The parliamentary election on 15 May in Tripoli was very open. In that huge port city with its 80% Sunni Muslim population and its Greek Orthodox, Maronite and Alawite minorities, three major figures who have dominated the political horizon since the end of the nineties were no longer in the running. Saad Hariri, former Prime Minister whose party had taken most seats in the last election (2018), decided to withdraw from politics. Nagib Mikati, the current Prime Minister chose not to seek re-election and backed a party which managed to elect only one candidate. Another local heavyweight, Mohammad Safadi also threw in the towel. While parliament had appointed him Prime Minister in the wake of the protest movement which had rocked the country at the end of 2019, angry crowds had forced him to turn the office down.
The defeat of the Karami “heir apparent”
As for Faisal Karami, sole survivor of one of Tripoli’s oldest political families, he lost his seat in this election. Yet one of his campaign arguments was his family’s rich history on the Lebanese political scene since the nineteen-twenties. His grandfather, Abdel Hamid Karami was an early leader of the local resistance to the French mandate. Allied with the Syrian nationalists, he was an architect of the country’s independence and became Prime Minister in 1945. His uncle Rachid was elected to that office ten times before his assassination in 1987. Faisal’s father, Omar, who took up the torch was long considered “a puppet of the Syrians” as was Faisal himself, elected to parliament in 2018.
However, it does not seem to have been his close ties with the Syrian Baathist regime which made the Karami heir lose his seat, even though other pro-Damascus figures were also excluded from the country’s political arena. Indeed, his list won almost as many votes as in 2018, but the electorate preferred another candidate, Taha Naji, a member of the Ahbache Brotherhood, a pro-Syrian Islamist charity of Ethiopian origin, established in Lebanon since the nineteen eighties and which owns many local charities.
In the opinion of political scientist Nawaf Kabbara, Karami’s defeat is nonetheless symbolic, for it exemplifies “the rollback of traditional figures, as observed throughout the country”. Absurdly and ironically, the pro-Syrians have been reinforced in Tripoli by this recent vote on account of the peculiarities of the electoral law and the incoherent composition of the lists. Indeed, Firas Salloum, a totally unknown Alawite candidate who figured on the list of businessman Iyab Matar, connected with Jamaa Islamiyah – the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – was elected with 370 votes and feted his victory with songs in honour of Bashar Al-Assad!
Rejection of Hezbollah
Aside from a surprise like that, the main feature of this election in this predominantly Sunni city was the rebuff suffered by Hezbollah and the triumph of Ashraf Rifi, a former minister and fierce adversary of “The Party of God”. With his 11,500 votes. He crushed the opposition. “Achraf Rifi represents the opinion of radical Sunnis who supported Hariri but felt he was not severe enough in his opposition to Hezbollah”, Nawaf Kabbara explains. His list took three seats out of the precinct’s eighth but is unlikely to become Prime Minister (always of Sunni confession in Lebanon) precisely because of his intense hostility towards Hezbollah in a political system marked by a spirit of compromise. His high score even allowed for the election of a member of the Christian-based Lebanese Forces. This was a first in the modern history of Tripoli.“The Lebanese Forces are at odds with the very identity of that Sunni city with their anti-Palestinian past and accusations of having assassinated Prime Minister Rachid Karami. But they advocate the rejection of Hezbollah by every possible means, and this was what attracted the Tripolines” is the argument put forward by Raphaël Lefèvre in his recent book, Jihad in the city: Militant Islam and Contentious Politics in Tripoli (Cachan France, Editions Lavoisier, 2021)
This city in Northern Lebanon was one of the strongholds of the Palestinian militias during the civil war (1975–1990) and in fact it was from Tripoli that Yasser Arafat and over four thousand Palestinian fighters were evacuated in December 1983. The Karami did all he could to rehabilitate the tutelary figure of his murdered uncle Rachid and mobilise voters against the Lebanese Forces He erected a huge billboard sporting his uncle’s portrait on Al-Nour square – where mass meetings are habitually held – ascribing to him these words “Do not let them murder me again!” But it was not enough. Just as nationally, the Christian Party is one of the election’s big winners.
Clientelism and massive vote buying
The clientelism also played an important role in Tripoli where extreme poverty is rampant. While no recent estimates exist, 60% of the population already lived below the poverty line before the onset of the economic crisis that has devastated Lebanon for the past two years. Of the twenty people interviewed by Orient XXI on election day in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods (Bab el-Tebbaneh, Qobbé, Abi-Samra), 95% said they had been paid by one of the traditional parties to vote for them or had benefited from “favours”. A venerable practice in this city, where its billionaires (Hariri, Mikati, Safadi) have systematically, since the nineteen nineties, invested large sums in elections. A young woman encountered on election day assured us she had voted for Faisal Karami after he had paid her hospital fees (8 million Lebanese pounds – approx. $400) when her baby was born. His family owns a major hospital in the port city as well as several dispensaries and has traditional ties with the Health Ministry. A thirty-year-old man told of having voted for future MP Karim Kabbara who, after a few phone calls, had reduced his prison sentence from six months to nine days.
The Kabbara family are known for their hold on the local judiciary and have a powerful network of attorneys set up by Karim’s father, former MP Mohamed Kabbara.
Votes were also bought on a massive scale, between one and two hundred dollars each. “The injection of large sums of money into the campaign by the traditional parties despite the severe economic crisis raises some questions,” says Ayman Mhanna, head of the Samir Kassir Foundation, who has good reason to be alarmed. The Lebanese Forces, which have been generously funded by the Saudis – enabling them to rent billboards all along the freeway from Beirut to Tripoli – have also been printing money and they are not alone.
The irresistible rise of Ihab Matar
It was his cash and a very well-organised pre-election campaign in Australia (where the Tripoline diaspora is well implanted) that enabled a man of mystery named Ihab Matar, a Libano-Australian businessman, to win a seat in the National Assembly. As a candidate, he made his reputation by distributing huge quantities of bread loaves in his likeness during Ramadan.
He also paid the annual tuition fees at the Lebanese University of Tripoli for any student who signed a dedicated Facebook page; according to several people encountered on election day, the candidate shelled out four million Lebanese pounds ($200) – twice the monthly wages of a Lebanese soldier – to anyone who showed their support or who was willing to act as mandoubin on election day. These “delegates” are supposed to supervise the polling stations or recruit voters. But most of them spend election day in discussions under awnings wearing motley t-shirts in the candidate’s colours. A form of disguised corruption but allowed under the electoral law.
“Ihab Matar may well be headed for a career similar to that of Mohamed Dajadi who came out of nowhere at the end of the nineties, even though he does not seem to have as much capital,” says Samer Tamous, dean of the faculty of education and psychology at the University of Balamand. “Since the end of the civil war, the dominant model in Tripoli involves the prevalence of market and managerial values, and the cult of public opinion (…) while traditional and religious values no longer provide a preferential basis for the access to dignitary status,” writes specialist Bruno Dewailly.1
Ihab Matar was also clever enough to join Jamaa Islamiya in a city which remains conservative and religious. Because money is not always enough. Omar Harfouche, another millionaire with a nefarious reputation who was also pitchforked into Tripoli found that out the hard way. This Franco-Lebanese who had appeared on the TV reality show “I am a celebrity, get me out of this”, harvested only a thousand votes despite having purchased many and put up huge posters all over the city. A secular proponent of a “third republic” his candidacy was mostly greeted with incomprehension and even mockery in the working-class districts on account of his sensationalist antecedents as a fashion model. Also, there is one story that dogs him and which Tripolines love to tell. The candidate had promised to pay everyone who came to his rally. When at the end of the day nobody was paid, they walked off with all the plastic chairs!
“The bride of revolution”
Another lesson to be drawn from this election was the unexpected success of a candidate from October 17, 2019 protest movement against politicians in general. It got under way in Beirut following a decision to tax WhatsApp, and flourished for several months in Tripoli, earning the city the sobriquet “fiancée of the revolution”. Yet two and a half years later the movement has fizzled out. Many Tripolines were disappointed by its lack of radicalism – you often hear them say “You do not make a revolution by dancing the dabke”2 - and accusing it of worsening the economic crisis, the movement having run parallel with the country’s financial collapse. “The absence of Saad Hariri had enabled a list headed by Rami Finge to make a breakthrough. He is a dentist who became popular after he was arrested for handing out food to protestors. He owed his election to the educated youth of Tripoli and the diaspora vote”, Samer Tannous maintains. His success reflects the modest wind of change which did enable some dozen candidates presented by none of the confessional parties to find their way into parliament.
In the port city, the results of the election were mostly greeted with indifference and little hope of change. Abstention was high, 61% across the region, a figure like that of 2018. The population is trying to survive in an economic context that is getting worse by the day. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, inflation is exploding, the price of bread is rising and the cost of telecommunications is expected to increase fivefold.
In this great city on the North coast of Lebanon, people are likely to be looking towards the Mediterranean again during the coming months, with more perilous crossings towards Europe expected this summer. There have already been many over the past two years. On 23 April, tens of persons were drowned when a boat out of Tripoli capsized on its way to Italy.
1« Transformations du leadership tripolitain : le cas de Nagib Mikati » in Leaders et partisans au Liban, edited by Franck Mermier and Sabrina Mervin, Khartala, coll. Hommes et sociétés, 2012.
2TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Dabke combines circle dance and line dancing and is widely performed at weddings and other joyous occasions.