by Hizballah allies and that Miqati allows it to be manipulated. Although the blame has shifted from the army (given the large number of ‘Akkaris who seek to escape poverty through enlistment) to “those responsible,” protests both against and for the army are spreading southward. Increasingly, each political camp has its own state security institution, an inauspicious indicator for Tripoli and the rest of Lebanon.

And there is another void in Tripoli: The 24-member municipal council -- more selected than elected in 2010 -- is paralyzed by partisanship and inept leadership. The head of the municipality, Nadir Ghazal, was universally welcomed as a technocratic reformer but is now universally opposed. Ghazal, who was the head of a list of candidates split up among Tripoli’s factions, regrets agreeing to lead a consensus government. He bemoans the resulting gridlock. “In Lebanon in general, and in Tripoli in particular, you can’t have consensus.” The municipality’s crisis has grown to the point where there is talk of removing the council -- a measure only permitted three years after the election -- and at a time when Lebanon may hold national elections as well. The phrase “if there are elections” is casually sprinkled throughout the remarks of politicians, however, indicating that the black hole of government may expand rather than contract. In the meantime, militias are stepping into the void.

“The Monsters That Eat Them”

One Sunni activist states, “If [the army] won’t protect us, then we will build militias” -- or “regional defenses,” as the units prefer to be called, given the post-Ta’if prohibition on militias. The latter injunction is cited over and over by Hizballah’s critics as evidence that that the party has erected a “state within a state.” But unlike Hizballah’s Islamic Resistance, which is centralized and disciplined, Sunni militias are splintered and some tend toward the wild.

In Bab al-Tabbana, after the death of Khalil ‘Akkawi in 1982, there is no single leader. Instead, dozens of militias with shifting alliances have emerged. One of the larger bands, headed by Saad Masri, is tied to Miqati (whose denials no Tripolitanian believes), but that link has grown tenuous following the death of Masri’s brother, Khadr, at the hands of the army. Miqati is said to back other militias in Bab al-Tabbana, and he is not the only politician making such inroads. Muhammad Kabbara is also doling out funds. There are also several salafi militias, although they are tight-lipped about their sources of cash. Even Hizballah reportedly was sponsoring a militia until early August. All of these connections are subterranean, however, and subject to abrupt change. With militias constantly for sale to the highest bidder, some politicians have expressed frustration that their investments are not secured.

This fluidity is one of the reasons that Future has a complicated relationship with militias. After its 2008 routing in Beirut despite reinforcements from northern Islamists, Future knows it fares better in political terrain than on the battlefield. Future also knows that militias would quickly become difficult for them to control, due to the declining prestige of the Paris-based Hariri. Future’s official policy is that the state should hold a monopoly on armed force. This position is key to its antipathy for Hizballah, with its crack Islamic Resistance, and some March 14 members consider it a central plank of the coalition’s platform. Evidence suggests that the party is sticking to policy, much to the chagrin of its base. When Ahmad al-Hariri (nephew of Rafiq) attempted to speak at the funeral of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid in ‘Akkar, he was shouted down by a crowd chanting, “We don’t need a pen, we need arms.” Some Future politicians, indeed, are channeling money to militias in their capacity as private individuals.

Unlike other confessions that have long-standing militias with clear chains of command, the Sunnis have multiple power centers and hence multiple channels through which arms can flow. Militias are able to play the affluent Tripolitanian politicians off one another. And, given the importance of claiming the “Sunni street,” it is a seller’s market. Regional powers are also getting in the mix, with repeated accounts of Qatari money streaming not only to the Free Syrian Army, but also to various groups in Bab al-Tabbana.

Prices are skyrocketing due to rising demand and the influx of money: The cost of a grenade for an RPG has increased tenfold from $100 to $1,000. The price is particularly remarkable considering Bab al-Tabbana’s poverty: When there is work, residents work long hours to take home $10 per day. Not surprisingly, the conflict has become big business -- a “regional defense” commander, reportedly, can earn up to $3,000 a month. One fighter proudly displayed video on his expensive smart phone that showed him teaching his 4-year old how to fire a handgun.

One of the major questions is the ammunition supply -- and thus the degree of dependence of the combatants upon their patrons. It is hard to gauge, but there are credible reports (confirmed by militia heads in Bab al-Tabbana) of ammunition coming from Saudi Arabia through the Information Branch of Lebanon’s Internal Security Force. One NGO worker in the area also relates that children -- many of whom drop out of school at an early age -- are being paid $5 a day to load clips. Although leading fighters keep mum about the amount of ammunition in circulation, rank-and-filers extol it as “God’s bounty.”

Due to the ADP’s centralized control, it is more difficult to obtain information about the cost and availability of arms in Jabal Muhsin. It seems plausible that the ADP is fighting with weapons left by the departing Syrian army in 2005, given that the mountain is encircled by Sunni, and thus presumably hostile, areas. ‘Id claims that he can “get arms from Spinney’s” -- the supermarket at the southern edge of Tripoli -- but this declaration also smacks of bravado. The stream of weaponry into Tripoli not only threatens the general peace, but also means that personal disputes can quickly turn to gunplay. Although Bab al-Tabbana has long suffered lawlessness as a result of government neglect, the ubiquity of arms is turning the neighborhood into a Wild West. 

Is Tripoli a powder keg? One well-positioned Sunni politician vacillates between insisting that politicians have a firm grip on the reins and admitting glumly that “the cart is now ahead of the horse.” ‘Id simultaneously expresses confidence in a regional solution and laments that Lebanese history repeats itself, because the country’s politicians “grow the monsters that eat them.”

In November 2011, civil society activists launched a Campaign for a Tripoli Without Arms. Its approximately 1,700 Facebook group members, periodic demonstrations and press conferences have had limited effect, however. The effort has stalled amid arguments -- cynical or sincere -- that Tripoli should not be disarmed without disarming the entire country. It is hardly rare to hear remarks like “we will equalize the arms and then negotiate.” Each side, indeed, seems confident that the denouement is in the offing. But given the steady inflow of arms and the inaction of the Lebanese state, Tripoli may only have seen the beginning of the troubles to come.

Endnotes

[1] New York Times, June 2, 2012.
[2] National News Agency (Lebanon), May 13, 2012. [Arabic]
[3] Now Lebanon, June 12, 2012. [Arabic]
[4] Al-Akhbar English, May 15, 2012.
[5] I am grateful to Brittany Dawson for her research assistance in collecting these reports.

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