Every single day of the week, a veritable human torrent pours into Al-Nour Square in Tripoli, causing it to buzz with energy. Protesters proudly display the three colours of the Lebanese cedar on cheeks, flags and clothing. The word thawra (revolution) is endlessly repeated, on placards as well as in the songs chanted at regular intervals. One building is adorned with a monumental painting of the national flag bearing the message “We will continue until President and Parliament fall” which seems to watch over the effervescence of the square with its colourful tents, food and drink stalls, music stations, Lebanese Red Cross, Islamic Medical Association (organiser of the rallies), along with the permanent presence of the army.
On the fringes of the square, the “School of Revolution” occupies several tents, in which activists lead debates and kitchens have been set up, feeding almost 2000 people every day, free of charge. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, the atmosphere becomes electric, with festive musical sessions (Tripoli had a “revolutionary DJ” long before the capital did) punctuated by militant speeches; slogans are echoed by the crowd. The youth of Beirut may be in the spotlight, yet Tripoli’s crowds seem more diverse in terms of age, with a higher proportion of elderly people and families with children. Though it gets less media coverage than its Beirut counterpart, the popular uprising against the governing regime and corruption that has pervaded the north Lebanese capital for more than two months shows no sign of running out of steam, two weeks after Hassan Diab was appointed Prime Minister.
Tripoli, located on the coast 85 kilometres north of Beirut and 30 kilometres from the Syrian border, is Lebanon’s second largest city. Its socio-economic characteristics set it starkly apart from the capital: the poverty rate is close to 57% (as against a national rate of 28%, according to United Nations data from 2018) and the city’s growth, driven since the 1950s by rural poverty in the north of the country (made up of the governorates of North Lebanon and Akkar), has been accompanied by urban segregation, with the expansion of marginalised neighbourhoods with rampant insecurity and deteriorated infrastructure. Tripoli also has a certain sectarian homogeneity: 81% Sunni Muslims, plus the presence of Alawite (9%) and Christian minorities.
As a result, and owing to the absence of counter-revolutionary forces (such as certain supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, or Aounist supporters of the president), the Tripoli revolution has escaped the violent episodes that marred some of the rallies in the capital, where punitive attacks were carried out by Hezbollah supporters against demonstrators in late October, and with the tragic death of local politician Alaa Abou Fakher, who was killed by a member of the army on November 13th.
The reputation of a “hotbed of salafists”
The awakening of Tripoli seemed to come as a surprise to everyone except Tripolitans themselves. “I love my city. I think that what is happening in al-Nour Square gives the true image of Tripoli,” enthuses Mohamed, director of a charity that is very active in North Lebanon. “An image that was destroyed a few years ago, during the fighting between Muslims and Alawites”, he adds, bitter at the memory of these tragic events. Indeed, the city’s history has been tainted since the 1980s by the escalation of religious clashes, climaxing between 2008 and 2015 with the armed conflict that transformed the north of the city into a true “microcosm of the Syrian war,” with the Sunni inhabitants of Bab el-Tebbaneh (supporters of the Syrian revolution) confronting the Alawites of the neighbouring Jabal Mohsen District, who supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The human toll came to more than 200 dead and 2000 wounded. The rise of Salafist networks, plus the (real or suspected) presence of jihadists affiliated to Islamic State or the Al-Nusra Front in Tripoli and Akkar have further damaged the city’s reputation. “The Lebanese saw Tripoli as the hotbed of Islamic State, or the Salafists,” Mohamed says, “and the media played a major role in this, by focusing only on these events…”
North Lebanon, a region severely neglected by public powers
“It’s because almost everyone here is poor that people are constantly in al-Nour Square, day in, day out,” says Sonia, director of a humanitarian NGO. Indeed, 60% of the population of the governorate of North Lebanon lives below the poverty line, a rate that rises to more than 90% in the neighbourhoods of Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen (according to a member of the Tripoli municipal council)—and more than 82% in the neighbouring governorate of Akkar, which borders Syria (UN data, 2018).
Northern Lebanon is also the main region accommodating refugees, with 145,000 Syrians and 51,000 Palestinians—which is 32% of the population (UN data, 2018). The host community has shown considerable hospitality, nourished by sectarian solidarity and sympathy for the Syrian revolution. According to one city councillor, “Tripoli (…) has naturally become the human support of the Syrian people”. As an example, 75% of the population of the Union of Khaled Municipalities in Akkar, located on the north-eastern border with Syria (some 30 kilometres from Homs) are Syrian refugees, according to 2016 data from the Ministry of the Interior and the Municipalities. However, the deteriorating economic situation, coupled with growing competition on the labour market, has heightened tensions between Lebanese and Syrian people. In fact, the unemployment rate stands at 45% in the governorate of North Lebanon, reaching 54% in Akkar and 65% in the Miniyeh Danniyeh District (UN data, 2018).
Historically oriented towards Syria, North Lebanon has suffered greatly from the dynamic of centralisation of power and the economy at work in the “land of cedars.” The civil war, the Syrian occupation and the subsequent withdrawal of troops have turned Tripoli and Akkar into the most economically disadvantaged regions. A lack of public investment has sustained this poverty dynamic: “We have no support from the government,” stated a member of the municipal council active in Bab el-Tebbaneh. “Without government, there is no job creation, high unemployment and more and more poverty. There is a lack of basic medical and educational services, of water and electricity and a huge waste crisis. Nothing will get better unless there is a change of government.” According to Sonia, “80% of the people living here (in the north) are poor. Basic needs, such as water, roads and electricity are not being met.” Indeed, power cuts last nearly ten hours a day in Tripoli and Akkar, and the government has yet to suggest a lasting solution to the “garbage crisis” that is particularly acute in the north of the country.
As an example, a town in Akkar (located about ten kilometres from the Syrian border) has a population of around 1,500 Lebanese inhabitants and 4,200 Syrians. According to the mayor, the municipality, deprived of financial means, has received no governmental assistance for more than two years. The continuing presence of a high number of refugees is putting a strain on already fragile infrastructure: roads are in poor condition and water and electricity supply networks are almost non-existent. The economic and labour market situation in the village—as in the rest of Akkar—has been significantly affected, first by Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, then by the destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared (famous for its commercial dynamism) in 2007, and more recently by the consequences of the Syrian civil war. Indeed, closure of the border in 2014 interrupted trade with Syrian cities such as Homs, which had been providing a necessary channel of exchange for its economy. At 20%, the unemployment rate in the village is relatively low—but this is only thanks to the army, for which the young people of Akkar represent a very significant source of recruits. “The government does not study Akkar. They know nothing about the region,” says the mayor.
According to the director of an NGO active in North Lebanon, public authorities’ absence of interest in one of the most vulnerable areas of the country has political roots. “Most of the communities are Sunni, so there is no interest for them: they know that all the Sunnis will vote for Sunni parliamentarians … so they focus on villages where there is competition between Christians and Muslims”. Upheld by a system of patronage, poverty is institutionalised: instead of injecting money into the city’s economy, local leaders pay residents for their votes. According to George, a 30-year-old native of Tripoli, “Politicians divide people and make them even poorer and needier, the better to control them.” They would rather buy citizens’ votes than “invest in industry or build factories,” because if they were working and earning adequate income, they would “be emancipated, no longer under their yoke”.
Ironically enough, Tripoli is also home to some of Lebanon’s wealthiest people—for example, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and MP Mohamed Safadi, former Minister of Finance, whose name had been put forward for the presidency of the Council of Ministers following the resignation of Saad Hariri. This concentration of wealth has had the effect of strengthening loyalty networks, so that money travels from abroad (especially the Gulf countries) via national elites, ending up in the hands of the sheikhs and local militia who are vying for control of Tripoli’s poorest neighbourhoods. The rise of the Salafist movements is intrinsically linked to this vicious circle of poverty. According to one member of the city council, in Bab el-Tebbaneh “The government is blamed for having failed to prevent these tensions by abandoning young people who could easily have been deterred from such destructive behaviours.”
With the Syrian crisis, funding from donors and international NGOs has poured into Lebanon, supported by the existence of a dense network of associations (there are around a hundred in the governorate of North Lebanon alone), but their approach suffers from a short-term perspective that is incompatible with a global development strategy. “Donors do not understand our needs. There is a discrepancy in their vision: they see only a crisis. At first, they thought all the money should go to the Syrians”, says Sonia. The mayor of a commune in Akkar reports that “they impose their projects (…) And they do not address crucial areas. For example, they do nothing to improve the condition of the roads.” Furthermore, Akkar and North Lebanon are now suffering from cuts to humanitarian budgets, with donors already disengaging from the country. As Sonia tells us: “The biggest challenge for the future is funding. Because now, donors are interested in Syria.”
It is this social anger that explains why Tripoli has become the “bride of the revolution.” “People have really woken up, they understand their rights, their needs and what’s going on,” says charity director Mohammed. He attributes this awareness to social networks: although the Tripolitan population is less cosmopolitan than that of Beirut, its access to information—favoured by a high literacy rate and a high level of education—is part of a particularly acute globalised awareness among the younger generation which, by observing what is happening elsewhere in the world, is becoming aware of its own rights and capacity as a driving force for change.
As to whether things might change politically, opinions are mixed. For some, the revolution offers hope. “They [the politicians] will pay more attention to this region now that they are seeing what the people are capable of,” says Sonia. “The municipality is with the revolution, but on the peaceful side” adds the mayor of a municipality in Akkar. “Let’s hope it brings about positive change.” For the time being, his village remains one step removed from the movement, which is having little impact in the Akkar highlands other than the closure of schools and roadblocks causing delays in the delivery of food supplies.
There is however general agreement that the revolution has crystallised a profound rejection of the system of patronage that governs the country. “People are not like they were. They will no longer follow any old politician, or accept any old dollar,” says George. In December, several rallies directly targeted political figures in Tripoli, including Abdel Qader Alameddine, mayor of the municipality of Mina (in response to the deaths of two young people following the collapse of their homes), and MP Faisal Karami. In an eminently allegorical act, the portraits of politicians displayed throughout the city, symbolic of Tripoli’s political landscape, were removed and replaced by the face of Alaa Abou Fakher (“martyr of the revolution”) displayed on a mural in al-Nour Square.
Furthermore, the revolutionary impetus has enabled Tripolitans to reclaim their own image and identity. As Mohammed puts it: “when someone from the Alawite community comes here, from the Shia community comes here, when Druze people come here, they used to be scared! And before, the Sunnis would have said ‘Sunnis come first. No matter what is going on in Lebanon, I don’t care. Sunni before Lebanese.’ The same for Shia. And Christians. But now, people are coming together under the national flag”. Sonia shares his optimism: “The rest of Lebanon used to think we were the most conservative. But Tripoli is changing its image. Not just in Lebanon, but throughout the entire world too.”